Suddenly everyone’s talking about local: “Local is the new organic,” we’re told.
Farmers’ markets are springing up in food co-operative and church parking lots and on Main Streets throughout the country. More people are joining CSAs (community supported agriculture) and choosing locally grown products in their grocery stores. And as this trend continues, more and more consumers are starting to ask hard questions about where their food comes from and how its grown, who is growing it and under what conditions, and equally important of course, who’s making the decisions that control our food choices and who’s making the profits from those purchases?
The “buy local” movement implies that people are acknowledging all the hard work that goes into producing high quality, healthy, flavorful products and they want to support their local farmers. They want to know the farmers, how the food was grown and be assured that it’s both healthy for them and safe for the planet. To me, it says that we as consumers are choosing to re-personalize the food system; that we want to be a part of a movement that supports community and the planet and that we are ever more ready to resist the trend for corporate control of our food system and our values.
But what happens when we want to purchase products which aren’t grown locally – such as coffee, tea, chocolate or bananas? How do we translate “buy local” values for imported products? When I think about this desire for good, healthy food; for connections to the growers; and for honest, transparent business practices where farmers, workers, and consumers are all treated with respect and fairness, it sounds just like what we’ve been talking about and working for at Equal Exchange ever since our co-operative business was founded over 20 years ago.
In fact, it’s exactly the reason Equal Exchange has chosen to partner exclusively with small-scale farmer co-operatives when we buy our coffee, tea, and chocolate products. It may be more difficult to go direct, to visit remote, isolated communities, to communicate long-distance by shaky fax and telephone lines that are often down, across language and cultural barriers and time zones, than it would be to purchase our products through a broker or a large plantation owner with all of modern technology at their disposal.
But we do so, because ironically, although our products come from rural communities in Latin America, Africa and Asia, we share the same interests, values, and principles as the “buy local” advocates. We see our farmer partners as local actors in their own co-operatives and in their own communities, working together to create positive change and to resist agricultural and trade policies that also threaten them. We want to know our partners and we want our consumers to know our partners.
It’s why we lead dozens of trips to source each year so that consumers can see firsthand who the farmers are, how their products are grown, and what the farmers’ dreams and challenges are. Of course, we also want the farmers to know where their products are ending up, who’s enjoying them and how, and to make the notion of foreign “consumers” more real and human to them – this is the food system we are co-creating and the larger community and network that we and our partners and allies are helping to foster.