May 15, 2009

Big Food Gets in on ‘Local’ Movement

Center for a Livable Future

Center for a Livable Future

The blogosphere has been buzzing following Wednesday’s New York Times story about local foods “making it big.” As unlikely as it may sound on first blush, Lay’s, the nation’s leading producer of potato chips, has jumped on the local foods bandwagon with a new marketing campaign aiming to highlight their chips as locally produced food.

Critics say Lay’s hijacking of the “local food” terminology is disingenuous and misses the point that local food systems are based on an entirely different ideology.
The Times quoted food writer Jessica Prentice, credited with coining the term “locavore,” to drive home this point.

“The local foods movement is about an ethic of food that values reviving small scale, ecological, place-based, and relationship-based food systems,” Prentice said. “Large corporations peddling junk food are the exact opposite of what this is about.”
But others argue that the definition of local food is broadening, and due to environmental reasons and food safety concerns, people increasingly want to know where their food comes from, even if it’s not anywhere close to their backyard. Companies are starting to think that letting consumers know where they grow and package their product could boost their sales, especially when they can boast production facilities close to their supplying farms.

A similar argument has risen with regard to organic production, which grew from a small movement to a $25 billion per year industry and now includes industrial-scale organic farming. Perusing the grocery store shelves, one can now find organic cookies and yes, organic potato chips. Have some companies lost touch with the true principles of organic production in their quest to make a profit in a burgeoning market? In some cases this may be true.

Consumers already familiar with the local food movement may immediately dismiss Lay’s (and other companies’) marketing tactics as “greenwashing,” but there seems to be this recurring issue of agribusiness attempting to portray itself as the “little guy,” stressing their strong connections with farmers and the land—a method that would most likely get on the nerves of the true “little guys.”

“Local food” is not the only buzz-phrase that is widely used, but not well-defined, or consistently defined for that matter. It has different meanings to different people. To some, it means a certain radius (often 100 miles) from which one’s food is procured. To others, it may mean regional or statewide.

Sustainability immediately pops to mind as another such word—meant to convey a scenario in which we are able to maintain our needs while not preventing future generations from doing the same thing.

The question then, is how we should define these terms, and whether it is possible to enforce an honest use of these terms by marketers. What do you think? Are marketing strategies such as Lay’s new campaign a threat to the integrity of the local food movement, or are they so transparent that they won’t have much impact? Or, alternatively, do they perform a service by raising awareness of local food, whether or not you believe that Lay’s potato chips are a good example?

A few blog postings following the Times article:

Grist:
Big Food’s ‘Local’ Push: What’s It Really About?

Lay’s: The locavore’s junk food?

Huffington Post:
Am Food. Will Not Travel

Ethicurean:
‘Local’ Jumps the Shark

-Patti Truant

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