Local Food Gets Trendy

Now that the New York Times has splashed it on the front page (July 22), consider it an official trend: locally grown food is all the rage. It is being avidly sought out by Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the glam crowd in the Hamptons, the merely affluent of Mill Valley, California, and even by the rest of us who live in less celebrated locations with few boldfaced residents.

It is tempting to dismiss locally grown food as just another elite fashion, as many people surely will. But it is also true that wealthy households are often the first to validate broader market trends.

Consider it another chapter in the ongoing dance between the commons and the market. The commons lovingly advances a new ideal — in this case, the ecological virtues, social satisfactions and great taste of locally grown food. And then, after years of hippies, homesteaders and eco-evangelists beating the drum for this new ideal below the radar screen of mainstream culture, entrepreneurs suddenly get hip to what’s going on and swoop in to make money from a grassroots trend.

Some things never change. We are at that special inflection point in the evolution of social attitudes that are mysteriously propelling the rise of a new market niche. Its customers, the aficionados of local food, even have a name — “locavores.” There are also novel sorts of new businesses.

As the Times reports, Trevor Paque has made a business in San Francisco planting vegetable gardens for affluent suburbanites who want to eat garden-grown food, but who don’t like to garden. So Trevor does the planting, weeding and harvesting. A company called FruitGuys will deliver boxes of locally grown, sustainably raised or organic fruit to people in San Francisco and Philadelphia.

Soon mega-millionaires like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh will rail against the trendiness of local food. That’s their schtick, after all — to invent elite foils for themselves so that they can cast themselves as Main Street populists. Real Republicans only eat red meat and potatoes, it would seem.

This is just a shell game in the culture wars, however. I am convinced that local food is going to become a steady, long-term growth market. For its taste, cost and eco-friendliness, local food has already become a symbol of social virtue. People are starting to realize that it is not so good for the planet to haul meat from New Zealand, wheat from South Dakota and fruit from Caifornia. Social demand and sheer economics are starting to buoy local growers, and supermarkets are looking for new ways to call attention to their local produce. The trend lines are clear.

The spending of local money for local produce is surely a virtuous cycle for local economies. It is also likely to promote greater personal connections among people locally, stronger commitments to one’s local community, and a more stable and diverse local economy.

Two days after filing the local foods article, Kim Severson, the same Times reporter who wrote about the elite embrace of local foods, had another piece about the upcoming an upcoming festival called Slow Food Nation. The event, to be held in downtown San Francisco over Labor Day weekend, will feature pavilions devoted to foods like pickles, coffee and salami. A quarter-acre patch of the lawn in front of City Hall has been ripped up to grow a garden.

Slow Food Nation is an ambitious attempt by Slow Food USA, the American spinoff of the Italy-born Slow Food movement, to establish itself as a recognized political and cultural force. Organizers hope the festival will be, in the words of Severson, “the Woodstock of food, a profound event where a broad band of people will see that delicious, sustainably produced food can be a prism for social, ecological and political change.”

I am sure that certain elements of the Slow Food world will behave like effete connoisseurs and fawn over the local argula and goat cheese. But really, is that so bad? Why shouldn’t people start to express their affection and appreciation for local food? If cultural snobs and the wealthy can embrace a populist trend without coopting it — validating it with their presence and boosting it with their dollars — I say, bring ‘em on. Let everyone celebrate the taste of local food — and then move on to the political and economic realities that sustain it.

If local food is going to be a victim of identity politics, let it be a politics of localism: “We all live here together, so let’s find the way to support the farmers who are our neighbors.”