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Campus Crops is a student run urban gardening initiative at McGill University's downtown campus. We want to grow food on campus, by students, for students. We have been running garden behind the School of Environment building at 3534 University since 2007. In 2009 we started a terrace garden behind the James Administration building. We're really excited to keep improving these two spaces, and need lots of helping hands for the summer ahead! Get in touch and get gardening!

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Locavore Myth

The Locavore Myth
Eating our way to a better world. Really?

This article was originally published in the McGill Daily.

Jean-Talon Market
Locavores are people committed to buying and eating food produced locally. The ‘locality’ of a product can vary widely, from state-wide to the 100-mile diet. Eating locally has many advantages that explain its increasing popularity: fresher, healthier, and tastier products; less environmental impact via reduced transport, packaging, and processing; and cheaper products when there is no agent between producer and consumer. Buying local is a thumbs-up for the local economy, supports responsible land development (preservation of green spaces and farmlands), and creates community by connecting buyers and farmers. Being a locavore is a political statement, an environmental choice, a health-conscious act and a way to support producers near your home. Or so the saying goes. The reality, though, is that the locavore ‘movement’, or rather ‘trend’, faces serious limitations in both its aims and form.  

By taking for granted that local food systems are inherently good, the locavore trend does not fully take into account all of the environmental and social implications of its followers’ actions. When the only environmental aspects addressed are food mileage (from farm to plate) and the amount of food processing/packaging, buying local food does not accomplish much for the environment. Other aspects of food production like the inputs at the farm itself (chemical fertilizers, pesticides, use of oil-powered machinery, irrigation, etc.) are largely relevant in assessing the sustainability of a local food system, yet they are ignored by locavorism.

Available in your favorite farmers' market!

Additionally, issues of social justice are not addressed by the locavore fad. Since locavorism does not look at the production and distribution of food past the lens of distance, the living and working conditions of farmers and workers along the food production line - especially migrant workers - are not considered.  Although large farmers and those who find a spot in their local farmers’ market would benefit from a locavore food system, small farmers who would have to provide big retailers like supermarkets would have to sell their products at highly competitive (i.e. very low) prices, maybe too low to fulfill their needs. Farmers are generally well regarded by locavores, but only as providers, and not as participating members of the community; even though it brings buyers and farmers together, locavorism does not create collaboration between participants. Small farmers, without community support, are likely to be replaced by larger providers, regardless of the farmers’ needs or role in the local food system.

Furthermore, there is no active support of worker’s rights in the locavore ideal. Workers (migrants, temporary or other) can be found on the farm and in the production line - where they process, package and distribute food not bought directly from the producer. Many of these workers are underpaid, work in dangerous conditions, and are generally already marginalized people. People working on farms and in factories often tend to have low wages, and are at higher risks of injuries than in other industries with as much as 5 to 7 times the average fatality rate for industry workers. Migrant workers from South Asia and Latin America are also increasingly present in the North American food industry, as much on farms as in factories. In Canada, they tend to have worse working conditions (sometimes working 12-hour days), lower wages, and less access to health care than non-migrant workers, with no possibility of unionizing or gaining permanent resident status. Abuses are rarely reported because of the fear of being repatriated and blacklisted by the “welcoming” country, their migrant status holding by little more than a contract with their employer. Nevertheless, locavorism is not concerned with the conditions of workers or small farmers, and hence fails to address issues of social justice in the local food system.

By definition, though, locavorism cannot even adapt its aims to such criticism, and can’t address broader environmental and social issues like the ones outlined above. The locavore trend is individualistic in nature and fuels the belief that changes in personal consumer behavior can solve structural and systemic problems. It is focused on comforting and accommodating the individual consumer rather than correcting inequities that are endemic to the capitalist system. Moreover, the locavore is reduced to a unidimensional consumer: it is assumed that the only way to effect change is to “vote with your dollars”. However, market participation is not community participation: ‘one person, one vote’ doesn’t apply to the marketplace. Instead of giving equal power to all voices, the locavore food system allocates votes according to wealth, and traditionally marginalized people, far from being empowered, continue to be marginalized.

Along the same lines, the locavore lifestyle is generally only accessible to white, middle- or upper-class individuals. A study conducted in Iowa found that, of the people purchasing CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) baskets, more than half were white and educated European-Americans. In an attempt to reach working- and lower-class people, local producers tried to make their products more financially accessible. This was done, however, without much success, as nearly half of the subsidized baskets went to well-educated individuals with reasonably high status jobs. This is a great example of how class privilege is ignored in the locavore trend. Since money and time are not distributed equally among everyone, local food products tend to be less accessible to people who have less money and/or time on their hands due to multiple factors, including but not limited to race, gender, disability, and education. Many working- and lower-class people simply do not have the time or resources to find locations that sell local food products, and pick up food from a location that may be far from home. Locavorism, by once again ignoring the needs and conditions of marginalized people, makes it impossible for them to participate in and benefit from local food systems.

Locavorism means well, and it does get the ball rolling on pointing out some major problems within our system; however, just consuming local food is not enough. We need to be considering all aspects of the food industry and make sure that every problem is addressed. We cannot ignore the people that the locavore movement leaves out and we cannot ignore the environment. A full blown local movement is necessary to do that, for in order to make widespread structural change, everyone needs to be involved. Local food movements (to be distinguished from the locavore trend) already exist and are working towards more environmentally and socially just food systems that are adapted to their locality and in which all participants have equal say. These systems are based on collaboration between all members of the community as people with various abilities and varying needs (rather than simple consumers); the responsibility of meeting everyone’s needs in a sustainable manner is the primary goal of local food movements. 

In Montreal, there are many urban gardening initiatives, such as the Concordia Greenhouse, Santropol, the CRAPAUD, Alternative’s Rooftop Gardens, neighborhood community gardens, the MacDonald Student-run Ecological Gardens, and Campus Crops. Santropol Roulant is a particularly interesting initiative, combining volunteer-based urban agriculture and cooking for people with loss of autonomy. Other organizations like Midnight Kitchen, Yellow Door, and The People’s Potato are also contributing in salvaging “to-be-thrown-out” food, and cooking and serving it to community members on a by-donation/Pay-What-You-Can basis. This is a good start to building a movement, however we need to synthesize these initiatives and together tackle social justice issues like accessibility, worker’s rights, direct democracy in the food system. The current local food movement faces many challenges, but with the intention of involving everyone and being open to criticisms, it has a better chance of accomplishing great things than locavorism. 

Santropol's meal delivery service


Allen, Patricia (2010). Realizing justice in local food systemsCambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 3: 295–308.

DeLind, Laura B. (2011). Are local food and the local food movement taking us where we want to go? Or are we hitching our wagons to the wrong stars? Agriculture and Human Values, 28: 273-283.
Hinrichs, C. Clare, Allen, Patricia (2008). Selective Patronage and Social Justice: Local food consumer campaigns in historical context. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 21: 329–352.
Hinrichs, C. Clare, Kremer, K.S. (2002). Social Inclusion in a Midwest Local Food System Project. Journal of Poverty, 6: 65–90.

Miller, Lisa. Divided we eat. The Daily Beast, Nov. 28, 2010.

Migrant farm workers' health often poor: study. The Canadian Press, April18, 2011. via CTV News

Sustainalytics. Locally grown food is often not ethically grown, produced, and delivered. Sustainalytics, October 29, 2012.

United Food and Commercial Workers Canada. The Status of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada 2010-2011. via UFCW (pdf).

Additional Resources

Concordia Greenhouse has a very nice newsletter.

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