Do Locavores Get it Wrong? Thoughts on the book Just Food by James McWilliams

JustFoodThe term locavore has only existed in the English language since 2005. That’s barely 8 years, yet long enough to inspire legions of local eaters, “It’s Local!” labeling, memoirs documenting efforts to eat (almost) completely locally, as well as plenty of backlash. I’m certainly guilty of jumping on the locavore bandwagon – not that it is anything I’m ashamed of. The call to eat locally sourced food started me thinking more critically about where my food came from, and since I have tried to do my due diligence with most of the food – and other goods – that I purchase and consume. It is through this due diligence that I have come to my own set of locavore rules and values: for me, I buy locally to know where my food is coming from, to help ensure it is fresher and tastier, and to support my local economy and community. But I do not only buy locally sourced food, and I have come to expand my definition of sustainability.

Thusly, in the four years that I have been writing Locavore in the City, my views on food sourcing have continued to evolve. What started out as my commitment to eat as local a diet as possible– like many, initially inspired by the politics behind local eating – has changed to become but less rigid and also more informed. No longer is “local” the primary quality my food should possess. That is as narrow thinking as buying only “organic” or only  “fat free”. Don’t get me wrong – I think that locally sourced food is by and large a great thing – ditto with organic. (Fat free is a bit more complicated, but all of these trends came from a well-meaning place of responding to perceived issues with the “typical” American diet.) It is just the more that I know, the more I realize that simplifying my diet to only “local” foods – even only local foods that were also organic and also from farmers I trust – isn’t addressing all of my food and culture needs.

People adhere to various lifestyles for different reasons. Some may make decisions based purely upon their own health, or purely upon pleasure, or to support a set of values important to them. A lifestyle can include choices about food, but it can also encompass how often one attends a house of worship or goes to the gym or how one chooses to get from point a to point b. I choose to spend a bit more time (and sometimes money) sourcing foods that I feel good about, both for personal reasons (it tastes better and I like interacting with the greater community of people who share my food values) but also because I think I am helping the environment and the economy in a small way. Although I do believe that, like anything, when you have many people who all make decisions that help a cause in a small way, it adds up to helping in a large way.

Which is why I was both eager to read, and ultimately disappointed in, the book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. On one hand this book does point out the reasons why blindly buying anything marked local (or organic for that matter) is not the route to solving national or global food insecurity, nor the environmental or health issues caused by global food systems. I agree that these issues are complex and require multi-pronged and complex answers. But what I fear from this book is that the author provides counter-arguments to so many of the statistics that locavores and organic- and small-farm enthusiasts use to encourage people to make these choices – which I believe are overall better for the environment and better for individual health – that someone who was looking for ways they could personally make more responsible choices can leave the book thinking that none of their efforts matter in the face of such conflicting evidence.

Not surprisingly, the chapter I found most personally compelling was the one that offered specific advice for consumers who wish for their food choices to reflect values of environmental sustainability through choices about eating land-based animal protein. His recommendations are simple: eat less meat, and the meat one does eat would be best if it came from smaller, more humane, and environmentally sustainable farms. I wish there were more specific recommendations for consumers like this.

What I think is best about the book Just Food is that it causes readers to be more reflective about their food choices. I do believe that it is easy for some people to convince themselves they are doing their due environmental diligence by buying only local or only organic food, while ignoring the big picture of food security and planet health. What James McWilliams asserts is true: locavorism by itself will not cure these problems. However, I believe that McWilliams made it too easy for readers to throw up their hands and do nothing. Information about the growing sustainable aquaculture trend is great – but that does not provide an option for someone looking to put a thoughtful and sustainable dinner on the table tonight.

The subtitle claims that this is a book that tells the reader how “we can truly eat more responsibly” – but I don’t see a clear path of recommendations here for the average consumer to undertake. I appreciate McWilliams charge of making us – locavores and not – think more critically about how to solve the greater issues of national and global food security and environmental sustainability. But I hope that this facilitates a greater conversation that includes the positive aspects of locavores and other thoughtful consumers making small, sustainable choices that add up to bigger change, rather than only focusing on large scale issues over which the average person might feel they have no control.

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