Sustainability Column: Buying Local Food

The benefit of buying local goods–mostly produce– has, of late, been questioned.  This is because the definition of the term “supporting local” is not fully understood, and the phrase has become something in and of itself, losing its true meaning. In the context of “supporting local,” it is important to keep in mind the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental and social. Local doesn’t need to be segregated to the agricultural sector, nor should it be. There are problems with the term “supporting local,” but perhaps that’s because it has been oversimplified to a bumper sticker-type slogan.  

Part of the problem with the phrase “supporting local” is that is has come to mainly address buying produce from local farms, which may not actually have the benefits that we assume it does. It has also conflated local farms with sustainable, organic and small farms. Local farms can be those things, but they can also be large-scale, guilty of mistreating workers and animals and engage in environmentally irresponsible business practices. Because of this conflation, it is no longer clear that the term “buying local” does not directly mean buying organic or buying goods from small farms.

Buying from your local farm can be a great thing. It helps sustain part of our nation’s identity and economy. But what if the farm doesn’t use sustainable practices? Sustainable interests like buying from small farms and buying from local farms can conflict with each other in the context of supporting agriculture, which contributes to the conflict surrounding what exactly “supporting local” means. 

There are significant barriers to “supporting local” when you look at it from an agricultural aspect. Buying local goods in an effort to support small-scale businesses and farms that struggle to compete in an increasingly globalized economy is part of supporting local communities. However, while buying local does fit within the idea of “supporting local,” it should not define the phrase. This ideological mix-up causes the issues related with buying local goods to cross over into the ideas behind supporting local communities, decreasing the legitimacy of the “support local” movement. While buying local goods should be seen as an action that can be a great step to supporting local communities, it doesn’t define it. 

But let’s look at supporting local at its core meaning, which is engaging with the people, businesses and lifestyles that make up our communities. Supporting local doesn’t have to mean buying your Swiss chard on the Village Green, although that too has its place. Maybe it can mean telling your professor how much you enjoyed your discussion in class, saying hey to a stranger instead of avoiding their gaze as you pass them walking into town or thanking a custodian for keeping your favorite study spot clean.  Creating diverse, resilient and united communities is an essential part of increasing social sustainability, so let’s question how we can “support local” as Colgate students and, even further, as Hamilton community members.