Appropriateness in Our Local Food Systems

Appropriateness in Our Local Food Systems

An Interview with Rich Pirog

Rich Pirog joined the newly created Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University as senior associate director in May 2011. His current work includes developing a statewide food hub learning and innovation network and providing oversight to new Center work groups that include Center and MSU faculty and staff. Pirog's research and collaborations on local foods, food networks and communities of practice, food value chains, and ecolabels has been publicized in magazines and media outlets across the globe, used by local food practitioners, and are often cited in books and college courses.
Food miles, relationships, regional boundaries — these are some of the things that define the conversation about what a “local” food system is. Rich Pirog considers how appropriateness to the region and culture is crucial when deciding the boundaries of building local food systems and economies.

Douglas Gayeton: People seem to understand the principle of “local”. How would you explain what a “regional food system” is?

Rich Pirog: A lot of the confusion around local and regional is caused by the notion that it has to be a certain distance, or it has to be based on some kind of geographic boundary like a state, a county or a city. There isn't a set definition for “regional food systems”, just like there isn’t a set definition for “local”. The definition for local, in the last farm bill, had a mileage figure: anything that was within 400 miles. But that doesn’t mean there is a fixed definition that everybody has adopted. Using the term “regional” instead of “local” when describing food systems comes into play when people are starting to look at areas that have some kind of distinctive, ecological, environmental, or cultural characteristics.

Douglas Gayeton: What are the necessary ingredients needed for a healthy and vital local or regional food system?

Rich Pirog: Economics, environment and community are the three legs of the stool of sustainable agriculture. When one of those is missing, the stool is unstable. When you don’t have all of those capitals working within a region, it erodes the other capitals and you tend to not have the collective wealth needed for a society to thrive.

Metaphorically speaking, you wouldn’t want to plant local food businesses in an infertile seedbed. You’d want to have a very rich seedbed that had high soil quality, access to nutrients and water, and was tended to well. It is difficult if we don’t have the environment or the cultural, financial, political or other capitals to support policies that would allow producers, consumers and processors to support local and regional food.

Douglas Gayeton: I was talking to Michael Sligh from RAFI about local food systems and scale and he said, “It’s not about being small. It’s about being appropriate.” Do you agree with the idea of appropriateness?

Rich Pirog: Appropriateness really resounds with me. When I visited researchers in France studying local food, they were fascinated that we would even consider distance to be part of the equation because they said it really was about relationships. These researchers were studying what they would call “short supply chains” and it was really about the number of intermediaries in the chain and how well the story of the farmer was understood by the buyer. Local was referenced as relationship, not as a distance.

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