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Why buying local matters

Going to the source

Sound Consumer | June 2008

by Viki Sonntag, Ph.D.

(June 2008) — If all of us committed to buying more locally grown food, how much of a difference do you think it would make? For sure, local farmers would be happy. But it doesn’t end there. Local communities also stand to gain in a big way.

Consider that locally directed spending by consumers in our region more than doubles the number of dollars circulating among local businesses.

This means that a shift of 20 percent of our collective food dollars into local purchases would result in nearly a half-billion dollar increase in annual income for King County alone — and twice that in Central Puget Sound (King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties).

This finding is among the most compelling of a two-year study by Sustainable Seattle, “Why Local Linkages Matter: Findings from the Local Food Economy Study.”

Perhaps more significant — from an economist’s point of view — is the finding that economic sustainability depends on a web of relationships, rooted in place, which makes up the local food economy. What’s more, this web of relationships supports the community’s stewardship of its resources for greater social and environmental sustainability.

Our study’s goal was to understand the source of these benefits: What it is that’s qualitatively different about the local food economy compared to business as usual.

What’s local?
We began by researching the dollar flows and economic linkages of food-related businesses in the Central Puget Sound region. But first we had to define what’s local. We quickly discovered that local has many different meanings.

For one household, local may reflect concern about how much oil is used in transporting food. For another household, local may translate into farm-fresh, organic food and a desire to keep farmland in agricultural production. For yet another, buying local is an expression of community loyalty, a way to keep shopping dollars from leaving the region. Among food producers, how to define local is a matter of good business sense and, ultimately, survival.

Take the dairy farmer in Skagit County who sells her farmstead cheese at farmers’ markets and to local, independent groceries. For her, Seattle is the nearest “local” market of any considerable size.

Or the restaurant on this side of the Cascade Mountains who sources grass-fed beef from “local” ranchers on the other side. Development pressures make raising grass-fed cattle on land in the Central Puget Sound cost prohibitive.

Or the baker who buys honey from Oregon because he can get the quality he wants in the quantity he needs. Pooling honey from a variety of local sources would make for loaves of uncertain quality.

Also, consider the small, independent distributor based in Seattle who buys olive oils from small, local producers in Italy. The distributor has strong ties with the producers through visiting them over the years.

All these accounts of what determines “local” are based on information obtained through interviews in our study. They illustrate why defining local is a somewhat contested issue. What’s local for a household is defined by various intentions. What’s local to a business often depends on what’s at stake economically in terms of sourcing or selling.

But among households and businesses concerned about food system sustainability, local also defines the potential for developing relationships that serve to restore the land and regenerate community.

Relationships and a sense of place
In fact, the businesses participating in our study said that relationships are the essence of what local means for them.

Such relationships, though based on economic transactions, are multi-dimensional. They encompass trust, friendship, shared values, resource sharing and more. They take time and effort. They are as much about what goes into relationships as what can be gotten out of them. They also require experience and knowledge of the needs particular to place.

A sense of place signifies shared values rising out of shared experience. For example, food marketing programs often are built around regional identity. Think Washington apples, Puget Sound Fresh, and Pacific salmon.

Place also refers to the value we hold for our natural environment. In the case of food, place directly concerns farmland but place also is the sense of belonging within an ecosystem. This sense of place is important in cultivating responsibility for caring for the environment in beneficial ways.

Finally, place involves shared ways of living. With food, place can be contentious. The rural-urban divide that exists in Central Puget Sound (as well as many other places) can create some strong differences of thought but there also are common interests. Buying local food, however, can help bridge the divide.

Regarding sustainability, the significance of place is this: Community-based businesses may share practices in common with socially responsible and environmentally conscious companies — those commonly referred to as “sustainable businesses” — but the two are not necessarily the same.

The likelihood that a national grocery chain includes the community in its decision-making is fairly slim, however “green” its reputation.

More about: food systems, local food, organic food

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