Can You Shop Your Way Out of a Broken Food System?

The last few years have marked an unprecedented level of consolidation in the US agriculture industry, largely permitted by regulators. A dwindling number of firms are controlling the bulk of the market, and the products arrayed on the shelves at the center of the grocery store are often produced by the same companies, even if they have different labels. This creates an illusion of choice for consumers; they may look at two soymilk brands and think that they are in competition with each other, when that is not in fact the case. The soymilk options are both produced by the same company, just like the meat they’re buying was probably packed by one of the four firms that control 80% of the US meatpacking industry.

Conscientious purchases at the grocery store are growing ever more difficult, thanks to consolidation and the domination of the food market. Consumers trying to make good choices have to keep up with an ever-evolving list of suppliers, firms, and companies that collapse and shrink into each other. If they want to avoid a specific firm; say, Heinz Celestial, they practically need a Wall Street Journal subscription to keep up with all the company’s purchases, mergers, and spin-offs.

Which begs the question: is it possible to buy out of a broken food system? There’s a lot of debate and advocacy surrounding this very question, and legitimately so, because it should be asked. As people are asked to ‘shop smarter,’ it’s getting increasingly hard to do so, and some of the expectations being placed on consumers are rather high. I couldn’t casually list every single brand owned or controlled by Nestle, for example, and just the other day I found myself buying something that I later found out was actually a Nestle product. Being an ethical consumer is hard work.

And I’m not entirely convinced that the solution to our deeply broken food system actually lies in the grocery store. I think, as does Wenonah Hauter, author of Foodopoly, that the solution lies closer to home. It lies with building and supporting an infrastructure that promotes a locally-based food system, and creating a world in which that system is sustainable for everyone, not just those with the money and time to pay into it. I’m thinking of participating in local systems as they stand now in a lot of communities as a lot like early investment; pioneering entrepreneurs with the ability to do so are laying the groundwork so that others can eventually benefit.

Local foodsheds come up a lot in talks about locavorism and ethical eating, and so much of the conversation that surrounds them is also elitist. It presumes a certain amount of food literacy, like the knowledge of what to do with ingredients that may not be familiar to people who are used to different things being available, and it also assumes some financial clout, because eating locally tends to be more costly, especially with certain foods. This is because small local farms don’t benefit from subsidies and bulk volume sales, and while they try to control costs, they need to think about operating expenses and making farming sustainable for them.

There’s also the time issue; you need time to go to the farmers’ market, to drive out to farms that don’t participate in markets or offer special deals to people who visit their premises, to pick up milk and other goods from distribution centers. It requires a different approach to shopping, one that involves much more of a time investment to make the rounds; grocery stores are designed with one-stop convenience in mind, and it’s one reason they’re so popular, and why big agriculture grew by leaps and bounds when the grocery store model got big. Some people are reluctant to give up that model, and others don’t have the time and energy to dedicate to hunting for food.

We won’t even get into wildcrafting. I love tromping around in the woods and other places, picking things I can eat. I have the benefit of a highly flexible schedule, friends who love to do that with me, and access to knowledge about what is safe to eat and how to prepare it. Other people do not, and wouldn’t think to make wildcrafting a legitimate part of their diets. Yet this, too, is a component of local food systems, a reminder of the fact that the bounty of the land is there for anyone who wants to pick it.

I’ve railed for years against elitism in the food movement, and that includes the elitism in the local food movement, which often seems to take almost a form of glee in telling people they’re worthless for not eating locally or not being able to. This is a framework where the consumer, rather than the system, is punished. We should not be asking why people go to the grocery store when the answer is right in front of us. We should instead be asking how we can make alternatives to the grocery store sustainable.

How can we grow a farmers’ market to the point where it will contain most of the goods people want and happen several days a week to make it more accessible? How do we support local farming so that locally-grown food isn’t prohibitively expensive for people with economic concerns? How do we perform outreach and education to teach people how to cook and use the things produced in their own communities? It’s not impossible to eat primarily locally or even totally so, and it’s even possible to do so in cost-effective ways if you have the right networks and connections, but it does take work.

Those who are performing that work and bringing other people into the system are doing something important by promoting the growth of a local food system, which is fantastic. But they should remember that not everyone has the advantages they do, and part of their work should be finding a way to change that. Because a local foodshed shouldn’t be elitist: it should be a vibrant and viable alternative market.