The Local Label: A Modern Food Conundrum

Have you noticed that the Dining Center has been labeling more and more foods as “local” recently? I have, and it always makes me feel a little better, like I’m doing a good deed each time I choose to eat a local apple instead of a banana that was flown in from who knows where. I’m glad to be contributing to the local economy, supporting a small independent farmer, polluting the environment less by eating organically… because that is what eating local foods means, right?

Well, maybe. Hopefully. But unfortunately, maybe not.

This semester, I am part of the Environmental Studies Senior Capstone class. A project-based course for ES minors, the capstone is made up of groups of students working on different projects related to one overarching environmental issue. This year, our class chose to focus on food systems, with a specific interest in increasing the amount of local, sustainable foods on Haverford’s campus. While one group works on closing Haverford’s food loop through on-site composting, others are working to increase the number and visibility of local foods already at the DC. My working group is researching the idea of food justice as a way to ground our class project in environmental theory.

In my research, I have come to realize that the “local” label may be a little more complex than I have always passively assumed it to be. It is important for us all to be aware of where our food comes from, how it is grown, and what the impacts – both environmental and human – of its production are. But using the word “local” alone unfortunately tells us very little about many of those important factors.

By itself, “local” doesn’t actually mean “sustainable.” Or organic. Or small-scale. Or grown by an old man in overalls and muddy boots. Whatever our picture of a “local” farm may be, buying local just means you are buying from a business that’s nearby. That business could be an independent farmer feeding heritage grains to 10 free-range cows, or it could be an industrial milk production plant with 200 cows per barn.

For example, the DC currently purchases milk from Lehigh Valley Dairy Farms, a Pennsylvania-based company that sources from within the state and describes itself as having “humble beginnings on a small family farm in Lansdale.” While Lehigh Dairy clearly counts as a local business, they are controlled by Dean Foods, a multinational corporation that is the largest milk processor and distributor in the US, operating more than 50 regional dairy brands. The dairy states that it only sources from farms that are committed to not using artificial growth hormones, but it has no rules on the antibiotics those farmers give to their cows.

It is clear from this one example that there is more to milk than simply how far it traveled before reaching our glasses. In this case, perhaps the ethical concerns of milk sourcing at Haverford are more critical than questions of physical location and how much pollution we eliminate from transportation. Our Capstone class has discussed this issue in-depth, and we have decided to be clear that what we are advocating for is more just and sustainable food systems, not only (or necessarily) local ones.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against supporting the local economy. And I’m definitely not against the DC supporting local, sustainable food systems (Remember, I’m an environmental studies minor). I would love for the DC to have all of its food fall into those categories, just as the student group ETHOS (which stands for “ethical, transparent, homegrown, organic, and sustainable” food) is advocating for. What I don’t want is for that little “local” label above the spinach to be the end goal of food sustainability at Haverford, without any thought into the types of food systems we as a school are paying to support.

As a DC worker myself, I understand exactly why we often do see that label as the end goal. It’s what students like to see. It feels good. And trust me, the DC truly wants Haverford students to both be happy and have good quality food. At Haverford, however, we can have even more power and influence than just what that little label provides.

In the words of author and food activist Michael Pollan: “a consumer can be a creator too, by using his or her eating choices to help build a new food system. That is a potent vote, and you get three of them every day.” With 1200 students, 3 times a day, that’s a lot of votes coming from the Haverford College Dining Center. How do you think we should vote?

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