What’s local food and where is it?


Before you reach for that next carrot stick, think about how far it traveled. If you bought it at a conventional grocery store, it likely traveled over 1,800 miles to reach your lips, according to a study by Iowa State University. Think an apple is a better choice? Most apples travel just over 1,700 miles. Though Minnesota produces more than 600,000 bushels annually, for that distance you could just drive to Washington State and pick one for yourself.

“On average, fresh produce will travel about 1,500 miles via truck to reach the upper Midwest regions, including Iowa, Minnesota, Chicago and St. Louis,” explains Richard Pirog, Associate Director of the Leopold Center at Iowa State University, and one of the authors of the landmark 2001 study.

Over the past decade, facts like the one above came to be viewed in the context of a deeper examination of the root causes and contributing factors to global climate change. Several sensational exposes such as Food Inc., Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation converged with an increasing number of high profile recalls to create a perfect storm for a new agricultural movement – the local food or locavore movement.

The official start of the locavore movement has roots in the 2005 World Environment Day, an annual observation similar to Earth Day, when a chef from the Bay Area coined the term “locavore” and issued a challenge to people to eat within a 100-mile radius of their home for one month. That challenge grew like wildfire. The next year the group extended the challenge for an additional month and encouraged people to can and preserve food for the winter. In 2007, the movement had spread so much that the Oxford American Dictionary voted “locavore” Word of the Year.


Story behind the story

TC Daily Planet started looking at this story in early January, after a post by Becca Vargo Daggett on E-Democracy. The post read, in part:
“I went to a focus-group at Seward Co-op yesterday and got a rude awakening about the distribution network Seward, and other co-ops, use for packaged and bulk foods. In short, smaller distributers like Roots & Fruits have been bought up by United Natural Foods, Inc., which now has a virtual monopoly on the distribution network. …
“The sources of ingredients for packaged foods are, I realize, diverse for national brands. What I didn’t realize is that some things being marketed by Seward co-op as local are not necessarily local in their ingredients. …”
What’s local? For Becca Vargo Dagget: “Local, to me, is defined by both geography and political boundaries. Local is the neighborhood of Seward, the City of Minneapolis, the Twin Cities Metropolitan region, the state of Minnesota, the Great Lakes watershed, and so on. In whatever I do or buy, I look first to the closest source, and then move outward.”
Click here for the whole E-Democracy discussion, a fascinating dialogue that ranges from UNFI (“about what you’d expect from a big, monopolistic corporation,” according to Dave Hoffman-Dachelet) to the Coop Wars of the 1970s.

In the 2008 Farm Bill (H.R. 2419), Congress uses the terms “local” and “regional” interchangeably, essentially to describe any food product that is raised, produced or distributed in either a 400-mile radius, or in the state in which the product is sold.

Many who have adopted the locavore lifestyle are worried that the broader Congressional definition leaves open multiple interpretations and will cause “local food” to become just another buzzword.  Unlike “organic,” a term that is now officially defined and regulated, other than that simple definition by Congress, there is little to no real regulation prescribing what counts as local food. (For more on organic marketing, see Who Owns Organic?)

JoAnne Berkenkamp, Program Director for Local Foods at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) explains, “the concept of local is something that both includes and transcends geography. It’s much more relationship-based than the system we have in the country right now. It concerns where food is grown; who produced it; and what the environmental impacts are that went into making the product.”

The absence of a true definition, regulatory system or certification means the burden of defining local then falls on food sellers and consumers. Twin Cities businesses that rely on the local label acknowledge that the definition can be confusing for consumers.

“Because we’ve been doing this so long, we feel the sense of trust that the community has in us, so it’s important for us to do our due diligence on the products we serve,” says Tracy Singleton of Birchwood Café. “We do that by fostering a relationship with our producers and making it a point to visit the farms where our food comes from.”

Seward Coop (along with Equal Exchange and several other co-ops) is taking that one step further with the new P6 initiative, a labeling system designed to make it easier for consumers to identify and support local, cooperative and small farmer products. According to P6 and Seward Coop, a product is local if it is grown, produced or packaged within the five-state region of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa or North and South Dakota. As of right now, P6 is one of the few labeling systems in the country being used to identify local food. Seward’s website describes P6:


Where does P6 come from?

P6 refers to Principle 6 of the cooperative movement. Here’s the description from the Seward Co-op website:
The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), founded in 1895, is an independent, non-governmental organization that unites, represents and serves co-ops worldwide. The seven cooperative principles they established are guidelines by which cooperatives put their values into practice. They are:
1. Voluntary and Open Membership
2. Democratic Member Control
3. Member Economic Participation
4. Autonomy and Independence
5. Education, Training and Information
6. Cooperation among Cooperatives
7. Concern for Community



Principle Six (P6) is a new initiative created and launched by Equal Exchange (a worker-owned cooperative) and six consumer co-operatives – including Seward Co-op – to promote small farmers/producers, co-operative/nonprofit businesses, and local farmers/producers. P6 empowers consumers to use their purchasing dollars to create an economy that embodies our highest values.

What are the criteria for each P6 element?
• Local
• Cooperative/nonprofit
• Small farmer/producer
If a producer/farmer meets two of the three criteria, their products receive the P6 label.

A handful of studies of local food systems have been done by places like the Leopold Center at Iowa State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“There are an increasing number of resources for consumers to inform themselves about products,” offers Berkenkamp. “The coops are doing a great job, but there is no substitute for consumers to be curious and ask questions. Read labels. Ask the retailer. Be persistent.”

If you would like more information about local food, some of the following resources provide a good starting point:
City of Minneapolis Sustainable Food Initiative
City of Saint Paul Healthy & Local Food
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Metro Independent Business Alliance