Does Local Food "Enhance Community Cohesion?" Food Writer and Devil's Advocate James McWilliams Says No

James McWilliams: Food writer, fellow, professor, blogger, and locagrarian contrarianJames McWilliams:
Food writer, fellow, professor, blogger, and locagrarian contrarian
Community. It’s a name for the place where we live, but also for the social connections that we live among. In yesterday's post, it was a word used by two people on two occasions to describe the benefits of opening a new food co-op in the Orono/Long Lake area, and a new farmers market in Edina.

We locavores readily assume that local food is good for our communities. How could it not be? It benefits local farmers, the local economy, the local environment, and local consumers, right? But the author of a new book, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, plays devil’s advocate with our assumptions about local food's communal benefits.

James McWilliams, a fellow in the agrarian studies program at Yale and an associate professor of history at Texas State University, argues that locavores have a tendency to be “melodramatic,” especially “when it comes to the claim that farmers’ markets enhance community cohesion.”

Writing a three-part post for the New York Times blog, Freakonomics, McWilliams warns that “those of us who value our local food systems should probably take the time to tone down the Quixotic rhetoric and ask questions that make our farmer friends a little uncomfortable.” Such as: Do local farms operate sustainably with respect to the environment? Is local food elitist? And, bottom line, do farmers' markets really strengthen local communities?

I publish the following excerpts from McWilliams’s posts to ignite this important discussion among Simple Good and Tasty readers...

From Part One: Are Farmers’ Markets That Good for Us?

For several years now I’ve been arguing that buying locally produced food doesn’t necessarily lower one’s carbon footprint.

Naturally, the agro-intellectuals have bristled at my assessment. More often than not I’m told that I’m missing the ultimate point of being a locavore. Local food is not only about reducing our carbon footprint. It’s about strengthening community.

For some reason, though, this response falls flat. Sure, on an intuitive level, the claim makes perfect sense. Milling around the farmers’ market with like-minded foodies, buying fresh produce grown on nearby small farms, listening to local musicians play local songs, and supporting a variety of homegrown artisans certainly qualifies as an enriching community experience. But can we say with any assurance beyond anecdotal evidence that the thousands of farmers’ markets established over the last twenty years have brought together communities across the United States? If so, how? And for whom?

Markets encompass a wide range of experiences. For me, primarily because I don’t view the farmers’ market as a venue to nurture community bonds, my transactions tend to be as personal or impersonal as if I were shopping at a generic grocery store. Don’t get me wrong — I respect my local farmers very much. Still, I approach their stalls not to get to know them, but to buy the excellent food they sell.

Most notably, I don’t see how community cohesion necessarily follows the fact that one can, if one wants, interact with the person who grew your food. Historically, such personalized economic transactions were the norm, but they were inherently fraught with risk and tension. In colonial America — a place I’ve studied in some depth — all markets were initially driven by face-to-face interaction. It should come as no surprise that things could get, well, personal. Markets were intensely competitive and exclusive. Everyone knew everyone. And that was often the problem. The court records of colonial New England are replete with personal market transactions gone awry.

From Part Two: Let the Farmers’ Market Debate Continue

Advocates of local food production have done a world of good in terms of bringing fresh food closer to home.

Understandably, they’ve eagerly promoted the community-enhancing implications of their work. At times, though, their promotions can get melodramatic. This quality further fuels my creeping suspicion that — when it comes to the claim that farmers’ markets enhance community cohesion — the Emperor’s clothes might be threadbare.

A researcher from the Division of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell has written that small-scale agriculture will “begin the movement to a more sustainable society in general, where materialism and heedlessness are replaced by community-based values and responsibility.”

Speaking for the Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini remarked that the local economy “is in perfect harmony with nature. Look! The communities are primarily a place, a place and a people: the people of a certain place and their local economy are extraordinarily compatible with a philosophy of sustainable development.”

Vandana Shiva, the outspoken activist for the virtues of local production and slow food, took the communitarian rhetoric to new heights when, describing the 2004 Terra Madre gathering in Italy, she recalled, “Despite the diversity and differences, everyone was connected: connected through the earth, our Mother, Terra Madre; connected through food, the very web of life; connected through our common humanity, which makes the peasant the equal of a prince.”

Whew. Even if it does call for a deep breath, the ring of empowerment here is admirable. But that heroic ring makes me nervous. Given the sanguine extremes to which these opinions stretch, one might understandably wonder if the advocates are trying a bit too hard. At the least, we should (soberly) ask if these earnest communitarian assumptions are in fact grounded in reality. Does a local food system truly enhance the integrity of a community, much less make the peasant the equal of a prince and eliminate greed?

Some academic critics are starting to wonder. Writing in the Journal of Rural Studies, sociologist C. Clare Hinrichs warns that “[m]aking ‘local’ a proxy for the ‘good’ and ‘global’ a proxy for the bad may overstate the value in proximity.” Building on this suspicion, she acknowledges that many small farms are indeed more sustainable than larger ones, but then reminds us that “Small scale, ‘local’ farmers are not inherently better environmental stewards.”

Personal experience certainly confirms my own inability to make such a distinction. Most of us must admit that in many cases we really haven’t a clue if the local farmers we support run sustainable systems. The possibility that, as Hinrichs writes, they “may lack the awareness or means to follow more sustainable production practices” suggests that the mythical sense of community (which depends on the expectation of sound agricultural practices) is being eroded. After all, if the unifying glue of sustainability turns out to have cracks, so then does the communal cohesiveness that’s supposed to evolve from it.

From Part Three: Is Locavorism for Rich People Only? 

Oftentimes, we have strong evidence that a farm is well deserving of a sustainable gold star. Many small farmers who practice an impressive level of transparency alleviate any lurking concerns about unsavory practices. In so doing, they ostensibly lay the basis for community development around shared pride in local ecological sustainability. It’s not always this way, but it’s likely quite common.

Such success, however, only raises another problem for the proposition that local food fosters a tighter community. Sustainably produced local food is not accessible by all. In general, only the elite few with the time and material resources to capitalize on such environmental munificence have the time and money to benefit from transparently sustainable farms. As a result, the preconditions are inadvertently established for something that generally tends not to bind diverse communities into a cozy whole, but to fragment them: exclusivity…

The cultural elitism that tinges culinary localism is by no means inherent. Still, it’s hard to say that it’s not there. And however ingrained it may be, such exclusivity is hardly a precondition for community cohesion. Theoretically, this persistent exclusivity could change, but for now it seems as if the locavore movement might very well be alienating many American consumers who might otherwise be willing to think about, and act upon, the agricultural problems that weigh so heavily upon us.