By ELIZABETH OLSON
I work in a café that prides itself on serving fairly traded coffee, tea and chocolate. In addition to fair trade drinks, we sell sandwiches and pastries that are delivered every morning by the local artisans that produced them. A few weeks ago, on a rather slow day, a representative of a very large soft drink corporation (in fact, the largest beverage company in the world) entered the café and approached me at the counter, asking eagerly if we’d be interested in carrying their products. I politely declined on the basis that as an unwritten rule, all of our third-party menu items deemed worthy of carrying were to be made locally. In what I considered a simultaneously smart and cringe-worthy response, she smiled and said “Well, our distribution center’s in Needham!”
Needham is a few towns over from my city. She’s not wrong— they are local. The problem with slapping the “local” label on a food product seems obvious when the target is a massive soft drink corporation, but in other settings it’s often not picked up on. Scholars in my field of study call this practice “greenwashing.” Greenpeace has defined it on their website stopgreenwash.org:
Used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.
We environmentalists see greenwashing everywhere. You’ve seen it in your everyday life, chances are without even knowing it. A classic example cited by food industry critics is the “all-natural” label. Natural — the word’s got great intentions. It’s comforting. Consumers can pick up a box of organic cheese doodles and be assured that the product they’re about to feed their kids is healthy, because it’s “natural.” This word, however, is not defined by the USDA, nor the FDA, nor any regulatory agency for that matter. Because of this, almost any food company can slap it on white bread made with brominated flour and yellow dye #4 and still be telling the truth.
But we know this — only 59% of consumers trusted the “natural” label in 2014 and that percentage is decreasing as people start to view it as a meaningless buzzword. We’ve moved on to a better label with a proper definition: local.
Or so we think. “Local,” like “natural,” does not have a concrete or universal definition among food companies. My school’s dining services use “local” to describe food produced within 150 miles of us while “regional” expands the radius to 300 miles. This type of labeling is fatally flawed: “local” conjures up images of modest, smiling farmers hand-grinding wheat berries to make flour or driving to an outdoor market in a pick-up truck full of fresh eggs. “Local” is often confused (and even made synonymous) with “sustainably produced” or “small-scale.” But as mentioned before, “local” is simply a spatial designation and is relative to the location of the consumer. In states with large agricultural sectors like California, it’s almost impossible not to eat local when the organic strawberries you buy at the supermarket come from a massive monoculture 30 miles down the road. “Local” in a vacuum contributes almost nothing to the sustainability factor of a food product with the exception of how far the product has traveled (and in turn, how much carbon has been emitted) to get to your plate. Even the lack of the word “local” can turn consumers away from food that was produced using more sustainable methods than a local product. If a consumer in New York is given the choice between mushrooms grown in a pesticide-free permaculture facility in Washington and mushrooms from a “local” corporate giant in Massachusetts, chances are they’ll pick the latter in favor of staying close to home.
I urge consumers to look beyond the labels and the buzzwords. The Real Food Challenge, a campaign for “real food” with chapters at various universities across the country, suggests using the term “community-based” rather than local. For food to be considered “community-based,” the product must fit stringent criteria such as accounting for less than one percent of its entire industry. For example: 28% of the prepackaged salads consumed in the United States in 2014 were Dole products. So yes, if you ate a prepackaged salad from a Dole facility two towns over you’d surely be eating local, but you’d not be eating community-based food.
So go ahead and be skeptical of buzzwords. Question the outrageous claims Big Food makes. If you think they’re just trying to sell you something, guess what — you’re probably right.
Elizabeth Olson is a third-year Environmental Science major at Northeastern University. Her other food related activities include work in a garden designed to provide healthy, fresh food to residents of a homeless shelter.