So, what is “local” anyway? The question is foundational to my work on this project, so I think it important to spend some time wrestling with how it is defined generally and what it means in this context. My vintage 1943 copy of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “local” as ‘characterized by, relating to, or occupying, a particular place or places‘ (emphasis mine). The French speak of terroir, that mysterious combination of soil, weather, water, and sun which bring the foods of a particular region together so beautifully. Even the term “locavore” is place-centered, highlighting the idea of locale being an important consideration.
Yet the idea of a place can be amorphous. “My kitchen,” “New London,” and “Russia” are all places, yet they differ so greatly in both scope and scale as to be nearly incomparable. Place can refer to a state of mind, as well, as when one hears “I’m in my happy place” or identifies with “Red Sox Nation.” Such places exist for the believer, but cannot be found on a map. How, then, does one measure proximity to-or distance from-them?
Often, the two combine. Positive association with a sense of place helps to build culture, which further reinforces the bond with a region. Thus, “Provence” or “Palouse” or “Low Country” have connotations beyond their location on a map, many of which relate to food. What Feagan (2007) calls the “geographic imagination” is a mental pantry well-stocked with sights, smells, memories, and recipes. So far, so good; we have come to some understanding of what a “place” is; briefly, a location with associations.
There still remains the matter of distance, especially concerning food-miles. I can find no consensus on the issue. One food co-op casts its net out to 500 miles; another has a multi-tiered approach, but out only half as far. Each has its own reasoning. Some urban agronomists advocate a 10-mile radius, but at what cost to urban density-or grain production? Now a retail colossus has decided to jump on the bandwagon, and there is legitimate fear that they will crush it. Yet they define local as something being produced and sold within the same state, which seems odd and arbitrary.
Consider the implications of this policy for the aforementioned New London: ten states lie within 300 miles, yet will Big Grocer only allow Connecticut produce to be called “local”? Meanwhile, the West provides an opposite challenge: vast intrastate distances which could undermine attempts at smaller food distribution networks. A 300-mile drive from my city will leave me well short of my state’s opposite border, and only get me into three others besides-and I live less than 10 miles from one of the state lines!
All of which leads me back to my original premise: that it would be better for us in our situation to first identify, then try to reduce, our food-mile radius rather than put up an arbitrary wall at some milepost or border marker. Others have done the latter, and it is a worthy topic of inquiry. But given our constraints of time, talent, and space, I believe this incremental approach is best.