Local Food: Values, Politics and Business

By June 28, 2014Blog

About the Author

Local food initiatives have taken off across the country in recent years. Registered farmers markets, for example, expanded nationally from around 3,000 in 2000 to over 8,000 in 2012, and urban farming has exploded across neighborhoods, at schools and in healthcare facilities with over 1,200 community gardens across Detroit alone.

The rise in activities around local food presents a host of novel opportunities and challenges for municipal governments. Urban farming, for instance, may help address inadequate food access by expanding fresh produce options in the inner city, but at the same time it often occurs in violation of standing zoning ordinances and places new pressure on water and sanitation services.

Detroit Garden

A Detroit Garden, Erica Morrell

In an attempt to promote local foods’ benefits and mitigate its drawbacks, cities across the country have created new arenas of governance concerned solely with local food. These arenas frequently include legislation around issues such as the production and sale of local produce and cottage foods, the creation of grants and other aid to facilitate local food efforts, and the establishment of food policy councils (over 200 such councils now exist across the U.S.), among many other features.

While different cities’ local food policies and programs might seem similar on the surface, they often embody quite different guiding values. Take Detroit and Cleveland, for example. Based on citizen demands, Detroit’s government has committed particularly to promoting justice through activities around local food.

The City’s Food Security Policy affirms this in its call to “identify and eliminate barriers to African-American participation and ownership in all aspects of the food system,” “increase the number of culturally appropriate food outlets,” and “ensure that the food needs of young families and the elderly are met,” as does its Food Policy Council vow to conduct business “in ways that embodies a commitment to anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-elitist processes and outcomes.”

Meanwhile Cleveland’s officials have pledged to advance development (especially economic and sustainable) through their local food policies and programs. The City’s Urban Agriculture Overlay District zoning provision was adopted as a means to “promote urban agriculture while simultaneously creating economic development opportunities” as was its Ordinance No 210-11 endorsed to foster “economic opportunities that create living-wage jobs, a unique Cleveland, and economic sustainability within the City” by facilitating local mobile food entrepreneurs. In 2012, Cleveland celebrated the Year of Local Foods to “advance sustainability…while boosting the local economy.”

Hough Vineyards

Hough Vineyards, Erica Morrell

Undoubtedly the values driving local food governance have direct implications for private business. The City of Cleveland’s commitment to the goal of economic development via local food, for example, has propelled legislation that guarantees a bid preference for companies which source products grown locally.

But perhaps more significantly, the principles undergirding municipal approaches to local food governance often reveal as well as reinforce the overall climate of a city’s local food system, creating broader potential opportunities and constraints for entrepreneurs in the food system.

Consider Whole Foods Market’s experiences in Detroit and Cleveland, for instance. The company explicitly values and pursues “customer satisfaction, team member happiness and excellence, return on capital investment, improvement in the state of the environment and local and larger community support” but neither explicitly justice nor development. Nonetheless,when seeking to open a Detroit store, Whole Foods Market met with pushback not from any single policy but simply from the established justice values characterizing the local food system there. Consequently, Walter Rob, the Market’s co-CEO, reached out to local food justice leaders to figure out how the store might play into “race and gentrification and power in Midtown.” The company then engaged in unprecedented measures to address these issues head-on, including holding community meetings and creating an advisory group of non-profit, government, and community organizations which were “faithful” to “a vision of justice” when engaging the corporation ahead of the store’s Detroit opening.

Ohio City Farm

Ohio City Farm, Erica Morrell

Contrastingly, in Cleveland where development is a stronger driving value, residents did not resist a Whole Foods Market opening in their community but rather called for the store to come to their neighborhood. It was not policy but a grassroots social media campaign with over 3,000 members that called for the store to come and “create a huge economic-development opportunity” for the area. According to its regional president, as the company considered opening a new location on Cleveland’s West side it thus, unlike in Detroit, had to focus particularly on “encouraging economic growth”—not justice—in creating a store best designed to meet community demands.

Paying attention to the values driving local food governance thus sheds light on the explicit legislation as well as the overall socio-political climate that may impact if and how local food initiatives—including private business—variously develop between cities.

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