Printer Friendly

A call for polycultural arguments: critiquing the monoculture rhetoric of the local food movement.

I purchase shares of community supported agriculture (CSA), shop at farmers' markets, and belong to a food cooperative. I am also white, middle-class, and partake in these behaviors for environmental and community-building reasons. I am, in many ways, the typical locavore. I fit neatly into the narrative offered by local food movement rhetoric about why we should alter our food system. I enjoy meeting the farmers that grow my food and knowing where my food is grown. I think it important that any meat I eat is raised humanely. And I believe my actions, when combined with the actions of others, have the potential to make a positive impact on the environment and economy. Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman (2011) remind us, however, "such a consistent narrative, along with the movement's predominantly white and middle-class character, suggests that [the movement] may itself be something of a monoculture." They explain, "It consists of a group of 'like-minded' people, with similar backgrounds, values, and proclivities, who have come to similar conclusions about how our food system should change" (p. 2).

This essay explores how this monoculture is constructed through the arguments of movement rhetoric. By identifying the practices and motivations these arguments advocate, I illustrate the common appeals of movement rhetoric and ask whom these arguments exclude. The analysis examines three different texts: Barbara Kingsolver's (2007) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Colin Beavan's (2009) No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process, and Bill McKibben's (2007) Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. Currently, popular local food rhetoric excludes low-income individuals, leaving them absent, and/or lacking attention to systemic barriers that prevent movement participation. However, opportunity exists to begin incorporating more experiences and knowledge into movement rhetoric to construct a polycultural movement. I begin by briefly discussing existing critiques of the local food movement before engaging in my analysis. I conclude with a call for inclusion of more diverse voices into movement arguments.


The local food movement has become the target of considerable critique. This essay relies heavily on those critiques that have come from the food justice movement, which point to the lack of inclusion of peoples of color and low-income individuals in movement activities and concerns. Food justice advocates have taken the local food movement to task for its lack of attention to working conditions of farm workers (Brown & Getz, 2011; Gray 2014), systemic barriers to food access (such as legal, economic, and historical barriers) (Guthman, 2011; Gottlieb &Joshi, 2013; Minkoff-Zern, Peluso, Sowerwine, & Getz, 2011), and the maintenance of cultural traditions (LaDuke, 2011; Norgaard, Reed, & Van Horn, 2011).

These cultural critiques are made alongside those that have targeted the movement for its lack of global perspective. Charles Kenny (2011) calls for a more cosmopolitan approach to food consumption, a position that emphasizes the energy and land efficiency in food production, rather than specified rules about how far away one should get her food or how exactly that food should be produced. James McWilliams (2009) may be the most vocal critic of the movement's local focus. His major critique is that the movement lacks consideration of global populations, ignoring that local agricultural systems are not possible in every place on the globe, nor have locavores been able to explain how such a system might justly feed the global population. In consideration of this global context, he writes, "If we don't figure out how to produce that food in a sensible and sustainable manner, one that honors future generations, our localized boutique obsessions are going to appear comically misguided (if not downright tragic) to future historians" (p. 14). In order to achieve a sustainable global agricultural system, McWilliams pushes toward a golden mean that blends local food options with limited use of chemicals and biotechnology; smarter use of water and soil; and creative farming solutions, such as aquaculture, to help build a system that produces food in an environmentally sensible and sustainable way.

The way in which the local food movement shapes its arguments can either encourage critical deliberation or stifle such discussion. Arguments that open space for the emergence of a polyculture within the movement have more potential for encouraging deliberation and debate. In addition, they have greater potential to create the discursive space needed to include diverse perspectives, which are necessary to construct a food movement that allows people to connect to one another in their places, access healthy food, and consider issues of social justice.

Calling for more inclusive deliberation in the local food movement positions this project in concordance with other projects in the field of communication aimed at incorporating more cosmopolitan approaches. For example, Sobre-Denton and Bardham (2013), call for a cosmopolitan pedagogy in intercultural communication that "involves teaching the value of valuing, or encouraging an orientation to the world that values humanity and ethically obliges those who adopt this orientation to work for social justice in their communities first, and then at national and global levels" (p. 151). Milstein, Anguiano, Sandoval, Chen, and Dickinson (2011) do not use the language of cosmopolitanism in their work; however their call for incorporating non-Western understandings of place in order to create more inclusive ecocultural discourses has similar intentions. Milstein et al. contend the shift in environmental discourse toward a non-Western relations-in-place model, which connects cultural and environmental issues, might encourage participation in environmental causes from individuals who may not traditionally participate.

Similarly, making local food movement arguments more cosmopolitan--and thus polycultural--by incorporating cultural issues of class more readily into its rhetoric may open the possibility for more diverse participation in the movement. This shift would not necessitate giving up commitment to local food production, but it would necessitate asking ethical questions concerning the conditions of food production systems regarding who has access to the system, whose culture is privileged in the system, the global implications of the production system, and whether or not the system helps to sustain access to food for future generations. The analysis that follows explores how current arguments avoid this polycultural approach, particularly in terms of class differences, and what discursive space currently exists for including more polycultural arguments into local food rhetoric.


Each of the texts examined in this essay received widespread attention as the books made national bestseller lists, the authors took to television and radio for interviews, and one even produced a companion documentary (e.g., Beavan, 2009). Not all of these authors have been presented as voices of the local food movement, but each advocates for local food consumption. I have chosen to analyze these texts for two reasons. First, they are representative of popular local food rhetoric. They utilize a dominant trope in which the narrator details a year-in-a-life of producing and consuming local food (for examples see Kimball, 2011; Mather, 2011; Smith & MacKinnon, 2007; Wonginrich & Dibben, 2013). In addition, each author is white and middle to upper-middle class, making the experiences in these narratives representative of movement discourse in both form and perspective.

The second reason these texts were chosen involves the differences in their narratives that allow for critical insight into various discursive openings currently extant in popular locavore arguments for constructing a more polycultural movement. Kingsolver (2007), Beavan (2009), and McKibben (2007) focus on local food to different extents in their discourse. Kingsolver's text documents a year in her family's life in which they lived almost completely on local food in Southern Appalachia. In this sense, Kingsolver's model is a typical theme in popular local food rhetoric as the entirety of the text focuses on her yearlong experience in a rural setting. Beavan and McKibben differ from Kingsolver's in that their journeys related to local food serve as dimensions underlying broader projects. Beavan's No Impact Man follows the year-in-a-life model, but his year is not strictly focused on local food; rather, he documents a year in the life of his family in urban Manhattan in which he sought to create zero environmental impact. Eating locally was part of the project, in addition to cutting consumption, altering transportation, and severely limiting electricity usage. McKibben's arguments deviate the most from typical local food rhetoric in that his year-in-a-life narrative is positioned within a broader call for the reconstitution of local economies, which he contends will address environmental, health, and economic failures of our current economic system. His local food consumption in rural Vermont becomes the model for constructing economies of energy, communication, and transportation.

My analysis of these narratives follows scholars, such as Guthman (2011), who examine how movement rhetoric can contribute to insularity and exclusion by constructing a movement unfriendly to people of color. I use textual analysis to identify how movement rhetoric potentially functions to exclude people from lower socioeconomic conditions. To perform the analysis, I identify moments in the texts where (a) authors discuss their perceived inclusivity of the movement, (b) directly discuss the relationship between local food and socioeconomic status, and (c) miss opportunities to incorporate class-based concerns into their discourse. Drawing on three texts for this analysis precludes a close-textual analysis of the entirety of each text; rather in the analysis that follows, I highlight common phrases, statements, and appeals that appear in popular local food arguments generally.

I do not intend to indict the individual authors for their rhetoric or to imply that only relatively wealthy, white people consume local foodstuffs. The authors share their perspectives, and although the authors could pay more attention to social class in their work, their personal experiences can be beneficial to the locavore movement. My analysis specifically concerns problems stemming from the fact that white, middle or upper-class authors are dominant, not just because they represent the dominant culture, but also because this group is dominant in number among the published advocates in local food movement rhetoric. Thus, these texts represent common movement rhetoric in which themes, meanings, and understandings of food from the dominant culture perspective contributes to a monocultural state in the movement by failing to incorporate issues of class and ethnicity into their arguments. The analysis finds that the texts exclude, omit, or lack attention to important aspects of the lives of low-income individuals, but it also highlights possibilities for more polycultural arguments to emerge should locavores use rhetoric to better account for the knowledge, experience, and concerns of diverse movement members. Before turning to the different possibilities each opens, it is important to understand what these texts have in common beyond the year-in-a-life structure.

It's Not a How to Manual, But Everyone Can Do It

Each of the authors makes a point to note that the purpose of the text is not persuasion. These are not "how-to book[s]" (Kingsolver, 2007, p. 10); rather, they are presented as individualized experiments. McKibben (2007) even frames his year of eating locally as an attempt to persuade himself rather than others:

The point of this experiment is not to encourage others to eat an exclusively local diet.... It was a small, highly artificial attempt to persuade myself that some other view of "the economy" was even remotely plausible, that in the absence of the industrial food system I wouldn't starve, (p. 47)

Such claims exist in stark contrast to the messages that pervade the rest of each text. Kingsolver provides advice for planting, ordering seeds, and even recipes written by her college-aged daughter. Beavan concludes his book by placing responsibility on all who may come in contact with it. And McKibben strives to use local food as a model to illustrate how we can all benefit from building strong local communities. They may distance themselves from a call to action, but each encourages changes in lifestyle and a commitment to local living.

Benefiting from Local Food

In order to convince their readers that a local food economy is possible, advantageous, and that everyone can participate in the movement, the writers must allow their readers to see themselves as capable of adopting such a way of life. Each of the authors avoids direct persuasion, focusing instead on a process of conversion similar to that found in Charland's (1987) constitutive rhetoric. Conversion, in this sense, "ultimately results in an act of recognition of the 'rightness' of a discourse and of one's identity with its reconfigured subject position" (p. 142). Lynch (2013) writes, "The narrative of the conversion experience explains the change in one's identity and (religious) affiliation, and it aims to convert its implied audience of the unconverted to the identity and affiliation the narrator has assumed" (p. 3). This is the power of the year-in-a-life model. The authors tell stories of their experiences, but underlying them are arguments for their chosen way of living.

Kingsolver (2007), Beavan (2009), and McKibben (2007) each offer their own conversion narratives, expressing to their audiences that they were no different at a time than the average reader, but through actions came to see themselves as locavores. Kingsolver's "normal-ish American family" (p. 24) came to see the production and consumption of local food as a spiritual practice, one she compares to the dietary limits of many religions. Beavan's conversion occurs when he realizes that the time he spends cooking is time he spends caring for his family. Like McKibben, Beavan is converted to the movement for the relationships it entails. McKibben writes:

I've had to think about every meal, instead of wandering through the world on autopilot, ingesting random calories. I've had to pay attention. But the payoff for that cost has been immense, a web of connections I'd never known about. I've gotten to eat with my brain as well as my tongue: every meal comes with a story. The geography of the valley now means something much more real to me; I've met dozens of people I wouldn't otherwise have known, (p. 94)

Local food production and consumption alter how these writers view themselves in relation to others. The efforts of gathering and preparing food are time for contemplation and care. The consumption of food achieves meaning because of that effort. Like religious practices of praying, devotion, or spiritual work, the practices of local food bring understanding and a sense of connectedness. In the language of Burke (1969), these practices have led the authors to overcome division inherent in the human experience. Deliberate food consumption has allowed them to identify with others. Readers of these texts are subject to a similar Burkean identification. The conversion narratives invite readers to see themselves in the authors. By modeling their own conversions, the authors suggest that anyone who undertakes local food practices could also achieve this identification with others and the belonging that comes with it.

The similarities within these conversion narratives contribute to a monoculturual movement. The authors of these year-in a-life narratives are predominantly white and of middle to upper-socioeconomic classes. Mather's (2011) chronicle of living locally on forty dollars a week is an exception. For conversion narratives to appeal to readers, they must be able to see themselves in the narratives; they must be able to imagine themselves undergoing the same experiences as the authors. This is perhaps why, when I first read each of these narratives, I was inspired, and carefully chose practices to implement in my own life. The authors' stories resonated with me, but their lives prior to their conversion were also not all that different from mine.

The majority of local food rhetoric provides a model for those capable of meeting the time, financial, and spatial costs of living locally. Those who cannot see themselves in the authors, or who do not have the resources required to live as a locavore, may find the arguments less persuasive, and may find seeing oneself in the conversion models difficult. Particular constraints are present for poor audiences, as the middle-class life experiences of the authors may be starkly different from those experienced by these readers. Identifying with the movement is also made difficult for low-income individuals when the movement arguments exclude them, leave concerns of food access and labor conditions absent, or ignore issues of capital that may prevent participation in local food economies.


Throughout Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver (2007) laments the loss of food culture in the United States. She is critical of society's bargain shopping approach to food, arguing that historically low U.S. food costs do not account for the health and environmental costs of producing such cheap products. Reclaiming local food traditions becomes a way to diminish these costs or at least account for them. For Kingsolver, local food practices involve giving up excess food choices to eat what is provided in one's place. By framing her narrative in this way, Kingsolver dismisses low-income individuals, both by misrepresenting poverty and by avoiding the question of how to incorporate the poorest of U.S. citizens into local food practices.

This is not to say she lacks sympathy for those struggling to make ends meet. Kingsolver (2007) writes of her years living in "frugal material circumstances" and of having "no interest in playing poor" (p. 34). But in these passages poverty is viewed as something almost all go through as they make their adult lives. Kingsolver avoids distinguishing between having limited food options and facing real hunger. The United States Department of Agriculture reports 12.1 million adults and 845,000 children in the United States live in households with very low food security (Coleman-Jensen, Nord, Andrews, & Carlson, 2012). This means that these households experienced disrupted eating patterns for at least one member of their household six or more times if children were in the household, or eight or more times if no children were present throughout the year. As Kingsolver details a movement in which individuals voluntarily give up food choices to make a local commitment, those who lack these choices are excluded.

This exclusion is reinforced as Kingsolver (2007) writes of her family's participation in the movement on a "modest academic salary" (p. 70). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012), the median professorial salary for postsecondary teachers in May 2012 was $68,970 per year, with 80 percent of professors earning somewhere between $35,670 and $142,270. The U.S. Census Bureau found that the median annual household income in the United States was $51,017 (DeNavas, Proctor, Smith, 2012). Note this falls in the middle of that modest professorial salary range and could be a sufficient income to consume a mostly locavore diet, but this number does not paint the whole picture of income in the United States. The modal household income range, the most common income range for a household in the United States, is between $15,000 and $19,999 annually (U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2013). Approximately 7,157,000 U.S. households fit in this income bracket, including many that are under or very near the 2012 poverty thresholds of $15,156 (for a two person household), $18,552 (for a three person household), or $23,836 (for a four person household) (U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty Thresholds, 2013). Kingsolver writes from a class position that limits identification for many U.S. citizens who do not have the expendable income to buy local and/or organic produce or meat.

Kingsolver (2007) does not ignore issues of class. She acknowledges that some individuals will be too poor to participate in the activities she is championing, but contends, "many more of us have substantially broader food options than we're currently using to best advantage" (p. 129). The suggestion here is that those who can afford to participate in the movement should, while those who cannot participate should be excused from its expectations. Guthman (2011) critiques these types of statements common in local food rhetoric, contending they construct an "other" to those virtuous enough to follow local food tenets. Such statements excuse the movement from having to wrestle with questions about why some cannot participate and what responsibility a movement has to make itself accessible. Guthman's concern is primarily about how the rhetoric of the local food movement racializes its space, but her concerns carry over to issues of class. She writes, "My underlying concern is that because alternative food tends to attract whites more than others, whites continue to define the rhetoric, spaces, and broader projects of the agrifood transformation" (p. 277). In statements such as Kingsolver's, low-income individuals become inconsequential to the movement in the same way Guthman has found the rhetoric marginalizes people of color. Statements that acknowledge not everyone can afford to be a locavore, but then suggest that those who can afford it should, contribute to constructing a monocultural movement. By not utilizing these acknowledgements as openings to explore how the movement might be made more accessible, these statements position food issues of low-income individuals, such as food access and fair wages, as outside the bounds of the movement. Doing so constructs the people that experience economic induced food access and security issues as outside the movement as well.

Kingsolver (2007) suggests there may be room for individuals facing poverty to participate in the movement. She highlights a traveling vegetable stand in Tennessee, the ability to use food stamps at many farmers markets, federal grants that help low-income seniors buy local produce, and programs that are increasing local food consumption in schools and food banks. Theses programs are promising, but the stories of those affected remain absent from movement rhetoric. In addition, these actions are incredibly local. They make a difference in each place where they occur, but for the nearly 45 million people who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly referred to as food stamps), shopping at farmers markets and purchasing CSA shares are often difficult. The average monthly benefit for an individual receiving SNAP is $134 (Building a Healthy America, 2012). Local food is not necessarily more expensive across the board than food purchased from a traditional grocery store. In fact, nearly every author analyzed here speaks of spending less than they would doing traditional shopping; however, the way money must be spent (much of it upfront), and the fact that the types of items sold at local markets (e.g., farmers markets) are typically neither non-perishable nor within the means of a low-socioeconomic status budget making locavore living prohibitive for many.

Kingsolver's (2007) arguments open space for a shift toward a poly cultural movement when she advocates a do-it-yourself model. This model is what Jesse McEntee (2011) calls "traditional localism," which includes such activities as canning, gardening, and hunting. This approach is less exclusionary than the "contemporary localism" of farmers markets and CSAs, and is one that has been practiced, particularly in rural places, for generations. For example, the county in which I live is one of the poorest in New York State. There is a strong local food culture in this place, but the majority of its participants would not find their experiences mirrored in the year-in-a-life narrative of Kingsolver's book or self-identify as part of the movement. For many of these individuals, this is just how they live their lives. They may not shop at a farmers market, buy a CSA, or stop in the local natural foods store, but they eat fresh local vegetables they grow in their backyard. They learned to can, garden, hunt, and fish from their parents and grandparents, who learned it from their parents and grandparents.

Traditional localism is finding more traction in the local food movement, as foraging becomes the source for ingredients in high priced restaurants (Wong & Leroux, 2012), professional, urban women take up hunting to better connect with nature (Gordiner, 2013), and rooftop gardening has become a trendy hipster hobby (Spector, 2013). Melissa Click and Ronit Ridberg (2010) have argued that emphasis on these more traditional food practices (specifically canning) has the ability to move the local food movement away from individualist, consumer-centered actions toward those that encourage emotional, historical, and sensory connection. These experiences build community rather than capitalism. The local food movement, however, must be cautious when advocating traditional localism. It must avoid coopting activities as part of movement culture without acknowledging from where these traditions emerged and asserting who should be seen as knowledge producers when it comes to these practices.

Traditional localism, if incorporated into the movement well, has potential to open discursive space to explore how local food can contribute to tackling food issues related to class. Poorer individuals where I live rarely point to environmental or health reasons for participating in local food. They do not even explicitly identify the community connections local food can build. One friend, an aide at the local nursing home, explained she planted vegetable starters this spring in order to supplement her food budget and have produce for canning this fall. Another, a contractor who does fix-it jobs around our home, produces and sells free-range beef and maple syrup for extra income. A student of mine tells of seasonal family gatherings for hunting and apple cider making that fill freezers for the winter and feed his immediate and extended family. This same student once commented after a class I taught on local food how funny it was to sit through the session, because all of these practices local food advocates were telling people to do had been part of his life since before he could remember. The local food movement needs to find space and respect for these voices.

The dominant argument of individuals "reclaiming" local food and its traditions can sound silly to those who see these behaviors as ingrained in their lives. Not everyone everywhere in the United States has lost a food culture that needs to be found. To build a poly cultural movement of diverse socioeconomic classes, the movement must recognize traditional localism as valuable and do so in a way that acknowledges the cultural traditions from which these activities stem and the fact that they are often undertaken as matters of necessity rather than novelty. Incorporating individuals who participate in traditional localism into the local food movement means recognizing these activities as equally valid as contemporary localism and realizing that not everyone will share the environmental, health, or community-centered values that are so often part of the monoculture local food arguments. There must be space created within local food arguments to account for financial concerns and maintenance of familial and cultural traditions. More recognition within the movement of the knowledge held by individuals who have always participated in traditional localism might both illustrate the opportunities within the movement for other low-income individuals to participate, and make the movement's arguments more inviting to those often constructed as "other."


Traditional localism and accounting for traditional food knowledge could potentially broaden participation and inclusion in the movement and its rhetoric, but such an approach may not resonate deeply with city-dwellers who lack access to land or the space to store canned or frozen foods. Beavan's (2009) narrative provides an opportunity for greater movement identification with urban populations. In contrast to Kingsolver (2007), Beavan does not advocate a return to an agrarian ethic; he argues that we must engage in more mindful living wherever we find ourselves. This appears to be more inclusive than the type of movement suggested by Kingsolver, since one need not live a rural life to participate. However, the absence of class issues in Beavan's book still discourages a polycultural movement from forming.

Much of No Impact Man is a critique of a consumer lifestyle in which "everybody, in any life situation, in any circumstances, at any time, seems to want something" (pp. 69-70). One of the questions Beavan (2009) steers away from, however, is whether or not some peoples' wants are more valid than others. Instead, he focuses on critiquing a form of consumerism that can be lived only by those of a high socioeconomic status. It is important to note that much of what he does in the book, such as buying used items or recycling what he already has is the way many people live out of necessity. (1) In his year of no impact, Beavan identifies the consumer lifestyle as the cause of environmental problems; However, many U.S. citizens cannot sustain the lifestyle he describes. If one is able to argue that they do not cause the problem, it is then easy to say that she has no need to be part of the solution. No Impact Maris critique avoids targeting the systemic problems of excessive capitalism and consumerism in which we are all, regardless of economic status, immersed. In particular, in spite of numerous opportunities, Beavan does not connect consumerism and capitalism with the issues of environmental and food justice.

There are numerous openings in which issues that involve food access and class could be discussed within the text, but they are not. Stuart Hall (2011) points to the importance of identifying absence in a text. He writes:

We had to develop a methodology that taught us to attend, not only to what people said about race but [...] to what people could not say about race. It was the silences that told us something; it was what wasn't there. It was what was invisible, what couldn't be put into frame, what was apparently unsayable that we needed to attend to [...] one of the questions you have to ask is, "what about the people who appear to have no content at all- who are just pure form, just pure, invisible form?" (p. 15)

Hall focuses on race in this quotation, but the absence of class in local food rhetoric is also something of note, as it illustrates what concerns are and are not part of local food arguments. Beyond acknowledging concerns of poor individuals and then dismissing them, the absence of any pointed talk about low-income individuals produces an erasure of their presence from the movement. In a sense, low-income people and their concerns become "unsayable" in movement rhetoric, and thus excluded from helping to produce movement culture.

Beavan (2009) undertakes the 100-mile diet, which defines local food as that which is produced within 100 miles of where one lives. In discussing this diet, Beavan could have commented on its accessibility. The population that can live on such a diet is immensely limited, particularly in an urban setting where many would have difficulty finding land necessary to produce much of that food on their own. In addition to space, low-income individuals may not have the time required to research from where their food comes. Nor can they always travel around the city to a variety of markets to procure healthy, local food options. After completing a challenge of living on an average food stamp allotment for a week, Berg (2008) explains, "I came to better understand that, when you are poor, many life choices, including food choices, are made for you, and that it takes a great deal of time--the one thing that poor people often have even less of than money" (p. 100). He explains that to feed himself on $28.30 per week he required his wife's assistance to do his shopping. She spent hours looking for sale items, visiting multiple grocery stores by bus, and shopping only at large supermarkets that had the cheapest prices. Most individuals do not have the time or resources necessary to live a 100-mile diet. Beavan was able to make researching and consuming this diet his job, while his wife made a dependable salary. This is a luxury left unacknowledged by Beavan.

Another example of absence of class in Beavan's (2009) arguments is his omission of food deserts, home to many of the United State's poorest residents. The USDA defines food deserts as "urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, affordable food" (Agricultural Marketing Service). A 2011 USDA study shows that nearly 23.5 million people in the United States live in food deserts, and 13.5 million of those are low-income individuals. If one is dependent on local convenience stores or fast food restaurants, a 100-mile diet is not possible, especially since these areas typically are those without access to farmers markets or food stands. Beavan has opportunity to identify and elaborate on the connections between economic policy, food access, and poverty that create food deserts and to tie them to his larger critique of consumerism and capitalism, but these connections remain absent.

In addition to access to this type of diet, Beavan (2009) ignores the working conditions often used to make it possible. Margaret Gray (2014) studies the oppressive labor practices utilized on small, local farms in the very Hudson Valley from which nearly all of Beavan's local food would have been grown. Her interviews with workers in this system, primarily undocumented migrant workers, present broad "patterns and systemic conditions of treatment, which include meager wages, long hours of difficult manual work, lack of overtime pay, run-down housing, lack of respect, and paternalistic management practices" (p. 5). In Gray's words, the reality of the working conditions on many small-scale farms challenge the idea of ethical consumption locavores profess. None of the authors analyzed in this essay take note of these labor conditions, representing them as a problem only faced in large agribusiness. Ignoring the oppressive labor practices that keep individuals in a cycle of poverty, often putting them in positions where they are unable to eat the food they help produce (Brown & Getz, 2011), has two consequences for the local food movement. First, it becomes hypocritical in its claims of being more sustainable. Perhaps it is more environmentally friendly and better for the health of those that can afford it, but if the local food infrastructure is built on business practices no better than those of large agribusiness, one must question whether or not it is ethically sustainable. Second, if the movement avoids these issues and conversations about them, the individuals living in these working conditions are outside the movement's bounds of concern. Through this absence in its arguments, the movement constructs as outsiders the very people who produce the food locavores choose to consume.

Beavan (2009) does not take advantage of openings in his arguments that allow for discussion of class issues. In the moments where concerns of economic status might be made obvious, Beavan moves on. For a polycultural local food movement to emerge, acknowledgement of one's positionality (2) and inclusion of others with different situated identities is needed. Some of these discussions are beginning to happen in both urban and rural local food work. In the urban area I used to live, for example, politicians, educators, school staff, farmers, and parents are working together to expand the Minneapolis Farm to School program. In an attempt to target obesity rates and to support local farmers, the school district has begun incorporating "real food" into the breakfasts and lunches it serves students. Such a project can reach individuals of various economic classes, from Minneapolis's richest to poorest students, including those that live in the city's food deserts. It builds connections between producers and consumers of food while helping all students gain access to the local food economy.

Projects created to support local food and address class concerns in other local settings may look different than this, but local food activists are beginning to have more conversations about issues of class and are designing programs to involve low-income individuals as partners in building local food economies that contribute solutions. While these types of conversations are happening "on the ground," they still remain absent in popular arguments of local food. Until economic issues of local food, including those of food access and labor politics, are incorporated into these popular arguments, the movement will remain monoculture, as disenfranchised individuals see the movement as unconcerned with paramount issues, such as food desserts, poverty, and base survival.


McKibben (2007) does not shy away from acknowledging class issues as they pertain to food economies and the broader social reality they represent. Deep Economy details how the current economic system creates poverty and only benefits those who are already in top income brackets. McKibben discusses how the current system has allowed the median wage to remain the same as it was thirty years ago, with the real income of those in the bottom 90 percent of earners actually declining between 1979 and 2005. He touches on how our current economy, which bolsters big-box stores, such as Wal-Mart, make "communities suffer" (p. 107), because, as studies show, communities that have such stores grow poorer than surrounding areas. He even accounts for global inequality, acknowledging that unlike most Americans, some individuals across the globe living in small villages are rich with community that many Americans crave, but need the tangible benefits of which most Americans have too much. He contends, "A large part of the problem, of course, is that growth is producing wild inequities around the developing world. Nations don't get richer; people in them do, and often not very many of them" (p. 195). His arguments illustrate how an emphasis on individualism has constructed an economic reality where most are harmed, but suggest that if individuals are willing to adopt community-centered identities a more beneficial social structure may be created.

For McKibben (2007), local food mirrors local democracy. From the information seeking that occurs at farmers' stands to the fact that local food choices are determined by geography and season, decisions about local food parallel the activities of local governance. Local government succeeds when people seek out those with intimate knowledge about issues facing the community and work to find solutions that fit the resources and needs of a place. McKibben calls for mass participation in local democracies and economies, where individuals invest their time and energy into the issues of an area. There is no prescribed way of living, rather an invitation to participate in forming a strong community where one resides. This approach also leaves some room for individualism, allowing people to maintain their identity, worldviews, and practices in ways that more classical conceptions of communalism (or republicanism (Cicero, 1999)) have not. In many ways it is reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson's (1816) approach, which emphasizes an agrarian ethic utilized in community meetings and local debate. Autonomy is present in McKibben's idealized communities, as individuals come together to make decisions about their places. On the surface his solution seems universal. There is no mandate of what a community must look like or even what living locally entails. These are determined by democratic deliberation.

This model answers some of the criticism against the local food movement from individuals, such as McWilliams (2009), who bristles at its cookie-cutter approach to food production and consumption. In McKibben's (2007) model, communities make decisions about what can and should be grown locally, what counts as local food activity, and what cultural traditions should be upheld. This model allows for local difference, which studies are showing to be the most important aspect of a sustainable food culture. Barclay (2013) challenges the common argument made by food advocates that to address environmental concerns we must eat less meat. Drawing on a study by Mario Herrero, a chief researcher at Australia's science agency, she explains that in order to address both environmental and hunger needs across the globe, communities must assess what they need and what can be grown in their places. While most in the United States may give up a serving of meat a day for a more sustainable diet, some places may need to keep more animals to provide protein and raise food in areas that lack the soil nutrients needed to grow fresh produce. McKibben's model provides space for these types of debates to occur and autonomy for communities to define what the local food movement looks like in their places.

In spite of the autonomy put forth in McKibben's (2007) arguments, the communities that he visualizes may not be possible for everyone. McKibben is conscious enough of this to raise the question. At one point he writes, "The unanswered question is whether a smaller and more local economy also makes sense for the rest of the world, or whether only endless economic expansion can provide dignified lives for the poorer half of humanity" (p. 176). Deep Economy asks whether the model McKibben is advocating is possible and beneficial for those most harmed by the current system. The autonomy present in McKibben's arguments is promising, but his solution sidesteps issues of agency, avoiding discussion of the social, political, and economic capital it requires to build the types of communities and democracies he is advocating.

Many in the food justice movement detail this lack of resources. Alkon and Agyeman (2011) explain, "Communities of color and poor communities have time and again been denied access to the means of food production, and, due to both price and store location, often cannot access the diet advocated by the food movement" (p. 5). Even access to the traditional localism of farming, gardening, and hunting is limited for low-income individuals, particularly those of non-dominant races and ethnicity. For some the limitation is cultural. As Guthman (2011) reminds us, the idea of "getting one's hands dirty" or "returning to the soil" is not a dream for everyone. She writes, "For African Americans, especially, putting your hands in the soil is more likely to invoke images of slave labor than nostalgia. Such rhetoric thus illustrates a lack of cultural competency that might be deemed an exclusionary practice" (p. 276).

In addition to cultural limitations, there are governmental obstacles that prohibit low-income individuals from enacting the agency needed to assume a locavore identity. Through legislation, indigenous hunting and gathering practices have been erased or severely limited (Norgaard, Reed, & Van Horn, 2011). Immigrants have faced legal consequences for relying on traditional farming labor practices that encourage family members to exchange labor instead of wages (Minkoff-Zern, Peluso, Sowersine, & Getz, 2011). Global trade policies have forced farmers to migrate to other countries, away from their localities, as properties are seized for global corporations (Brown & Getz, 2011). And even housing and zoning regulations keep low-income families in locations with limited food access (McClintock, 2011). A local food rhetoric that does not account for these limitations fails to grasp the complexity of constituting an inclusive local food community.

More systematic, legislative work is needed to address the complex issues at play when discussing local food. That may be why McKibben says the movement will eventually "take form as legislation" (p. 3). Lone individuals cannot address the widespread, global issues of food that stem from large wealth gaps, but diversifying the local food movement in order to increase membership and put greater political pressure on these concerns has potential to make some difference. The local food movement needs to be willing to grapple with current class issues in its arguments if the movement is going to be polycultural. If these concerns find space in popular rhetoric of the movement, there is a stronger chance to build a more inclusive movement that engages in both everyday actions and political activism to build a more ethical, accessible, and sustainable food system.


Craig Goodwin (2011) defends the local food movement against claims that it ignores the needs of the global poor. He believes the model of agriculture advocated for by locavores is one that may impact hunger across the globe. I am sympathetic to this position, agreeing with Goodwin that many of the world's poor "don't have the resources to buy expensive genetically modified seed and petroleum-based fertilizers" that are the backbone of industrial agriculture. Local, small-scale agriculture is a model more available to low-income individuals across the globe, but true deliberation over how local food practices could address the poor's primary concerns will not take place until their voices are prioritized in the movement.

The year-in-a-life narratives that document the conversion of middle-class, white individuals to local food provide little space for others--especially the poor--to identify with the movement. The texts analyzed here are representative of popular local food movement arguments that contribute to the construction of a monocultural movement, because the rhetoric (unintentionally, I believe) excludes those outside the class position of these authors. The arguments present the movement as open to everyone; all they need do is make a commitment to consuming local food, and they will help the environment, spur the local economy, improve their health, and help build strong communities. But not everyone can undertake the actions expected to be considered a movement member. Nor may everyone want to. Issues of food access, labor conditions and wages, and the maintenance of cultural heritage seem, at best, secondary concerns in the arguments put forward in these texts; yet, these issues are prominent for many. Those working on local food on the ground know that these issues do get discussed alongside environmental and health concerns, but until these issues are prioritized in movement rhetoric, the movement will continue to construct low-income individuals as outsiders.

Two things must happen simultaneously to construct a more inclusive movement. First, those speaking or writing about the movement must identify their own positionality. Movement advocates must be willing to identify and wrestle with the privileges that shape their locavore practices. Second, the movement must illustrate that it is not as much of a monoculture as its rhetoric might suggest. It must prioritize voices that illustrate the diversity of movement experiences.

The film The Garden provides an example of the type of rhetoric of which the movement needs more (Kennedy, Nacif, & Derrenger, 2008). It documents the struggle of a group of primarily migrant farmers to keep access to a plot of land they had farmed for over a decade in South Central Los Angeles. In the legal and political battles documented by this film, locavores, labor activists, and immigrant rights advocates partnered with politicians, celebrity spokespeople, and the people who worked these gardens to protect access to land that would allow subsistence food production for the farmers. The activism inevitably failed, but the film brought attention to issues of land access, money, and political and legal barriers that prevent individuals from accessing local food. The local food movement must find a way to get more of these stories to a public audience through books, films, and digital media formats.

The voices of the movement cannot continue to be primarily white, middle-class individuals, like myself, who are converted to the movement because they enjoy talking to the farmer that grows their tomato and appreciate leaving a smaller carbon footprint. The family that has spent their whole life (not just a year) fishing, hunting, gardening, and canning should have their knowledge valued. The stories of indigenous peoples growing and saving the seeds of their ancestors need to be included. Hmong immigrants who traveled from the mountains of Laos to the farmlands of Minnesota have become some of the most successful growers at the farmers markets in the metro-area; they should have their stories privileged. And those who have a complicated relationship with the movement's agrarian ethic need to be able to talk about why that is and what a movement they would participate in might look like.

Second, the movement must acknowledge that local actions exist in a global context. On one level those who eat locally for environmental reasons do this, but a much more complicated global relationship must be acknowledged, as the movement grapples with what local food must look like to feed a hungry global population. Discussions must become open to a variety of farming practices and food traditions that will work in a diversity of spaces. McWilliams (2009) provides some suggestions for this. The movement must allow people living in their places to make tough decisions about farming tactics without alienating people who may make different choices (such as limited pesticide use or a diet that relies heavily on animal protein). The movement must also avoid turning a blind eye to global economic policies that contribute to the oppressive migrant labor so often used to provide its food. Working conditions and wages must be part of the consideration when building a sustainable local food system.

If more diverse local food experiences become more prevalent in movement arguments, the issues faced by low-income individuals, including food access, food deserts, labor conditions, political access, and maintenance of cultural traditions could become a larger part of the discussion over ethical food consumption. This, in turn, has the potential to increase inclusion of people currently constructed as outside the bounds of the movement. Until these stories become part of movement arguments, a monocultural movement will continue to be constructed. A polycultural local food movement has begun to develop in practice, as each place and the people in it have shaped how local food consumption happens there, who is involved, and what ethical questions are considered. Now the time has come for the movement's popular arguments to match its practices and begin a move toward becoming polycultural as well.


Agricultural Marketing Service. (2013). Food deserts. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from

Alkon, A. H., & Agyeman, J. (2011). Introduction: The food movement as polyculture. In A. H. Alkon, & J. Agyeman (Eds.), Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability (pp. 1-20). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Barclay, E. (2013, December 17). Industrial meat bad, small farm good? It's not so simple. NPR. Retrieved from

Beavan, C. (2009). No impact man: The adventures of a guilty liberal who attempts to save the plant, and the discoveries he makes about himself and our way of life in the process. New York: Picador.

Berg, J. (2008). All you can eat: How hungry is America. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Brown, S., & Getz, C. (2011). Farmworker food insecurity and the production of hunger in California. In A. H. Alkon, & J. Agyeman (Eds.), Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability (pp. 121-146). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Building a healthy America: A profile of the supplemental nutrition assistance program. (2012). Washington D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service: Office of Research and Analysis. Retrieved from

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. (2014). Occupational outlook handbook: Post-secondary teachers. Retrieved from

Burke, K. (1969). A rhetoric of motives (California ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Charland, M. (1987). Constitutive rhetoric: The case of the peuple quebecois. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73(2), 133-150.

Click, M. A., & Ridberg, R. (2010). Saving food: Food preservation as alternative food activism. Environmental Communication, 4(3), 301-317.

Cicero. (1999). On the commonwealth and on the laws. Ed. J.E.G. Zetzel. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Coleman-Jensen, A., Nord, M., Andrews, M., & Carlson, S. (2012). Household food security in the United States in 2011. ERR-141, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. Retrieved from media/884525/err 141.pdf.

DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B. D., & Smith, J. C. (2012). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2011. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Goodwin, C. (2011, October 31). How the local-food movement is helping solve the problem of world hunger. Seattle Times. Retrieved from

Gordinier, J. (2013, November 12). Food matters: The professional women who hunt, shoot, and gut their dinners. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from women-who-hunt-shoot-and-gut-their-dinners/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1.

Gotlieb, R., & Joshi, A. (2013). Food justice. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gray, M. (2014). Labor and the locavore: The making of a comprehensive food ethic. Berkeley, CA: University of California.

Guthman, J. (2011). "If they only knew": The unbearable whiteness of alternative food. In A. H. Alkon, & J. Agyeman (Eds.), Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability (pp. 263-281). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Hall, S. (2011). Race, culture, and communication. In M. E. Green (Ed.), Rethinking Gramsci (pp. 11-18). London: Routledge.

Jefferson, T. (1816, June 12). Letter to Samuel Kercheval. Retrieved from http://

Kennedy, S. H., Nacif, V., & Derrenger, D. (Producers), & Kennedy, S. H. (Director). (2008). The garden. [Video/ DVD] Los Angeles: Black Valley Films.

Kenny, C. (2011, September 12). Got cheap milk? Why ditching your fancy organic locavore lifestyle is good for the world's poor. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from

Kimball, K. (2011). The dirty life: A memoir of farming, food, and love (1 Scribner trade pbk ed.). New York: Scribner.

Kingsolver, B. (2007). Animal, vegetable, miracle: A year of food life. New York: Harper Collins.

Kingsolver, B. (2012). Flight behavior. New York: Harper Collins.

LaDuke, W. (2011, May 12). Keepers of the seeds. Yes!. Retrieved from winona-laduke-keepers-of-the-seeds.

Lynch, J. (2013). "Prepare to believe": The Creation Museum as embodied conversion narrative. Rhetoric & Public Affairs 76(1), 1-27.

Mather, R. (2011). The feast nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering and eating locally (all on $40 a week). Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

McClintock, N. (2011). From industrial garden to food desert: Demarcated devaluation in the flatlands of Oakland, California. In A. H. Alkon, & J. Agyeman (Eds.), Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability (pp. 89-120). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

McEntee, J. C. (2011). Realizing rural food justice: Divergent locals in the northeastern United States. In A. H. Alkon, & J. Agyeman (Eds.), Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability (pp. 239-259). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

McKibben, B. (2007). Deep economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future. New York: Henry Holt Company, LLC.

McWilliams, J. E. (2009). Just food: Where locavores get it wrong and how we can truly eat responsibly (1st ed.). New York: Little, Brown and Co.

Milstein, T., Anguiano, C., Sandoval, J., Chen, Y., & Dickinson, E. (2011). Communicating a "new" environmental vernacular: A sense of relations-in-place. Communication Monographs, 78(4), 486-510.

Minkoff-Zern, L., Peluso, N., Sowerwine, J., & Getz, C. (2011). Race and regulation: Asian immigrants in California agriculture. In A. H. Alkon, & I. Agyeman (Eds.), Cultivating, food justice: Race, class, and sustainability (pp. 65- 85). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Norgaard, K. M., Reed, R., & Van Horn, C. (2011). A continuing legacy: Institutional racism, hunger, and nutritional justice on the Klamath. In A. H. Alkon, & J. Agyeman (Eds)), Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability (pp. 23-46). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Smith, A., & MacKinnon, J. B. (2007). Plenty: One man, one woman, and a raucous year of eating locally. New York: Harmony Books.

Sobre-Denton, M. & Bardhan, N. (2013). Cultivating cosmopolitanism for intercultural communication: Communicating as global citizens. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.

Spector, K. (2013, November 8). 10 urban farming projects in New York City. Ecowatch, Retrieved from http://

U.S. Census Bureau. (2013). Current population survey: Table HINC-06. Retrieved from hhes/www/cpstables/032013/hhinc/toc.htm.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2013) Poverty thresholds for 2013 by size of family and number of children under 18 years. U.S. Department of Commerce. Retrieved from

Woginrich, J. & Dibben, E. (2013). One-woman farm: My life shared with sheep, pigs, chickens, goats and a fine fiddle. North Adams, MA: Storey Pub.

Wong, T.M. & Leroux, E. (2012). Foraged flavor: Finding fabulous ingredients in your backyard or farmer's market. New York: Clarkson Potter Pub.

(1) Interestingly, Kingsolver (2012) identifies this contradiction of income and consumerism in her novel, Flight Behavior where she explores the conflicts between environmentalists and poor rural farming families. In one striking scene her protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, examines a list handed to her by an environmentalist of things one can do to reduce waste, such as buy used items, stop eating fast food, and planning out a route for running errands that limits gasoline usage. With each suggestion the environmentalist ticks off, she explains that she and her neighbors already do all these things for economic reasons, frustrating the environmentalist and providing a strong critique of class bias in environmentalism.

(2) My use of positionality stems from its use in feminist theory to discuss how our knowledge and worldviews are shaped by our situated positions-who we are (e.g., race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.) and where we find ourselves.

Dr. Jessica M. Prody, Department of Performance and Communication Arts, St. Lawrence University. Portions of this article were presented at the 2013 Alta Conference on Argumentation and included in the conference's selected papers volume. The author would like to thank Rhonda Courtney for her assistance with compiling census data. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Jessica M. Prody, Department of Performance and Communication Arts, St. Lawrence University, 23 Romoda Drive, Canton, NY 13617.
COPYRIGHT 2013 American Forensic Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Prody, Jessica M.
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
Previous Article:How much jail time? Returning women to the abortion debate.
Next Article:Not just a place to park your car: PARK(ing) as spatial argument.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters