The local food movement has become increasingly popular in the United States over the past thirty years. In 1980, when the first Whole Foods Market opened, there were under a dozen “natural” grocery stores in the United States; there are now over 250 locations of that chain alone.[i] This, along with many other grocery chains, caters to a market seeking natural, organic and local food. These stores model themselves after farmers’ markets, feeling that this is a good model for sustainability since most of their sources use organic methods of growing. By some standards, “locavors,” as participants in this movement are affectionately know, may be seen as a technological digression; however, this way of life is beneficial to many areas of a society. The local food movement lends itself well to a structural functionalist social model because it was a means to accommodate the social and political environment of the 1970s in America. A cultural ecologist may also interpret “localvorism” as a way to re-assimilate into environmentally friendly practices.
Structural functionalism attempts to explain how society keeps its balance during periods of change and unrest. Through this lens, the local food movement can be seen as a fundamental part of the sustainability movement that emerged in the 1970s, when humanity started to realize the negative impact that it has on the environment. The negative effects of using pesticides and growth hormones were fairly self-evident; however, shipping foods across continents has its harmful effects too. Air pollution (caused by gases emitted by the vehicles used to transport of foods) and the ecological effects of monoculture on an area are major environmental concerns as they contribute to global warming and soil degradation. In and of themselves, sustainability and environmental consciousness are supposed to benefit the society’s physical and emotional health, but eating locally also serves to stimulate the local economy and to educate local people on farming practices. Without local farms, people generally do not know how food is grown. Although this knowledge is not necessary for society to function, it helps people to gain a broad appreciation and to understand how other methods of farming may be potentially hazardous to the ecology of and area. “Locavorism” also helps us, as anthropologists, to see the social hierarchies existing today, which are primarily economically based. Locally grown foods cost more because they are often grown organically on family-owned farms; these methods have higher start-up costs and they are more susceptible to their environments (i.e. insect-destruction). Higher prices make local food a commodity that is not accessible to people of lower economic classes; therefore, eating locally is symbolic of high economic standing in America. Taking this into consideration, we see that the local food movement serves to accentuate and “preserve the social structure.”[ii]
Cultural ecology focuses on interpreting cultural practices as a means of adapting to the present environment. The local food movement is a response to the environmental problems that we caused through our careless or under-informed practices, particularly the ones involved in food production. Upon realizing their imminent demise if they continued in their ways, people began to try to live their lives differently in the hopes of salvaging the environment. Although many people see eating locally as a reversion to “a simpler time”, it is because people are now making a conscious effort to buy food this way, whereas they had no choice to do otherwise in the past.
[ii] Kottak, page 65