photos of luscious vegetables
Being a locavore should solve problems instead of creating them but instead is making more divisions (Photo: Rebecca Pinkus)

Topics: Ethical Living | Society

Local food movement raises questions about access, equity, snobbery

For reasons that seem to defy logic, eating locally is also almost always more expensive and so is tough for people living on a budget


On Saturday mornings, I regularly walk to a farmers’ market at an abandoned brickyard in Toronto. I buy cabbages and garlic from a young fellow who tells me he got up at 3 a.m. to represent the Quinte Organic Co-op, a collective of eight farmersnear Belleville, Ont., who produce vegetables and beef. Further along, I pick up beets from a friendly woman from north of the city who has two toddlers bundled into strollers. Then apples from Niagara, Ont. When I do all this and march happily home, I am being a locavore.

“Locavore” is a word coined in San Francisco (where else?) in 2005 to describe a burgeoning consciousness around food gathering and consumption. A bit of a catch-all, locavorism implies a combination of buying and eating what is produced near at hand, what is produced organically (usually), as well as ethically and sustainably. In 2007, the Oxford American Dictionary designated “locavore” word of the year.

I could have shopped elsewhere. Had I gone to the produce department of Walmart, the ginormous chain where far more people gather than at farmers markets, I would have discovered that while I paid $2 for a bulb of garlic grown in soil by the Bay of Quinte and lovingly harvested by the young man who sold it to me, there I could get an entire pound for 97 cents. The beef from a happy Bay of Quinte beast that cost $6 would have been available for $4.50. Where did the Walmart garlic come from? China. The beef: a feedlot halfway across the continent.

That is the conundrum: for reasons that seem to defy logic, eating locally and “responsibly” is also almost always more expensive and so likewise excludes (or at least puts a tough choice in front of) people trying to live on budgets. This dilemma has caused critics to label locavores as privileged elites, even food snobs.

The gnawing sense is that the movement, while alerting us to the ethics of food production and consumption, is not yet democratic; like wine connoisseurship, buying organic beef from my Bay of Quinte friend’s grass-fed highland cattle or enjoying sheep cheese from a boutique creamery is the luxury of the moderately well off.

Sarah Elton’s interest in food sources was piqued when her daughter brought home a cellophane-wrapped cookie. Reading the small print, Elton, a Toronto food columnist with CBC Radio, discovered the sweet had been baked in China.

The realization that a journey of several thousand kilometres was undertaken to deliver something as basic as a cookie “profoundly changed my relationship to food,” Elton writes in her 2010 book Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens. She started looking more closely at supermarket offerings: not only the bagged salad from California or the New Zealand lamb, but the fact that China has become a huge exporter of food (along with everything else).

Meanwhile, carrots from the Holland Marsh, the rich farmland north of Toronto, are shipped as far away as Venezuela. The carbon footprint attached to our fetish for flying apples from South Africa and trucking lettuce from Mexico is huge. Massive inputs of oil are required to fuel cultivation and produce fertilizers and pesticides, and then more oil is used for transportation and refrigeration. Elton cites a calculation by David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, that it takes 1,514 litres of oil a year to feed the average North American adult.

Yet those industrially produced, globally sourced foods are almost always less expensive than local produce. How is this possible? It could be, as many farmers have long argued, that local food is not overpriced; rather, the global and industrial options are priced artificially — unsustainably — low. Our government-endorsed cheap food policies are built on inexpensive energy (mostly oil) that fails to reflect the cost of its environmental damage. 

Not to mention exploited labour, soil degradation and animal misery, all matters emphasized by Lori Stahlbrand, head of Local Food Plus, a non-profit organization striving to bring farmers and consumers together to build regional food economies across Canada.

“Food in Canada is the cheapest in the world,” Stahlbrand says, making up “only 10 percent of most family budgets. And this is all at the expense of farmers and the environment, with most imports being cheap because people are paid slave wages.”

The creation of such a production system came about fairly recently (pretty much in my lifetime) and can be summarized as a shift from family-based or cottage-industry agriculture to not only an industrial model but a global corporate one.

These new models are predicated on what business schools tell us are “efficiencies” of size and scale. But they are also highly dependent on technologies like fertilizers and pesticides, growth hormones for animals and heavy use of antibiotics. Vast transportation and storage systems not only bring us food from afar but gather together far-flung ingredients to make much of that food. “The processed foods in our modern supermarket,” Elton writes, “are an amalgam of ingredients sourced on the global marketplace.”

Industrial farming, with its monoculture crops and vast efficiencies — none of which my father employed a generation ago — has reduced the per-unit costs of food items. But factory farms where chickens or pigs or cows are crammed body to body and nourished by force-feeding and steroids raise ethical and health concerns given voice by everybody from animal rights advocates to nutritionists.

On top of this is the constant squeeze on small producers both in Canada and abroad. My friend Lloyd, a retired farmer from Listowel, Ont., who worked to make his dairy operation organic, visited El Salvador in 2002 on a mission trip with his United Church men’s group. There, he learned that producers who were paid $150 per hundred pounds of coffee beans in 2000 were getting only $40 two years later, $20 less than the actual cost of production. He wonders whether the impending demise of the Canadian Wheat Board will have the same effect on Canadian grain farmers.

This is the real food crisis, Stahlbrand says: not the high price of local food, but farmers being forced off their land by ever-shrinking profit margins as grocery chains like Walmart lead a rush to the bottom. At the same time, not everyone can afford to pay $2 a bulb for ethically grown garlic. For consumers on stringent budgets, Stahlbrand rejects the idea of improving access to local food by lowering prices. Cheap food, “with all its accompanying downsides,” is not the answer, she says. “We need to address poverty through a proper safety net.”

One of the bridges might be provided by food co-operatives, member-run organizations that are alert to ethical and sustainability issues while trying to keep food affordable. In Toronto’s economically diverse Parkdale neighbourhood, the West End Food Co-op is getting ready to open a grocery store later this year.

“While the co-op is committed to selling its food at prices that are fair to farmers and workers, it will be partnering with community organizations to ensure access to healthy food for those on lower incomes,” observes member Emily Van Halem. The store has plans for a “co-op bucks” program that will benefit those in need without “the stigma that can come with using food banks.”

Co-ops, however, even though growing in popularity — Ontario has 13 new ones in development, and in the Maritimes, food co-ops account for 12 percent of the grocery market — are not about to put Walmart out of business any time soon and only partially address the issue.

The conundrum remains: is ethically produced food destined to be always more costly, while its problem-laden counterpart slides by as the temptingly cheaper alternative? I do feel smug carrying home my sack of sustainably produced vegetables, but the ethics of economics need to be sorted out so that instead of being part of a growing divide between rich and poor, locavorism becomes part of the solution. 


This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s March 2012 issue with the title “The locavore conundrum.”


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