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Today’s conundrum: How local is ‘local’ for locally produced food?

With more folks trending toward the localvore movement (that is, consuming only local food), they face a vexing question: What, exactly, is the definition of local?

Clearly the definition won’t cover international products, like those popular grapes from Chile. And it probably doesn’t reach far enough to attach to Florida orange juice or California tomatoes.

But how about Organic Valley, the cooperative with producers across the Midwest? Or all that delicious cheese that crosses our eastern border?

The nuances of the definition even escaped Robert King, a University of Minnesota professor, who for about the last five years has worked extensively with local food networks and studied them. So King, who heads up the school’s College of Applied Economics, decided to do what any committed professor would: study the problem.

U professor studying agriculture issues
King assisted the University of Oregon in an expansive study that questioned people on their beliefs on — and commitment to — local agriculture, as well as their thoughts on organic versus conventional produce, the use of pesticides, general land conservation, and more. The survey covered 500 people in the Twin Cities and 500 each in Oregon and Rhode Island.

The professor was careful to point out that most of the data should be taken as anecdotal, rather than statistically significant, largely because researchers haven’t finished crunching numbers for the study. Still, plenty of curious trends already have emerged from the surveys.

Take this one: Young people (ages 18 to 29) in the Twin Cities who buy local are more concerned about aiding the local economy than about getting fresh food.

Or this: The Twin Cities-area grocery stores surveyed (a typical large supermarket, a co-op and a “high-end” grocery store) offer surprisingly little local produce — an average of less than 10 percent — even in the summer months. (This may partly explain the continued resurgence of farmers’ markets.)

But still to come are King’s findings on the most important question: How did Minnesotans define local?

The Twin Cities metro area counts. So does a 50-mile radius around it.

Outstate Minnesota and western Wisconsin? Not so much. And of the outstate areas, hardly anyone thought southern Minnesota counted at all, even though it represents the most active farming area in the state.

‘Local’ definition still up for grabs
King, in a researcher’s patient tone, offered this assessment: “The clear result of this survey is that the definition of local is still up for grabs.”

It makes sense that a Minnesotan’s definition of local might range a little farther than, say, someone from Oregon, for one simple reason: winter.

The discrepancies about what parts of the state constitute local, though, just mean that people may not have spent enough time considering the idea, King said. “This is a nuanced issue that we really do need to think about, and people need to define it for themselves.”

Maybe someday the localvore movement will be so popular that there will be a Minnesota organization devoted to it and the USDA will have strict rules governing what food can carry the “local” label.

Until then, there’s a more helpful question than “What is the definition of local?” for those curious about trying on the localvore skin, and that’s this: “What is my definition of local?”

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Daniel Hoisington on 02/19/2008 - 09:42 am.

    It seems looking for an absolute definition of “local” is like looking absolute definition of “good.” Isn’t it a scale? The tomatoes you grow in your backyard are more local than the ones at the farmers’ market. The farmers’ market tomatoes tend to be more local than to co-op. The co-op is more local than the chain grocery store. I think the goal of a locavore is just to eat as local as possible for their area.

  2. Submitted by David Brauer on 02/19/2008 - 09:56 am.

    Wow. If people are limiting local to 50 miles from the Twin Cities, than the “local food” community has some marketing to do!

    Me, I’m happy to buy Organic Valley stuff from western Wisconsin – it’s a hell of a lot closer than California – or meat from Houston County, Minnesota.

    Of course, for this consumer, what matters as much as local (and the smaller carbon footprint) is how the animals are raised (we’re bison and grass-fed beef partisans).

    But in any event, my own personal definition of local is more expansive than the survey respondents. Perhaps there’s a “regional” designation to go with “local,” although that may be splitting hairs.

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