What in the World Is a Locavore? And How Do You Know Your Food Is Local?

Posted on 15 Oct 2014 18:01

I recently read an article about craft whiskey. It was a buyer-beware type of article that complained about how a lot of small-batch whiskeys are actually ordered from large whiskey distilleries, etc. That's true. As well, there are a lot of liquor stores that are branding their own whiskey from the same type of large "factory" distilleries. But the article, filled with a lot of "insider" and wispy little hip lingo said that the marketing efforts for this kind of whiskey are full of "locavore lingo" and "terroir talk." Funny to use lingo about lingo while complaining about lingo. I don't even want to get into the word terroir because I'm just so enchanted with the word locavore. What in the foodie-world is that? Am I one of those? Are you one of those?

Let's see. Right off the bat, I recognized that vore was being used the same as in the words omnivore, carnivore, and herbivore. It comes from the Latin verb vorare, voratum meaning "to eat" or "to swallow" or "to devour." It is, of course, where our word devour originated.

So, it turns out that locavore refers to someone who prefers to eat locally grown or raised food. Usually, when we create a word to describe a certain practice or preference, it is to serve an agenda, an ideology, and often, for pejorative reasons. Which one is locavore?

According to Wikipedia, the word locavore (sometimes rendered localvore) was invented by Jessica Prentice around the time of World Environment Day of 2005. It's about the sustainability movement's benefits to the community, and fresher, healthier, less processed foods.2


Here is what I hate about authors using such words. They are almost always associated with trends that have droves of members — a tribe that delights in being part of a ideology and having a name to go with it — and detractors, who question whether the ideology lives up to reality. When we use the word to describe something like whiskey makers, to which camp do we belong? Using language like this to describe food and the people who eat it, when that language can have opposite connotations, depending on the recipient, is weasly, in my view. It is a journalistic way of jargonese, that benefits the writer more than the reader. I assume that in the article about craft-whiskey, the use of the word was too imply that the whiskey was, in fact, not local. So why not just say that?

I don't care whether someone is a locavore, since, in the end, it is a hollow label that captures not the true attitudes of any one individual, but the vague ideological machinations of a movement.

Speaking of being locavoris (see, doesn't that sound silly?), if you want to eat that way, you will want to go to a lot of Farmer's Markets. If local means produced within 100 miles, you should be aware of something that is going on in the country. As more and more farmer's markets are popping up nationwide, it is becoming easier for consumers to get duped by fake local food. That's right. All the food sold in your farmer's market may not be produced by regional farmers. Some of it, in fact, may have been purchased through the same wholesale channels that grocery retailers use, or places where you could purchase foods as well, without the middle man at the farmer's market.1 To find out more about this, see Stamping Out Farmers Market Fraud at ModernFarmer.com.

The same thing that is true of Farmers Markets may be even more true of roadside stands or produce sold out of the back of pickup trucks. Chances are, those watermelons, apples, or corn cobs were purchased from a wholesale distributor and you could get the same stuff a mile up the road at your local grocery store. I've often questioned whether the produce at our local Famer's Market was all local. I have serious doubts. Now, after reading the above linked article, I have even more.

Locally sourced ingredients in restaurants are driving a growing market. Although sourcing ingredients from only 100 miles away is impractical, many restaurants try to get the bulk of their ingredients from no more than 350 to 400 miles away. The prices often reflect the expense, but many guests are willing to pay more, up to 30 cents on the dollar, for food made from such ingredients.

Often, the dishes offered do not live up to the hype. The idea that locally sourced ingredients are automatically higher quality is pure imagination. For instance, when restaurants try to source ingredients by developing relationships directly with local farmers, the costs are inconsistent, viablility is uncertan, and the consistency of quality cannot be guaranteed. On the other hand, costs can go down by dealing with suppliers of locally sourced ingredients, whereby efforts are made to ensure quality. For example, if a restaurant uses a lot of raw tomatoes, and needs grade A tomatoes for appearance, it would be difficult to source all grade A tomatoes from a local farm, whereas if the tomatoes were sorted by a local supplier, quality could remain consistent as the tomatoes would be properly sorted. When you seek out restaurants using locally sourced ingredients, you may well be supporting local farmers and businesses, but you may not be getting your (extra) money's worth. And remember, no matter how great the ingredients are, the kitchen must be able to turn out consistent and high quality dishes.

Chipotle, Local or Not?

A perfect example of the reality using only locally sourced ingredients in a restaurant is Chipotle. Chipotle was the first and only 'fast' restaurant chain to express an committment to using only locally sourced ingredients. A lot is made of the fact that their ingredients come from not more than 350 miles away. So, those burritos are made from fresh cooked local beef or pork, right? According to the restaurant, yes. Fresh cooking of local ingredients is what you'll get. But, in reality, much of the cooking of Chipotle's 'local' ingredients is done in two large processing plants in Chicago, OSI and Miniat Holdings. OSI also supplies McDonald's with burgers, nuggest, and other things. Yes, most of the Chipotle ingredients probably did come from a local farm, but then many of those ingredients travel to Chicago to get processed, and then make their way back to the local store. The chain states this is for quality control and consistency. Clearly, locally sourced does not always mean locally cooked.

Please note, the Farmer's Market image provided by AshokaJegroo via wikimedia.

1. Nosowitz, Dan. "Stamping Out Farmers Market Fraud - Modern Farmer." Modern Farmer. Modern Farmer Media, 6 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <http://modernfarmer.com/2014/10/curious-case-farmers-market-fraud/>.
2. "Locavore." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locavore>.
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