Definitions of ‘local’

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(Host) Last year the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont found that 95 percent of Vermonters purchase local foods and many customers considered a local label as important as price in deciding what to buy. With many farmer’s markets open for Thanksgiving business, commentator Helen Labun Jordan is thinking about how we define “local.”

(Jordan) My wedding was not big on themes. Niceties like matching bridesmaids’ dresses seemed too restrictive. The color scheme was “red, orange, yellow, or anything else cheerful.” The groomsmen all wore whatever suit they owned or could borrow. However, one constant theme was local foods. It made sense: it was August, we faced an abundance of fresh ingredients and featuring them helped us create a unique event that was closely connected to the community where it occurred.

Everyone wholeheartedly supported this idea… but, as with any other guidelines, the rules of buying local eventually came under question. The debate began over our black raspberry ice cream, which came from New Hampshire, not Vermont.

“Isn’t New Hampshire local?” I asked. The New Hampshire border was a short walk from our front porch. Why didn’t the critics question our cider that came from a Middlebury plant two hours’ drive away? The answer is, of course, that it depends on your perspective.

I’ve heard local foods defined as being able to know, by sight, the farm where each product comes from. I like that definition because it encompasses the idea of commerce with your neighbor and also minimizing the distance your food travels, both of which I think are more important than the politics of the state. Besides, it makes intuitive sense that homemade ice cream at a stand three miles from my house is a local product.

But while I favor the familiarity-based definition of local, I’m also glad that Vermont is developing its own state-based certifications. My husband’s family, for instance, was enthusiastic about seeking out foods for our menu, but they live in the Boston area and could not follow the known by sight criteria. The Vermont seals of quality, Vermont made labels, Vermont Fresh Network restaurants, and other guarantees of Vermont origins have an important role to play for visitors or newcomers, even if the geography doesn’t always work out exactly right.

Serious discussion of the ways we each define local is an important part of understanding how we participate in the food system. For me, that participation is shaped by a desire to seek out quality in my own backyard, to build a personal store of knowledge that lets me introduce 100 wedding guests to the best of everything that my hometown and its region have to offer. Given that definition, ice cream from New Hampshire does count.

I don’t think that today’s debate about the meaning of local will result in a set of universal guidelines. Rather, I think that it signals the first step toward giving local attributes equal weight to all the other unspoken criteria that we already apply to our purchases, such as price, brand and quality. When that happens, local foods won’t be a party theme anymore, like red bridesmaid dresses or sunflower decorations. Instead, they will be a natural part of our daily lives.

This is Helen Labun Jordan from East Montpelier.

Helen Labun Jordan is a graduate student in community development and applied economics at the University of Vermont.

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