I’ve just added a new book to my reading list: Labor and the Locavore, by Margaret Gray. (Wait! I just checked my to-read book list and sure enough it’s already on there, right before The Meat Racket and right after Lethal But Legal. I’d better get cracking.) I was lucky enough to be at Lafayette College for a work meeting today, where the author also happened to be giving a lecture on her book. One amazing takeaway from Dr. Gray’s talk was that she verbalized a complaint I’ve long held about how the local food movement is often implemented. She spoke about the “local trap,” or the idea that local food is inherently good and wholesome. In her case, she’s pointing out that even with so-called local food, however that may technically be defined, there can still be unethical and otherwise problematic labor challenges. (My point of contention with that vague definition is that it’s been co-opted by certain large corporations to make their existing practices look virtuous… but that’s another story for another time.)
It’s true that the labor piece of the local food movement doesn’t get much attention, if any. Whenever I talk about the season I spent working on a small, family farm in rural Virginia, I say that #1, I now understand why they call it stoop labor, and #2, if nothing else I will never take for granted again the amount of effort it takes to get food from the field (or from the seed packet to the potting soil to the incubation room to the greenhouse to the hoophouse to the transplanter, but who’s really counting 😉 ) to someone’s shopping bag.
The Q&A session after the talk turned into a wonderfully robust and reflective dialogue amongst those of us who were able to stick around. In particular I was struck by these comments from two other attendees:
The amount of labor in our food system is incredible. Every single apple you eat, for example, is handpicked. If you’re not going to work on a farm yourself or grow your own food, at the very least make sure you acknowledge your privilege simply by looking at your plate with gratitude.
When we think of this as a consumer based problem, we’re in a sense letting society off the hook. As Americans we’re so focused on the power and responsibility of the individual, but this is a systemic problem. We can be educated buyers, but we also need policy change.