by Gordon Edgar, author of Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge.
I try not to be cranky when working behind the cheese counter but more and more the phrase, “local is the new organic” is pushing my buttons. Increasing corporate hypocrisy and consumer misunderstanding around “buying local” is one of the most frustrating things I run into as a cheese buyer for a cooperative grocery store. Even though this would seem to be a more accessible and understandable issue than a lot of other food trends, many would-be locavores have just as much misunderstanding about the food system as the average non-rural American.First off, I generally agree with local food politics as far as it goes. Issues of equity are not its focus, but I will go along with it on the main point: supporting regional agriculture is crucial to healthy local economies and preserving farmland. There are many reasons that supporting local farmers is an important thing to do. I do it myself on both a professional and personal level. I am overjoyed that this has become an issue that many people who make the food-buying decisions are taking into consideration. However, the fact that many populated regions of the country (and world) are not conducive to food agriculture for part of their year (even if not perverted by agri-business monoculture) has always left me uncomfortable. As my West Texan sweetie often says, “What was I supposed to eat growing up? Cotton?” As a lived-pretty-much-my-whole-life-in-Northern California(n), I try to not be as myopic as many of my people and realize that being a locavore is a lot easier in some places than in others. That I can live with though. I understand that supporting local agriculture is a process, and people can do what they can. What I can’t live with is certain people’s definition of “local”. Recently, through the wonders of facebook, I saw a cheese buyer at a large, natural foods grocery chain tell people about a new cheese they were carrying. It has always been a French cheese, but the huge French dairy conglomerate that owned the brand had opened a factory in the state where that employee worked. “… (F)eel good because you know you’re supporting local!” that cheesemonger exalted! Is purchasing a cheese made by a European-owned company from a Texas-based company “buying local” even if the store is right down the street? Most people would say no. But what about if you buy your local, heirloom, family-farmed tomato at a huge grocery chain… are you still buying local? Of course not. You may be buying more local than if you were buying a tomato from Chile or Mexico, but really it’s the “buying local” equivalent of supporting artisan food producers by eating the “artisan ciabatta bread” meals at your local Jack in the Box. I’m a guilt-free kind of shopping person. I don’t believe — since wealth is not distributed equally and since many forces limit consumer choices — that one’s buying decisions are the greatest indicator of one’s politics. I believe that consumer identity politics being so prevalent on the left is one of the reasons the left alienates so many people, especially working people. But, that doesn’t mean I want to watch corporations drain out the amount of political meaning that those ideas do have. The flip side of “supporting” local agriculture for locally owned stores like the one I work at is that it should go both ways. One might not find supporting urban, living wage jobs as compelling as preserving farmland, and that’s understandable, I suppose, since once farmland is gone, it’s pretty much gone for good. But – let’s just say it here – some small, local producers have no intention of staying small or local or supporting local businesses if a large chain suddenly shows interest. Recently, we were buying about 500 lbs of cheese per week from a local cheese company. Suddenly, they started shorting us product. After a little investigation, I found that they had gotten their cheese in the regional outlets of both a national restaurant and a national grocery chain. Happy to push the “buy local” angle at store buyers and through farmer’s markets, whom did they support when push came to shove? The big national players. True, the volume that large chains buy can provide more financial security, at least in the short term. The long term is, of course, less clear. Many folks find that out the hard way after taking out loans to expand operations only to have a big box (or, theoretically, a large eco-friendly-and-made-of-recycled-material box) store come back after a contract expires and offer them less money than the previous year. But that’s not even the point to me. While some businesses are committed to being part of a local community, working in a local economy and providing living-wage local jobs, it’s hard to tell, — when buying local — whether one is supporting the “new organic” or the “new ”Phillip Morris”. Reprinted with permission of the author and Fair Food Fight. Gordon Edgar is the author of Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, available now.