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Local Lay’s: When Local Goes Loco

Locavores are up in arms over Frito-Lay's new campaign, but is eating local really the only solution for sustainable global food...

Locavores are up in arms over Frito-Lay's new campaign, but is eating local really the only solution for sustainable global food production?

On the morning of May 12, the New York Stock Exchange's opening bell rang with seven men clapping and smiling. The men weren't wearing ties and don't resemble ordinary traders on the market's floor. After all, they spend their days running potato farms in Bakersfield, California; Hastings, Florida; and Mars Hill, Maine.The farmers had traveled to Wall Street for Frito-Lay's announcement that the company (a division of PepsiCo) would begin marketing Lay's potato chips ("America's favorite potato chip") as "local." The company launched an online Chip Tracker allowing consumers to learn where their chips originated and has begun airing new ads featuring 80 "local" potato farmers.The opening bell was also an alarm call for local food activists. "This mission creep has the original locavores choking on their yerba mate," The New York Times' Kim Severson wrote. And choke they did. "This food doesn't come from Mars. But to think that Frito-Lay as a local potato chip is really a stretch," Michael Pollan told Democracy Now! The Ethicurean blog summed up the news by saying: "‘Local' jumps the shark."Tom Philpott at Grist and La Vida Locavore's Jill Richardson said, "Let me say this very clearly: Locavores don't eat Lays."The term "locavore," which was coined in 2005 to describe food within a 100-mile radius of San Francisco, is open to interpretation. Unlike the organic label, which has required farmers making more than $5,000 annually to undergo inspection and certification, "local" food has no federal definition. And unlike labeling for Idaho potatoes, which is protected by trade agreements, anyone can legally market a potato as "local." And for years, everyone from Whole Foods Market to chefs at high-end restaurants have called their offerings "local" with no record of the product's origin and no legal recourse.Frito-Lay's move appears to be yet another attempt to cash in on the trend towards local eating. Local is just the latest in a long line of terms marketing professionals have successfully co-opted from social movements-from natural and sustainable to low fat and organic. Even breakfast cereals, now sugar-saturated meals with extravagant health claims, were once the cause of food reformers, like John Harvey Kellogg, who sought to save 19th century Americans from lust and moral decay by developing corn flakes as an alternative to pork.

Two attendees at the annual Maine Potato Blossom in Fort Fairfield watch a Frito-Lay parade float. While hardcore locavore activists dismissed Lay's localwashing, a high-profile campaign for local foods (even if those potato chips aren't really local) might get some couch potatoes to think about the impact of their food choices. Knowing that chips come from potatoes and that farmers grow potatoes underground-just thinking about the origins of food-might be a small step in the right direction.But empty calories are still empty–no matter where they're from. Frito-Lay doesn't really address how its potatoes are grown or how its chips are made. The Chip Tracker provides an illusion of transparency; knowing the origins of a certain bag of chips doesn't translate directly into knowing its food miles. For example, Frito-Lay potatoes from Aroostook County, Maine, a large potato growing region, are shipped to Connecticut for processing and then shipped back, about a thousand miles, in air-tight bags-something that doesn't show up on Chip Tracker. Frito-Lay also doesn't say where its fry oil comes from, what kinds of patents it holds on its potato plants, who sorts and packs the potatoes, or what kind of petroleum goes into growing the food. It merely uses the word local to sell its chips.Food bloggers might be right that Lay's is corrupting the local food movement. But eating local isn't necessarily our panacea anyway. As Paul Roberts, who wrote a piece in Mother Jones ("Organic and Local is so 2008"), argues, affordable, international food security might require long-distance transportation, and the concept of food miles is only one component in determining a food's resource footprint. "[R]e-creating a nation of small farmers might have appeal, particularly in the current labor market, but making it happen-that is, reversing the century-long shift away from farm labor-presents serious policy hurdles."One thing is clear though: The conversation about affordable, environmentally responsible diets needs to get away from just simplistic prescriptions about eating local foods. Should the sustainable food movement seek to retain its potential to change the world, we need a deeper examination of the complex origins of food. While calling potatoes local isn't the worst example of a corporate brand co-opting a food trend, Frito-Lay's bell-ringing certainly sounds a little hollow-more like a marketing gimmick than a chance to do the right thing. If the company were to reveal its actual farm and labor practices, that would be no small potatoes.

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