Local Food, Process, and Social Change

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the Anthropologies #22 series.

The next installment of the Anthropologies #22 Issue on food comes from Allison Perrett, who is part of the Local Food Research Center and the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. –R.A.

In 2007, I moved to the mountains of Western North Carolina to conduct research for my doctorate in applied anthropology and begin my immersion in an initiative to build a local food system through the efforts of one particular organization, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP). Nearly 10 years later, I’m still here. I co-direct the work of Local Food Research Center, the research arm of the organization that is looking at what happens when we localize food systems and more specifically at the actions we need to take so that local food system building creates the economic, environmental, and social changes we imagine are possible through this process.

Ten years ago one of the first meetings I attended at ASAP was around the development of a local food brand, Appalachian Grown™. With a group of farmers and other entrepreneurs making value-added products with locally-sourced ingredients, we met one afternoon to talk about brand qualities and standards. As we were waiting for members of the group to arrive, I took the opportunity to ask Greg[1] one of the organizers at ASAP, “So what production standards will the logo stand for?” His response was “none.”  To further clarify my understanding of the purpose of the brand, I asked, “So other than the location where it was grown, what will the brand stand for?”  In reply, he said, “Well, the logo will brand food grown on family farms in the region that we serve.” Seeing the blank look on my face, he continued, “If we limit the program to farms growing in a certain way, then we are leaving out the majority of farms in the region and all of them need support. Without it, we will continue to lose farms and farmland. And farms can’t grow food or shift their production [to environmentally sustainable methods] if they are no longer in business.”

In that brief exchange, Greg revealed that organizers conceived of “local food” as fundamentally a process to engage in. In assuming that the brand would only label local food with particular desirable qualities (and, following, would only be available to farmers growing food in particular ways), I was reducing local food to a product, to a desired end rather than a means of moving toward achieving desirable ends. As I would come to appreciate, defining of the qualities of “local food” for the people in this region only serves to reinforce an established pattern, one that alienates us from food systems and the capacity to participate in their creation. It not only limits the transformative potential of local food, it ignores the current context that must be the starting point of change and following the necessity of engaging in a process that simultaneously attends to current conditions even as it tries to change them.

This idea of local food as a process is grounded in a belief that a condition of estrangement – from the processes of food production and provision, from our neighbors, from the communities in which we live – underlies the sustainability of an unsustainable and exploitative agri-food industry. To quote Ella, another organizer, when your relationship with food begins and ends with the grocery store, “There’s no association to the person that grew it. There’s no relationship to the land it was planted in. It has no connection to anything other than the shelf it came from, the shopping bag it was pulled out of. We are just so completely cut-off from our food supply. So why would you care about the land, the farmer, the community – why would it even occur to you to think to care about those things? They’re not even in your head.”

A global food system with far flung supply chains has removed from the consciousness of many people the biological workings of food production – cycles of planting and harvesting – and the connections between eating to the human and natural resources required to produce food. Within this framework, local food is not simply a matter of food miles, i.e., shortening food supply chains, it is about addressing the estrangement from food and food production in the global system that is at once geographical, social, and emotional.

The origins of a movement

By the mid 1990s, farms in Western North Carolina were already being impacted by an impending change to US agricultural policy that would end the federal tobacco program. Tobacco, specifically Burley tobacco, had been an enormously significant crop – a stable and profitable source of income for farms in this region for nearly 70 years and, to a degree, it had shielded the region’s farms from consolidating trends in the global agricultural market. Observing and experiencing first hand the negative impacts of the globalizing economy on this place and anticipating further detrimental impacts with the end of the tobacco program, a group of concerned citizens, farmers, and agricultural support personnel began meeting to talk about what could be done to ensure farming remained a part of the region’s communities. These early organizers believed that without some kind of intervention, farming would decline dramatically and with that there would be significant negative repercussions not only for farming but for the region as a whole. Understanding that production for global markets was not an option for the small mountain farms in the region, they hit upon the idea of “local food” – local food as a mechanism of engagement, a means to connect people to the region’s farms, farmers, and other members of the community, and on a more conceptual level to larger forces responsible for patterns of farm and farmland loss, rampant development, hunger, obesity, and a loss of community autonomy.  In 2000, the newly formed Appalachian Sustainable Agricultural project launched a local food campaign.

In essence the local food campaign in Western North Carolina has been an effort in community building centered on local food and farms – a process of rooting people in the conditions and (developing) relationships of this place and mobilizing action in support of the region’s family farms, land and natural resources, and a community of people increasingly linked together around an evolving local food and farm system. Underlying this work is a theory of change based on the idea of food system democratization.[2] To change the food system – how food is produced and distributed, what its impacts are, who it serves and benefits, the values and principles on which it operates – we have to increase participation in the food system and transition from passive to active participants.

The movement in a movement

In coaxing this process of food system democratization along, our strategies, while informed by larger and longer term aspirations, are trained on the here and now – on the on-the-ground realities encountered in the day-to-day work of trying to create change at the local level in a food system deeply embedded in industrialized, global food markets. Both Greg’s and Ella’s statements allude to current circumstances that condition and direct our action. On the production end, farm loss has been and continues to be an immediate concern. Greg’s comments point to the ongoing stress on the region’s farmers who struggle to make a living farming in an economy dominated by principles of scale and profit and grounded in anonymous and opaque market relationships. Without farms, we lose the capacity to grow food for a region of nearly one million people and the opportunity to co-create a food system that reflects the particular conditions of the region. On the consumption end, Ella’s observation points to the significance of our perceptions. In our global economic milieu, we make many decisions in a vacuum, predominantly outside any awareness of their impacts and devoid from a larger sense of the ways in which our actions create the world around us. The dominant food industry is not only rooted in global food supply chains and in specific procurement and distribution patterns, it is rooted in us – as consumers and eaters – in the ways that we think about and relate to food and eating and in a lack of awareness that our actions support (or challenge) particular ways of doing things.

In this context, the economic sustainability of farms is a primary concern in our work – the need for farmers to make a living to continue farming and in a bigger and longer-term sense to have an agricultural base to engage with and affect. On one level, local food is first a strategy that engages us as consumers, that aims to build personal market relationships, and affect our purchasing decisions. The foundation of our work revolves around the creation of spaces where people can engage directly with food and agriculture – at farmers markets, local food and farm fairs, farm tours, through farm to school activities,[3] in cooking demonstrations and tastings, and the like. We do these things to imbue food with meaning – with the significance of these experiences and interactions so that food choices become an extension of them and a means to express a growing sense of community and desire support it. On the market level, over the past 15 years, there have been palpable changes in the region’s food system – the proliferation of direct-to-consumer markets, demand from the conventional food industry, actions by larger retail entities in the region to change food procurement systems to accommodate the smaller scale and decentralized nature of food production here, and more generally, the emergence of an economy tied to the region’s farms, farmland, and locally grown food.

At the same time and on a different level, these spaces are designed to move people beyond actions grounded solely in a consumer sensibility to those grounded in an emerging civic sensibility. We view place-based food and farm experiences as means to increase knowledge about food production and about the ways food intersects with issues of land use, labor, poverty, energy, obesity, hunger, etc; a means to awaken in people a desire to do something about the negative impacts of the dominant food system; a means to develop in people a larger sense of how our actions around food and eating are tied to the welfare and wellbeing of the people, animals, and environments that are connected to food production and distribution systems. In this way, the significance of place-based food and farm experiences is in their capacity to provide the space for these kinds of outcomes to emerge – through engagement, interaction, and dialogue among and between participants. In these spaces farmers are able to share information about their farms – what they grow, how they grow it, what it means to produce food on a small scale. The public and people that work in the food industry are able to see working farms, participate in planting and harvest cycles, learn and ask questions about farming, express their concerns or desires for food produced in particular ways.

What we have seen is that alongside changes in the market in Western North Carolina, nonmarket movement activity is also emerging and continuing to take shape in the form of things like food policy councils; parent action to change school nutrition services; increasing public discussion on issues of food access, food justice, and land use; the actions of farms and communities to grow food for people who cannot afford; the place-based food, farm, and health education programs of universities and colleges and of individuals serving in the public health arena.

What has occurred in Western North Carolina over the past 15 years is indicative of a food system in transition and suggests the importance for organizers and scholars of food localization efforts to attend to process. This kind of perspective is not only vital to the work of local food system building, it is important for the capacity of research to apprehend the complexity of movement-industry interaction and contribute analyses with applied relevance. In the work that we do to try to facilitate this shift, we necessarily move iteratively between theory and practice – conceptualizing ideas, putting them into practice, assessing their outcomes. Novel understandings, perspectives, and strategies emerge out of this iterative framework and inform subsequent action. Accordingly, how and what we define as meaningful indicators of food system change attends to a food system in flux and to an understanding that “outcomes” are both provisional and incremental.  In a shifting food and farm landscape, the constraints and possibilities for action evolve as the local food system evolves – as the perceptions, expectations, and actions of farmers, members of the public, and people working at various points in the food system shift and conditions change.

References Cited

Hassanein, Neva. 2003. “Practicing Food Democracy: A Pragmatic Politics of Transformation.” Journal of Rural Studies 19 (1) (January): 77–86.

Hassanein, Neva. 2008. “THEORY & APPLICATIONS Locating Food Democracy : Theoretical and Practical Ingredients.” Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition 3 (2/3): 286–309.

Johnston, Josée, Andrew Biro, and Norah MacKendrick. 2009. “Lost in the Supermarket: The Corporate-Organic Foodscape and the Struggle for Food Democracy.” Antipode 41 (3): 509–532.

Levkoe, Charles Z. 2006. “Learning Democracy Through Food Justice Movements.” Agriculture and Human Values 23 (1) (March): 89–98.

[1] All names are pseudonyms

[2] Drawing in part on the work of Hassanein (2003, 2008), Johnston et al (2009), and Levkoe (2006)

[3] Farm field trips, cooking demonstrations and tastings, school gardening for students, staff, and teachers

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Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.