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The taste for LOCAL food is more about rediscovering food than defining what exactly local means.

A movement for local food crystallized around 2007, when the word LOCAVORE was coined and named word of the year by the authoritative Oxford Dictionary. But the preference for local food was part of a much larger turning point that began several years earlier in the producing, marketing and buying of food – what has been called the “quality turn,” which spurned quantitative factors such as volume and price, and emphasized instead such quality factors as ethical,ORGANIC, authentically regional and so on.

The taste for the TERROIR, culture and politics is a compelling instance of part of this larger turn because local conjures up so many positive images – from spending shopping money in ways that support neighbors, to rediscovering face-to-face relationships of a more convivial food system, to reducing FOOD MILES and the associated global warming emissions, to the superior taste of food that has come directly off a nearby field, to the assumption that both LIVESTOCKand workers are treated more humanely by one’s neighbors.

Truth be told, the precise meaning of the word local related to food is in the eye of the beholder, rather than scientific tests. People excited by local food, who shop at the thousands of FARMERS MARKETS that have sprung up across North America since the new millennium, for example, have in their mind’s eye a picture of what local food means. This picture stands in sharp contrast with the standard picture that has been formed about food produced from far away, by corporate farmers indifferent to the environment, their animals or workforce. Such pictures and stories are what local food is about -- what makes them part of the larger quality turn that is transforming the producing, selling, buying, preparing and eating of food.

Local food is what it is, and isn’t what it isn’t – a shopping list with specific criteria about the distance each food or food ingredient should have traveled from farm gate to food store. There is no reason for locavores to feel embarrassed or inadequate because local is lacking in specific scientific criteria. And there is no value to playing the game of pretending that there are distinctions worthy of measurement in the grand scheme of things.

There are many ways to measure what local might be surmised to measure in food. Some might argue, for example, that the embodied fossil fuel energy represented in all the inputs that go into a food – the fossil fuel fertilizers from a thousand miles away, the plastic bag or package from two thousand miles away, the recycling plant in China, and so on – tell a more important tale than the miles from farm to fork. And they would be right, of course, if the sole function of designating food as local were to reduce the amount of embodied fossil fuel energy in food.

Like other words that capture emotions local is...an intangible but transformative sentiment and commitment – closeness, respectful, trusting, loyal and loving rush into my mind. Certification for sale in anonymous marketplaces, where sellers don’t know buyers by name or personal reputation, is another matter. That needs to be refined so people know what values they are getting for their money.

But for mealtime conversation, local will do. Everyone has a pretty good idea what it means, and few suffer illusions or delusions that it can stand for much more or much less than what they stand on – their little place in the world. I take that as a good sign of the mental health of the local food movement. Drivers, start your conversations.

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