Food Miles Book Club: Social Benefits and the Food Community

Today we’re discussing the social benefits of local food. If you’re new to Food Miles book club, here’s a list of the past posts: Introductory post
Self Reliance chapter
Transportation and Energy chapters
Economic chapter

(Full report available here)

Questions for discussion:

What are some of the reasons you buy local food?
Do you have local food story?
Who’s your farmer?

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Social Benefits and the Food Community

Buying locally-produced food, especially in a way that provides a fair price to producers, generates social benefits in this province. These social benefits include nutritious food, entrepreneurial energy, work ethic, mentorship, mutual reliance, relationship-based economic activity, and maintenance of farming communities. Buying imported food generates none of these benefits.

One could argue that imported food provides a greater variety of products for less money than it would cost to grow or raise them here. The economies of scale from large agri-business in the global food system bring us unlimited supply supposedly at the cheapest price possible. But we need to distinguish between ‘price’ and ‘value’. Does importing most of our food bring us better food value than what our own farms can provide? Does the price we pay for imported food somehow compensate us for all the social costs associated with displacing our family farms? Is the money we spend giving us vital and nutritious food, or is it going into advertising, corporate profits, transport, packaging, and preservatives? In a scenario where most of our food is produced in this region, we could still import some of our food. But we would discover the variety of foods we can grow here while at the same time supporting our farmers. The social benefits of a local food system could be the most important reason for buying locally-produced food.

Social benefits and costs are the most difficult to measure and put a value on. That is why they remain hidden. We don’t notice social losses until they are gone and it is too late. We are often not aware of all the ways our spending habits affect people and community life. In cases when we are aware, we make much better, but seemingly ‘irrational’ decisions. We buy apples from the guy we know is the main organizer of the community fair because of his involvement and because they are great apples. It doesn’t matter that his 10 lb bags cost a little more. We go to the farmers’ market instead of the grocery store because we like the vendors and get gardening advice from them. Some people go to a particular u-pick because their parents and grandparents took them there as children. In cases where is a positive connection, price becomes less of an issue.

Knowing the social circumstances surrounding a product can affect our food-buying decisions, which in turn affect the social circumstances. But in many cases we don’t know those circumstances. In fact, for the global food system to work effectively, it is important that we know as little as possible. It is difficult enough to go into a grocery store and figure out where products are from, let alone who is producing them and how. As the gap between consumers and producers widens, and our ignorance of food production grows, we will make poorer decisions with our food dollars, causing our communities to suffer.

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