Lentis/Local Food as a Social Movement

The local food movement has mobilized many in support of its cause. Participants in this social movement are often called locavores, a term coined in 2005 for World Environment Day and named the Oxford American Dictionary word of the year in 2007.

The farmer's market in Charlottesville, Va

This article seeks to examine the local food movement through social movement criteria developed by Eyerman and Jamison in 1991[1]. The four criterion are the creation of a mission, the use of technology, the dissemination of new technology, and the creation of new roles.

Creation of a MissionEdit

This refers to the formation of common ground among the members of the movement. The mission becomes the overarching goal of the movement and acts as the foundation for the participants.


Agriculture has always played a significant role in America’s economy. Initially, farms were family owned and produce was locally distributed. Western expansion and the implementation of railroad systems allowed the number of farms to triple from 1860 to 1905. With expansion and new technology came national distribution. Trucks and Trains now made it possible for people in Maine to eat peppers from Texas, people from Oregon to get cotton from Virginia, etc. This national trade allowed family farms to prosper. During the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal established many programs to help aid family farms and ensure continued prosperity. However, in the early 1970s, Earl Butz, Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, began to reengineer many programs established by the New Deal. He established new programs in hopes of driving down the cost of food, advertising slogans such as “get big or get out” and “from fencerow to fencerow”. Federal agriculture policy also shifted to include subsidies for commodity crops.[2] This lowered food prices and caused farmers to need increased yields to remain profitable. This led to deep depression in the farm belt followed by a brutal wave of consolidation. Large food manufacturers began to dominate the market, causing a greater separation between the public and their food.[3]

Initially, the majority of the public was unaware of the negative side effects of retrieving produce from distant, large food manufacturers. However, in the early 2000s, individuals began writing books and blogs about the difference between local and distant food. One book in particular, “Coming Home to Eat” by Gary Paul Nabham, inspired what many argue to be the beginning of the “Local Food Movement”.[4]

After reading Nabham’s book, four Californian women (Sage Van Wing, Jessica Prentice, Dede Sampson, and Lia McKinney) lead a challenge to eat from within a 100 mile radius for one month. Jessica Prentice created the name “locavore” to help their challenge gain awareness. She saw this word as a way to convey the concept of “eating not only from your place, but with a sense of place” .[5] This word and movement began to gain popularity as it caused people to become more conscious of where their food what coming from and how it was produced. Soon several movements arose and united to form what is known today as the local food movement.


Local food is produced in close proximity to consumers. "Local" can be based on a marketing relationship (i.e., that producers sell directly to consumers), or a geographical relationship. Although locavores initially popularized the "100-mile Radius", the USDA acknowledges a 400 mile radius as a true boundary of what can be called geographical "local" food.[6]

A locavore is a person who eats locally grown foods whenever possible. The term was created in 2001 as a way to convey the concept of “eating not only from your place, but with a sense of place”.[7]

Consumer Motivations for Buying LocalEdit

Relationships: Local food establishes connections between consumers and producers that supermarkets are not able to provide. Organizations such as farmer’s markets and road-side stands allow the consumer to buy produce directly from the farmer. This enables the consumer to question production methods and promotes a personal relationship between farmer and consumer. On the other hand, supermarket food typically travels around 1,500 miles before reaching the consumer.[8] This generally creates an impartial and impersonal experience for the consumer.

Health and Taste: Supermarket food usually contains preservatives, while local food generally has no added chemicals, comes directly from the farmer, and often tastes fresher.[9]

Environment: Local food addresses environmental concerns as a less energy-intensive alternative. Agricultural systems (processing, transportation, pre-washing, etc) consume about 1/5 of the total petroleum used in the United States.[10] Local food is generally not packaged, travels fewer food-miles, and doesn't require as much processing.

Community: The average American farmer receives about $0.20 for each dollar they spend. Since 1979, the United States has lost around 300,000 farmers to debt. By buying directly from farmers, participants in the local food movement help farmers remain financially viable by retaining higher profits.[11]

Animal Welfare: Large food manufacturers typically manipulate the quality of life of their animals to maximize their food-producing potential while local farmers use more human methods such as “free-range” and “grass-fed”.[12]


Local food is rapidly becoming more accessible to consumers. In 2013, 8,144 farmers markets were listed in the U.S. (a 3.6% increase from 2012).[13] Community-supported agriculture, which involves purchasing “shares” of local farmer’s produce, is another way consumers are able to easily obtain local food. Local food can also be found through intermediaries such as restaurants, retail grocery stores and government institutions like hospitals and farm-to school programs.

Advocates and OpponentsEdit

The local food movement can be framed by its advocates and opponents.

Advocates of the local food movement range from individuals to large organizations. At the heart of the local food movement lies individual bloggers and writers who spread the importance of this movement. This has inspired many organizations to be created, ranging from small farmers markets to large groups such as Community Food Advocates and the Slow Food Movement. Recently, select restaurants and grocery stores, such as Chipotle, Walmart, and Whole Foods, have become major advocates by selling almost exclusively local produce. The government has also recently become an advocate by establishing the “Farm-to-School” program.

Major opponents of the local food movement include companies with financial stakes in the food production market. This can include large farms, and food conglomerates like Monsanto. According to some analyses, transportation of local food is more inefficient; cross-specialization (i.e., large farms dedicated solely to one crop) would allow more food to be distributed to a growing population. [14] Although local food proponents argue that producing food locally decreases transportation costs, a recent study found that 11% of energy costs are from transportation while 83% of the energy expended is from production, which can be less efficient at smaller family farms. [15] If food is being produced locally, it will reduce business from international producers, who may depend on exports for profit. [16]

Locavores and Social StigmaEdit

Locavores are often portrayed as elitists. They are commonly viewed as a pretentious group that eats more expensive food because they can. However, a 6 state study found that when examining comparable items, farmers markets are less expensive than nearby supermarkets 74% of the time.

Locavores can be subdivided into four main categories: the environmentally concerned, the animal welfare activists, the health concerned, and the participants who prefer the freshness and taste of local foods. Participants feel that they can support the local food movement by 'voting with their food dollar' and buying local for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The San Fransisco activists, who coined the term locavore, describe themselves as "concerned culinary adventurers." They portray themselves as environmentalists, embracing the frontier of dietary practice and eschewing the normalcy of traditional consumption. They seek to appear both bold and exciting so that others will join their cause.

Use of TechnologyEdit

This includes the creation of new technologies, both systematic and technical, for use within the movement.

New TechnologiesEdit

Two technologies developed in response to the movement are hoop houses and vertical hydroponics. Hoop houses are highly customizable alternatives to greenhouses, allowing small farmers to economically and efficiently remain competitive. Vertical hydroponics allows for the high density vertical growth of fruits and vegetables. Hydroponics is a system of nourishing plants without the use of traditional soil. Naturally, plants receive nutrients through the breaking down of nutrients through the soil in which their roots are fixed in, but in a hydroponic system, those same plants are receiving their nutrients through artificially nourished water, eliminating the use of traditional soil fields and allowing farmers to maximize space in a green house or hoop house. Using this system, farmers can reap larger crop yields.[17].

Distribution SystemsEdit

Local food producers have diversified their distribution systems. For example, Whole Foods has shifted emphasis from organic to local foods. They spotlight local producers. Wal-Mart was the first supermarket to sell local food at its chains. Safeway, Kroger, and other supermarkets have followed suit. [18] The advent of these systems has not only raises awareness, but also increases the prevalence of organizations that serve as middlemen between small producers and large consumers.

Food CooperativesEdit

Another form of distribution system that has emerged from the local food movement is the popularization of food cooperatives. These cooperatives serve as distribution centers for small local farmers who join together and practice cooperative economics. Each farmer contributes what he or she can to the reserves of food and is rewarded by gaining access to the entire source of food, while the surplus is then sold off to the public to cover cost associated with managing production and distribution. This is a simple way for small farmers to support each other in their endeavor to provide locally grown organic food to their families and town. Examples of food cooperatives that have grown psat their local roots are Land O'Lakes, Piggly Wiggly, etc. The importance of food cooperatives in sustaining local food markets can be seen globally by the United Nations declaration that 2012 was the "International Year of Cooperatives [19].

Food cooperatives exist under the Rochdale Principles, which state that they cannot exclude anyone from participating if he or she is able, and must cooperate with other cooperatives, among other principles. Given this inclusion and open mindedness inherent to all food cooperatives, they have been able to thrive in even the most competitive local markets against large whole sale food providers. In the Charlottesville area alone there are 4 separate entities that identify themselves as food cooperatives [20] [21] [22] [23].

Dissemination of InformationEdit

A social movement needs to develop means of communication like the internet, advertisements, spoken word, pamphlets, etc.

Communication within the Local Food MovementEdit

Farmers act as teachers, spreading information about unusual products, new recipes and interesting production processes. Chefs, like Wolfgang Puck, can be advocates for local food by making their menu from marketplaces, and advertising on their websites.[24] Food magazines and newspapers often frame the movement in terms of child nutrition, food safety, and obesity, while individual blogs and articles focus also on the environmental benefits of eating locally through personal experiences and challenges. Ad hoc social institutions including farmers conventions, underground locavore restaurants, and local food councils also proliferate information within the movement.[25]

Social and Popular MediaEdit

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Extension, mass media tends to frame the local food movement positively, using emotionally-laden keywords like "accessibility", "variety", "sustainable", "safe", and "cost-savings."[26] "Occupy"-esque movements and the Buy Fresh, Buy Local organization post propaganda through blogs, Twitter, and public events. Public figures like Michelle Obama also endorse the local food movement, garnering support from the general public. For example, the First Lady started an organic garden at the White House, and attends the White House Farmer's Market. The Food Network has also recently begun promoting local foods by including local ingredients in series like "Chopped" and "Iron Chef".[27]

Creation of New RolesEdit

New roles can be formal or informal. They may include public officials, spokespersons, entrepreneurs, writers, activists, etc.

Roles created as a result of the local food movement include farmers market managers, custom smaller slaughterhouses for small cattle operations, local food policy councils, farming restaurant owners and journalists reporting on local food, such as Food Inc or the book The Omnivores Dilemma.[28] Will Richey, owner of Revolutionary Soup in Charlottesville, is an example of a farming restaurant owner. His small farm in Esmont, Va supplies much of the dairy and poultry for his restaurant.

Charlottesville: A Case StudyEdit

Origins to TodayEdit

The local farming community has been a staple of central Virginia and Charlottesville since the area was first settled. A visit to Monticello will reveal how deeply rooted farming is in the history of Charlottesville. Thomas Jefferson’s gardens were used as both a means for sustenance as well as science. Jefferson experimented with over 70 different species from various geographic origins including beans brought back from Lewis and Clark’s expedition.[29] Jefferson’s unquenchable thirst for innovation is instilled in the culture of Charlottesville, which is apparent in the inventive techniques being used by local farmers for growing a diverse range of produce and distributors for reaching a broad range of local consumers.

The city boasts scenic family-run farms, orchards, wineries, breweries, and restaurants as great attractions for visitors and residents alike. While tourism is a key revenue stream for some of the orchards and vineyards in Charlottesville, most farmers’ livelihoods rely on their produce and livestock. They can compete with corporate farms’ low costs better when consumers place increased value on freshness, local economic benefits, and knowledge of food history.

The Charlottesville City Market, the largest outdoor market in Charlottesville, opened in 1973 and became a platform for local farmers and artisans to interact directly with the Charlottesville consumers. However, in 2009, the Local Food Hub began its mission to broaden consumer access to Charlottesville’s local food.

Charlottesville farmers’ ability to produce a wide range of produce combined with the Local Food Hub’s model for local food distribution has led to great momentum in the Charlottesville local food movement. These two accomplishments were only possible because of Charlottesville consumers’ demand for local food.

Diversity of Farmer SpecializationEdit

Agriculture occupies 37% of the land in Virginia where there are over 47,000 individual farms making it the largest industry in Virginia.[30] Though most of these farms have specialized in cash crops such as tomatoes, soy, hay, and tobacco, some farms in Charlottesville and other areas are attempting to cover a wider range of produce. In order for the local food movement to gain traction, the local farms need to produce a diverse range of produce in order to satisfy consumer choices.

Michael Clark, the owner and farmer of Planet Earth Diversified in Charlottesville, has used his technical proficiency to produce micro-greens for consumers with very particular tastes.[31] Clark came to the University of Virginia in 1975 to study electrical engineering. He ended up using his engineering expertise to open a small farm that uses hydroponic growing techniques and a self-built automated heating and cooling system. Clark has built relationships with local restaurateurs who have a high demand for his flavor loaded specialty produce, micro-greens. More than 30 restaurants in Charlottesville pride themselves on using local ingredients. They are only able to do this when local growers can supply them with the various ingredients that they need.

Broadening Distribution ChannelsEdit

While Charlottesville restaurants and consumers have emphasized local food for many years, the Local Food Hub, which opened in 2009, increased the Charlottesville farmer’s access to consumers immensely. This is the Local Food Hub’s mission: “[We are] a nonprofit organization working to improve small farm viability and increase community access to local food.” Rather than limiting access to the Saturday City Market, restaurants, and specialty markets, the Local Food Hub has opened up Charlottesville farmers’ distribution channels to include schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and retailers.

Distribution of perishable items, such as fresh produce and meats, requires large capital costs such as refrigerated warehouses and trucks. While these costs are too large for most local farmers, the Local Food Hub combines the distribution of over 70 local farms’ fresh food in order to provide a link to more than 150 locations. According to the US Department of Agriculture, “It’s clear that Local Food Hub is doing more than just aggregation and distribution. In less than two years it’s emerged as a model for fostering long-term sustainable development and community engagement through agriculture.”[32]

Consumer SupportEdit

The success of Local Food Hub would not have been possible without the support of Charlottesville’s residents. When the non-profit first started in 2009, it needed to purchase refrigerated warehouse space and trucks. Turning to the residents of Charlottesville, Local Food Hub found its funding through donations.[33] This was not only an important funding milestone for Local Food Hub, but also an indication that there was significant demand for increased access to local food from the residents of Charlottesville. Even the best-designed systems cannot gain social momentum unless there is community support. One way the Charlottesville local food advocates were able to gain community support was through access to information. Buy Fresh Buy Local is a non-profit that sends out semi-annual newsletters to 67,000 Charlottesville area residents promoting local food.[34] The newsletters contain propaganda about the benefits of buying local, advertisements for different local farms, and information on where to buy different types of local food. These newsletters, festivals that promote local artisans and farmers, and the City Market all helped the local food advocates gain community support.[35]

Wrap UpEdit

Buy Fresh Buy Local was the first organized group to solely support the cause of buying local food in the Charlottesville area.[36] They garnered community support through information propagation in their semi-annual newsletters. This dissemination of information allowed for Local Food Hub to create a community supported distribution system with a mission to broaden consumer access to local food. They had to create a new role in which they combined the resources of over 70 farms in the Charlottesville area. Through this new role, Local Food Hub was able to shift the distribution power in favor of the local farms. This mission would not have been possible without innovative farmers’ abilities to use technology in ways that allow for a diverse range of produce that satisfy consumer taste.


Displeased with major changes in the food industry, small food movements combined to form the larger local food movement. Similar dissatisfactions have led to other social movements, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Fair-trade movement, and the emergence of Lou's List at the University of Virginia. Lou's list arose in 2006 as a result of dissatisfaction with ISIS, the old online information system at UVa. Because of frustrations with SIS (ISIS's replacement), students and professors found a new way to plan their schedules. Social causes arise as a result of common desires and dissatisfaction. They become movements when they create a mission, new technologies, new roles, and a means of propagating information.


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