The concept of supporting local food systems is almost a given at this point for those of us who work in the food world. We either already understand or can easily grasp that buying locally-grown fruits, vegetables, and other food products as close to the source as possible helps put more dollars into local farmers’ hands. It’s a given that local food is fresher and often tastes better than food that has been shipped hundreds, or even thousands, of miles (if you can find out where your food comes from in the first place). It’s a given that food hubs and other local food-processing and distribution infrastructure facilities give local producers a way to streamline costs, add local jobs, and can contribute to a region’s food justice and food sovereignty. It’s a given that buying local food can be part of a larger strategy to help preserve farmland from development.
My work takes me around the continent, speaking at local food conferences, new economy events, green business workshops, and the like, where I have the privilege of interacting with some very advanced thinkers and doers in the world of local, sustainable agriculture. I teach about financing mechanisms that enable food entrepreneurs to access mission-aligned capital that will help them keep the values in their business, wherever they fall in the food value chain, from farm to fork and back again. I do this because I am passionate about supporting small food businesses, the backbone of our economy and so often, the keepers of what makes a specific place unique in an increasingly homogenized strip-mall landscape.
When I mention to people I meet during my travels that I’ve written a book on financing socially responsible food businesses, the first question I usually get is, “Can I buy your book on Amazon?”
The short answer is, “yes,” but I hope you’ll consider buying it from your local, independently-owned bookseller instead. Here’s why, through the lens of food.
Buying local food from Walmart does not have the same economic benefits – to your local farmers or local community as a whole – as buying local food from locally-owned retailers. Big food retailers pay fewer taxes than locally-owned businesses, hamstringing local government programs. Even if they do buy local produce, local goods represent a very small proportion of their offerings, and they recycle very little (if any) of their revenues buying other local goods or services. Plus, you have the problems associated with letting a huge, multinational company choose what products they will buy, from whom, and at what price.
It’s the same in the book publishing and selling world. Locally-owned, independent booksellers pay more taxes, circulate more money within their local communities, and are often cornerstone businesses in endangered downtown retail zones. Much like the seed-savers of the book world, they are the ones promoting “book biodiversity,” choosing to display and promote titles, authors, and publishers that might disappear in Amazon’s more controlled, monopolistic environment, made even more powerful by its recent acquisition of GoodReads.
What about the issue of price? Anyone who has helped promote local food knows that positioning on low cost is not as effective as setting local food apart by its taste, freshness, connection to community, and all its other benefits; often, local food is just going to be more expensive than food from afar. So in the food access conversation, aren’t Walmart’s low prices a good thing? Truth is, Walmart’s low prices come at a great cost to communities. Furthermore, low prices at big box stores are often offset by the costs of getting there, either in terms of gas money, or in terms of the time it takes to get there and back by public transportation, bicycle, or walking.
Just like with food, sometimes access to resources (books or otherwise) is limited by cost. Though I have worked out a few ways for you to access discounted copies, you’ll probably find the lowest retail price for my book on Amazon. (Full disclosure: Finance for Food, my nonprofit which receives all royalty payments from sales of my book, and Chelsea Green, its employee-owned publisher will benefit just as much when you buy my book from a huge online retailer as when you buy it from an independent bookseller.)
But consider the cost of losing your favorite local bookstore. How do you quantify the lost community fundraising events, the empty storefront, the missing opportunities to stumble across obscure books you hadn’t thought to search for online… never mind the tax revenues lost to sales made outside your city, county, state lines?
The American Booksellers Association has a program called IndieBound to promote independent booksellers, and I love how they see themselves as part of a whole that is much larger than books: “IndieBound is a socially-conscious movement in support of independent businesses and shopping locally, starting with indie bookstores. It’s about raising awareness, it’s about reaching out, and it’s about taking pride in your community. It’s about what makes your hometown a more interesting place.”
That we, as a food movement, do not often connect the Buy Local dots to other sectors of our economy troubles me (though I suppose it’s not all that surprising, given that the food movement itself has some challenges connecting the dots). The more we support Buy Local campaigns for all kinds of products and retailers, in addition to those in the food system, the more we amplify the work we do to create more self-reliant, resilient communities, period.
The people who are responding to appeals to, for instance, shop at local retail stores during the holidays are the same people who would understand the benefits of shopping at a local farmers market. Wouldn’t it make sense to join forces when it comes to communicating with the same audiences?
I don’t claim that I have all (or really, any) real, on-the-ground next steps figured out, and I am the first to admit that I am doing the best job that I could be at building partnerships, whether within or across sectors. But I do know which organization is “minding the movement” (to borrow Andy Fischer’s phrase) for all things local, and making these types of connections: the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, or BALLE.
BALLE sees local food as one of the building blocks of a vibrant, healthy, and just economy that provides prosperity for all. They connect leaders, spread solutions that work, and drive investment toward local economies. I am honored to be launching my book and giving a couple workshops at their upcoming national conference for business leaders, social entrepreneurs, network leaders, and local economy funders, policy makers, and localists of all stripes, taking place in Buffalo, NY, June 12-14 (register by April 22 to take advantage of early-bird pricing).
Whether or not you can join us, spend a moment or two thinking about the ways in which your food work is connected to other local efforts in other sectors, and how you might be stronger working together. And I hope that the next time you need to buy anything, be it food or anything else, you’ll buy local.