How Do You Define “Locavore”?

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Last week, historian and author Stephen Budiansky raised quite a ruckus with his controversial New York Times op-ed piece, “Math Lessons for Locavores.” He took issue with the argument that buying local fare saves “food miles” (i.e., energy) and scolded local-food advocates for tossing around misleading and selective numbers to support their side.

Citing numbers from the University of Michigan Centers for Sustainable Systems, Budiansky noted that the big energy hog in our food system is the American household, which accounts for almost 32% of food-related energy use (from procuring food to storing, preparing and cleaning up after it). Transportation–the actual miles it takes to bring food to your table–uses less than 14% of food “energy.”

The piece unleashed an avalanche of responses. In her Huffington Post rebuttal, Kerry Trueman, co-founder of, dismissed Budiansky’s “deeply unserious” piece as “another flimsy, flammable straw man [made] out of boilerplate anti-locavore rhetoric.” She notes, quite rightly, that consumer-related food-energy expenses have nothing to do with whether we buy our food locally or not.

On the other side, “Supermarket Guru” Phil Lempert (who is sponsored by ConAgra, by the way), praised Budiansky’s “terrific” piece and declared, “One thing is clear to me: It is the beginning of the end of local.” He accuses locavore advocates of often distorting facts, which has confused consumers and eroded their confidence in the local-food movement.

Clearly, it’s not a black-or-white issue. “Local” often depends on where you live. If you’re in Southern California, like me, it’s pretty easy to get most, if not all, your food within a 100-mile radius year-round. If you live in Montana, where the growing season is fleeting, you may need a seasonal approach to local fare, as well as a broader definition of what’s “local.” In his blog, Politics of the Plate, Barry Estabrook suggests a regional approach to food may be a more realistic solution for many Americans.

As with so many food-related issues, we believe this takes a nuanced approach based on your needs and values. Lia is going to address this issue in more depth next week.

In the meantime, let us know what local food means to you.

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  • Alison Ashton

    Hmmm, when I think about it, saving “food miles” is the last reason I buy local fare. For me, the appeal is fresh, seasonal food that’s often (though not always organic); supporting people in my community (and keeping my money in the community); and the fun of seeing what’s fun/inspiring at the market.

  • blaire kribs

    I agree, it is not so much about “food miles” as it is about the “food story”. Big Ag does not want us to have a connection to our food or to the greater community that grows it unless it is in a soundbite that they have carefully crafted. Eating local is more about feeling a connection to your food and community than it is about food miles.

  • Alison Ashton

    That’s exactly it, Blaire! The story behind the food…love it!

  • Food-G

    As a Montana resident I can tell you that there are some year-round locavores here. They buy meat from small local ranches, growlers of beer from local breweries, eat a lot of root vegetables for 6 months a year, and also put up a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables during the summer months, to get them through the winter. I can’t claim that level of devotion, but it sure feels good to support not only the local farmers’ markets, but the local independent grocers too.

    For me it’s about the chi of the food I feed myself and my tribe, as well as investing in my community. Reduced food miles are great, but in choosing my groceries, they’re just gravy. Vegan macrobiotic gravy. : )

  • Lia Huber

    Great comments, everyone … I couldn’t agree more!