Research Papers

Eat Your Words, Locavores

Edible Communities (New York Times)

A New Yorker who collects seawater from the beaches of Manhattan and boils down two cups of homemade  salt, a Chicagoan with an attic full of roots and spuds, and a bestselling author’s experiments in poultry raising—these vignettes are not a disparate collection of oddities across America. Rather, these vignettes all paint the portraits of consumers of an increasingly popular, much hyped food trend; these are locavore. Since its christening in 2004 and honorific as Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2007, the term “locavore” and its movement (local foods) have permeated mass media, making appearances in TIME Magazine, The New York Times, and The Chicago Tribune as well as countless regional and metro outlets. But the locavore is more than a buzz word or passing internet fad; the locavore has become a demographic, fueling a holding group of more than 70 magazines bearing the moniker Edible. This network, while highlighting gourmand options, deviates from traditional food and wine publications by extending beyond restaurant reviews and recipe suggestions. Though a relatively new addition to the Edible Communities, Edible Chicago, created in the fall of 2007, echoes the aims of its parent group: to promote the region’s local food shed and to provide a direct connection to local producers. Ultimately, while the magazines advocate for a different food system, each branch-off, echoing its movement, is tailored specifically to its region and play different roles in its food communities.  Edible Chicago is particularly interested in local agriculture and local markets, emphasizing the value of production sovereignty. The highest ambition of Edible, an ambition shared by the Chicago iteration, is “the renaissance of food and agriculture,” a revolution that will at once create sustainable food communities and reduce a food gap.[1] However, because Edible so aptly reflects the nexus of the local food movement as one honed in on production and consumption, it similarly contains the movement’s weaknesses of boasting of wide influence when in reality it exists as niche.  While Edible aptly bridges a gap between local producers and the magazine’s target audience, its impact as a revolutionizing force remains to be seen.

 

A Slice of the Locavore Life

Edible Chicago past covers (Edible Chicago)

In July of 2008, the first issue of Edible Chicago landed on sidewalks and magazine racks of Loop businesses, with an editors’ note promising “the stories of people who live in our region who are planting, growing, and creating the incredible food options that we have available to us locally.”[2] With about half of the magazine’s content focusing on local farmers and specialty food artisans, Edible Chicago at the onset of publication established its primary goal of advertising producers. Moreover, Edible Chicago editor-in-chief and founder Ann Flood expressed a desire to create a subset of gourmands she nicknames “farmies,” who are fully aware of where their food comes from and how it is produced.[3] This two-pronged mission statement aims to enhance understanding and appreciation of regional food production, informing the would-be “farmie” demographic while publicizing local producers. This suggests a dynamic, teleological type of passive local food advocacy, intent in educating and transforming a demographic to a certain end—in this case, patronage of local food structures. Meanwhile, three recipes, a photo essay, and a feature on ethnic markets present a case for the implementation of the local food system into readers’ lives. Since 2008, Edible Chicago has increased page count, diversified coverage form, and focused more on seasonal variation but nonetheless maintains the emphasis on local agriculture and reader lifestyle.   Flood stated that Edible Chicago’s most signification contribution to the local food system is in its capability to spread awareness, influence consumers, and increase local food systems viability and local economic stability. And this simple awareness and appreciation of local foods has tremendous impact, “by helping a farmer stay in business, it’s saving precious land, and it’s bringing people together through a common practice.”[4]   The advantages of a local food system, implicit in Edible’s content and explicit in its mission are multifaceted.

Categorical meanings of local food (Bruroni)

Local food, by definition, is associated with the very quantifiable measure of distance. In an increasingly globalized and vast food network, locavores confine themselves within a certain mileage, the strictness of which varies individually, with some exclusively adhering to the 100 Mile Diet and some allowing a limited quantity of exotic, “luxury” items.[5] The impetus for limiting cuisine to locality is one of sustainability, environmental and economic. Edible Chicago readers and their national counterparts seek to reduce their carbon footprint, “preserve fossil fuels”, abstain from contributing to global warming, and “create a healthier planet.”[6],[7] The rationale is simple: shipping food over long distances unnecessarily, unsustainably requires more fuel for transportation. This environmental appeal, generally more associated with the organic market, is coupled with claims of supporting local economies. It is the latter incentive that is absent from purchasing organic foods, which may be grown sans environmental damage and have claims to consumer health but may hail from distant corners of the world and have little benefit for the food system or its producers.[8] Local foods, however, are believed by consumers to “support local farmers and the local economy,” which have been in decline since the modern proliferation of agribusiness and agricultural mechanization.[9]  Flood says that the goal of Edible Chicago has been from the onset “to preserve and celebrate the family farm,” an artifact that may alleviate global food insecurity as well as invigorate local economies.[10]  In this sense, Edible is a tool of food sovereignty that advocates local production for local consumption, local control over local resources, and stronger local economic bases.

Local food word association map (Roininen, Arvola, Lahteenamki)

Beyond miles and money, the nexus of local food and food sovereignty is an emphasis on reestablishing regional relationships; Edible, in particular, cultivates connectivity and communication in a community-based food ethic. The magazine seeks to “represent the intimate, the personal, the authentic side of food consumption” in effort to bridge “a disconnect between consumers and locally owned and operated farms.”[11] As a result of globalization, the alienation between producers and consumers have created fragmented communities and reduced the social significance of food.[12] There is a romantic, nostalgia quality in swapping recipes with the eggplant vendor at a farmer’s market or acknowledging that the apple grower is a neighbor. Moreover, the symbiotic bond established between the farmer and his patrons is rooted in trust, transparency, and a certain human quality. [13],[14] These symbolic values of community originate from awareness, a consumer demand that Edible fulfills and hones: “everyone is paying attention to where food comes from.”[15] Edible contributes to the production of local knowledge, a staple to food sovereignty that allows for the intensification of agricultural information flow.[16] Features about an urban vertical farm or three generations of cheese makers in the north suburbs (both stories are in Edible Chicago’s Spring 2012 issue) provide “direct links between consumers and producers lead to a better understanding of the consumer perspective” and, in turn, consumers are empowered with a personal connection to their food.[17] Flood says that Edible’s way of tracing the food system recognizes “consumer-purchasing shifts” and inspires action through informing of readers of “realistic opportunities to become more empowered about their food choices.”

 

Edible Communities, Exclusive Communities

Edible Chicago is technically available to all in the shop fronts or for a $28 annual delivered subscription. Possible pick-up locations are limited to the Loop (17 sites), Chicago-North (24 site), Chicago’s west suburbs (17 sites), Chicago’s north suburbs (8 sites), and Chicago’s south suburbs (2 sites). Noticeably missing are Chicago’s Southside and Westside, where gentrified neighborhoods experience the highest levels of food insecurity and poverty.[18] Incidentally, Flood ask readers to “please make every effort to shop and support our advertisers,” which comprise 16 of 68 total sites, because “thanks to their continued support, they help bring Edible to Metro Chicago.”[19] Similarly, readership surveys pinpoint Edible’s very particular demographic, with the average reader as a 34-year-old college graduate whose household income is $115,000. Edible readers “regularly drink beer, wine and spirits; go out to dinner at least once per week; [and] visit and purchase food from farm stands and artisanal producers.”[20] This readership of “foodies” acknowledges Flood, is “definitely a niche, target market” rather than one with a mass consumer appeal. Edible, in this sense, is an exclusive community of those with purchasing power and access to information, two elements not held by the food insecure and, if taken for granted, may “shift local food away from deeper concerns of equity and citizenship.”[21] Moreover, the magazine’s emphasis on consumer choice and power has an underlying rationale that seems to suggest an increase in locavore numbers is enough to actualize the revolution it seeks.

Figure 4: Food insecurity and Edible Chicago target locations (Feeding America)

Edible’s demographic and locations reflect a salient concern with the local food movement as one belonging to the privileged, educated, and wealthy.  “The role of information is apparent” in consumption patterns: “in lower-income communities, lower education levels make households easy targets for fast food messages, images, and hidden persuaders.”[22] On the flip side, low-income shoppers recognize, to some extent, the benefits of local foods to health and environment but are excluded from the market.[23]  Because Edible is a niche market that targets farmies with the resources available to afford local food and who seek local food, its exclusivity makes it unlikely to realize Flood’s hopes to “mend the broken system” and seems to limit it as a publication “for foodies, by foodies, insider and knowing.” [24]

Edible’s focus on purchasing choice is also noteworthy and suggests that changing the food system is a matter of production and consumption. In the magazine’s rationale, locavores and farmies are ontologically consumers whose altered personal behaviors, through awareness, are enough to challenge inequity and existing power structures. This reliance on the individual “feeds liberating rhetoric while starving social or political activism” and can “accommodate lazy locavores,” who can “vote with dollars.”[25] Consumptive power, however, is not enough to build a regenerative food system.

 

Hungry for More

Flood points out that Edible Chicago is a growing publication. Since its inception, its content has expanded to include other elements of food sovereignty and encourages readers to not only buy, but grow and make.  Moreover, the next stage of evolution for Edible is one of more direct advocacy that will include more articles about food policy and how readers can take action in their own communities. “Our hope is to get the publication in the hands of decision makers and politicians involved in Illinois food policy action and administration,” Flood said. Of course, the importance of consumer choice and consumer awareness cannot be undermined. Edible is a tool of connection, the locavore a pioneer, and the local food movement a potential force of social change.

–Linda Qiu


[1] Ryder, Tracey, and Carole Topalian. Edible: A Celebration of Local Foods. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010. Print: X

[2] Editor’s Note. “Food for Thought.” Edible Chicago Summer 2008: 2. Web.

[3] Flood, Ann. E-mail interview. 22 May 2012.

[4] Flood

[5] Burros, Marian. The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Aug. 2007. Web. 25 May 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/29/dining/29maga.html?ei=5124>.

[6] Flood

[7] Burros (2007)

[8] Cloud, John. “Time.” Time. Time, 02 Mar. 2007. Web. 25 May 2012. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0%2C9171%2C1595245-5%2C00.html>.

[9] Roininen, Katariina, Anne Arvola, and Liisa Lahteenmaki. “Exploring Consumers’ Perceptions of Local Food with Two Different Qualitative Techniques: Laddering and Word Association.” Food Quality and Preference 15.1-2 (2006). Web. 25 May 2012: 28

[10] Feenestra, Gail. “Local Food Systems and Sustainable Communities.” American Journal of Alternative Agriculture 12 (1997). Web. 25 May 2012: 28

[11] Flood

[12] McDonald, Bryan. Food Security. Cambridge: Polity, 2010. Print: 47

[13] Winne, Mark. Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Boston: Beacon, 2009. Print: 130

[14] Brunori, Gianluca. “Local Food and Alternative Food Networks: A Communication Perspective.” Anthropolgy of Food 2nd ser. (2007). Print.: 53

[15] Burros (2007)

[16] Schanbacher, William D. The Politics of Food: The Global Conflict between Food Security and Food Sovereignty. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International, 2010.

[17] Brunori (2007): 47

[18] “Research and Studies.” Hunger in Chicago. Web. 07 June 2012. <http://www.chicagosfoodbank.org/site/PageServer?pagename=hunger_research>.

[19] “Edible Chicago Magazine – Local Food Magazine of Chicago.” Edible Chicago Magazine – Local Food Magazine of Chicago. Web. 07 June 2012. <http://www.ediblecommunities.com/chicago/>.

[20] Flood

[21] DeLind, Laura. “Are Local Food and the Local Food Movement Taking Us Where We Want to Go?” Springer Science+Business (2010). Web. 25 May 2012: 273

[22] Winne (2009): 114

[23] Winne (2009): 134

[24] Borelli, Christopher. “The Stew: Chicago to Get an Edible Endeavor.” The Chicago Tribune. 16 Jan. 2008. Web. 25 May 2012. <http://leisureblogs.chicagotribune.com/thestew/2008/01/chicago-to-get.html>.

[25] DeLind(2010): 275