Session 7.2: Locavore Places and Neoliberal Spatial Literacy

Darcy Mullen, University at Albany

          In this essay, I argue that the term “local” activates spatial thinking in locavore projects that encourages a neoliberal literacy of national space.[1] My larger research focuses on how the spatial rhetoric of food-related social movements is changing attitudes towards delineations of both state and national space in the United States. The foundational locavore texts that I examine within my larger project include Gary Paul Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon’s The 100-Mile Diet, and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In one case study, I focus on Nabhan’s text and illustrate a genealogy of neoliberal space within the other locavore texts. “Local” has become a marker of cartographic space that is at odds with what the word local purports to mean. This has significant and complex application, for example, in areas of public policy regarding local food security (LFS) and community food security (CFS).  If “local” continues to be used as technical terminology to stand in for what are functionally state-sized spaces, then discussions about LFS and CFS will result in policies that do not fit the needs and realities of how American foodsheds operate.

           My critical lens here is Michael Calvin McGee’s concept of the ideograph, which comes from his 1980 article “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology.” In summary, ideographs are words or phrases that are taken for the objective or concrete terms of given social positions or principles. “Local” is the first in a series of ideographs that engage spatial rhetorics within the locavore genre. McGee ends his essay without ever providing “a formal definition” of an ideograph (435); instead, he synthesizes the significant points throughout his essay as a whole. In place of such a definition, McGee list[s]

the following characteristics: An ideograph is an ordinary-language term found in political discourse. It is a high-order abstraction representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal. It warrants the use of power, excuses behavior and belief into channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable and laudable. (435)

Ideographs are words with which discourse communities engage in acts of rhetorical persuasion. Specifically, ideographs inadvertently state political philosophies and positions. Earlier in his essay, McGee explains that “the political language that manifests ideology seems characterized by slogans, a vocabulary of ‘ideographs’ easily mistaken for the technical terminology of political philosophy” (427). Ideographs inadvertently state political philosophies and positions. Ideographs are rhetorical tools that, according to McGee, masquerade as objective language for specific discourse communities, even when they are not at all neutral or objective language.

          The movement between diachronic (deep historical) and synchronic (immediate and specified) meanings is what ideology relies upon, and ideographs offer that rhetorical flexibility. Diachronic meaning within ideographs, McGee explains, results from a vertical structure while synchronic meaning within ideographs exists in a horizontal structure (427–34). Ideographs are the focus of a conflict or criticism when their diachronic and synchronic meanings are at odds. This is what McGee calls “structural dislocation”: a logical or contextual disconnect between diachronic and synchronic meanings (434). My working definition of an ideograph is a term that is both synchronic and diachronic in nature: a rhetorical tool for discourse communities, a sum term of an orientation, and the details of both a cultural grammar and rhetoric.  

          The first text credited with the founding of the locavore movement is Nabhan’s 2002 book Coming Home to Eat, in which the author outlines an experiment of a year of local eating in the American southwest. He begins his preface to the book with the sentence “This book is about a year of eating locally, a year that also happened to be a watershed in the history of global food politics.” Nabhan gives us the first definition of local for locavores as the following: “It is the story of finding kindred food-loving souls within a 250-mile radius of my home in Arizona, and sharing with them the pleasures of gardening and gathering, pit roasting and fermenting, feasting and frolicking” (Coming Home to Eat 13). Although mentioned rather casually, this “250-mile radius,” or “loop,” is critical to Nabhan’s project as well as to the larger genre of locavore writing (36).[2] Nabhan’s definition of “local” as a spatial construct of a 250-mile radius is the origin for my initial concerns regarding the spatial rhetoric here. The establishment of “local” as a cartographic measure points to something previously unattended in American food protest writing. I suggest that “local” is a reactionary ideograph to the phrase “of 1500 miles” (McWilliams 19), which has become the spatial gold standard for definition-through-opposition for locavores. As James McWilliams states in Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong, “If you’ve heard of food miles, you’ve heard the figure. Cited more often than any other number as the distance that our food travels from farm gate to dinner plate, ‘1500 miles’ now defines the issue” (19). Nabhan’s definition of local as a radius “within 250 miles of my home” (Coming Home to Eat 33) maps out a very specific place. A 250-mile radius is roughly equivalent to 196,250 square miles. For comparison, the third largest state—California—is 155,959 square miles, and this radius eclipses more area than the single state of Arizona, which comes in at 113,634 square miles (United States, Dept. of the Interior).    

         In addition to spanning the overwhelming majority of Arizona’s area, this defined zone encompasses significant parts of Mexico, California, Nevada, and New Mexico. For “local” to represent a 250-mile loop that both encapsulates state-sized spaces and traverses national borders while still describing what is felt or imagined to be a much smaller space is part of the difficulty with taking the word as technical terminology. The word local does not have the diachronic association of a space as large as a state. This produces the sense of structural dislocation that McGee explains as consequential for ideographs that straddle conflicting diachronic and synchronic meanings.

          In my larger project, I examine how ideographs like “local” work proverbially to create a sense of neoliberal space. By any of its names—Chicago School economics, neoliberalism, or neoconservativism—Milton Friedman laid out its agenda in his 1962 Capitalism and Freedom. Under neoliberalism, the main ideas are that governments (1) “must remove all rules and regulations standing in the way of the accumulation of profits,” (2) “should sell off any assets they own that corporations could be running at a profit,” and (3) “should dramatically cut back funding of social programs” (Klein 68–69). In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein explains neoliberalism as “a system that has let itself go—that no longer has to work to keep its customers, that can be as antisocial, antidemocratic and boorish as it wants” (319). In Spaces of Global Development: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, David Harvey writes that “the development of neo-liberalism must be regarded as a decentered and unstable evolutionary process characterized by uneven geographical developments and strong competitive pressures between a variety of dynamic centers of political-economic power” (41). In “Toward a Critical Agricultural Literacy,” Cori Brewster states, “Neoliberal initiatives in U.S. agriculture include, among other things, efforts to eliminate crop subsidies, life environmental regulations, privatize federal crop insurance programs, and promote free trade” (36). Under these conditions, the consumer is the producer of their diet and their dietary space.

         The locavore-as-consumer is also a cartographer and a policymaker, voting with forks and/or dollars. This manifests for locavores in the example of community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares. In The Locavore’s Dilemma, Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu suggest that CSAs ask consumers to “share the [economic] risk” with farmers, which they feel is unethical and predatory (51). Regardless of the moral implications, CSA programs are a neoliberal cultural form common within the locavore discourse community. Desrochers and Shimizu are highly critical of CSA programs, stating,

In our assessment, what CSA promoters are truly achieving by eliminating middlemen is to shift the risks inherent to food producers from growers and intermediaries onto consumers. As the agricultural policy analyst Gary Blumenthal observes, the real importance of the “small, local, and organic movement is that it has enabled some farmers to avoid the cost and risk of innovating by instead extracting greater income from consumers by utilizing psychological manipulation.” Attempts to rebuild social capital through such one-sided relationships are not worth supporting. (52)

Transferring “the risks inherent to food producers from growers and intermediaries onto consumers” and asking them to “share the risk” in the name of social capital is a neoliberal practice (51–52). Desrochers and Shimizu reference Gary Blumenthal, agricultural policy analyst, in his observation that locavore practices and ideas have contributed to the rise of CSAs (52). CSAs are problematic due to the neoliberal template that they operate within, and the practice of local eating further supports operating within these neoliberal market spaces.

In addition to providing the first fundamental rule for determining “local” space, Coming Home to Eat also sets a precedent for the inclusion of explicit end matter in locavore texts to help eaters/readers navigate the challenges of their contemporary rhetorical situation. Among the end matter, Nabhan includes a glossary of foods native to his local foodshed entitled “Cornucopia of Native Foods Eaten within the Sonoran Desert/Gulf of California Foodshed,” a bibliography for further reading, a poem entitled “A Terroir-ist’s Manifesto for Eating in Place,” and a list of contact information for “Sustainable Food Organizations” (Coming Home to Eat 305–20). A clear anomaly here is the inclusion of a poem, which is not standard in an index of pragmatic information and this aesthetic choice is not repeated in any other locavore texts.

Nabhan’s inclusion of a poem amongst the end matter makes a strong argument for poetry’s capacity to perform a pragmatic function that can be just as useful as the other resources in the text. The poem itself becomes an important resource by offering dietetical instructions (or rules for eating) to its locavore audience. Placing poetry on par with a list of where to get more information on eating sustainably emphasizes the importance of art in culture. In “A Terroir-ist’s Manifesto for Eating in Place,” Nabhan deploys ideographs that engage the dietetics in the poem. First and foremost, “terroir” (or the taste of a place) is ideographic, particularly in the titular play on words of “terroir-ist.” Terroir is a contested concept within food studies and is largely unused as a term outside of particular food discourse communities. To be a terroir-ist, then, is to operate within a discourse community that takes “terroir” as the sum term of a political orientation or philosophy—or perhaps, more simply, to be a locavore. Through the similarity in spelling to the word terror, the play on terroir-ist-as-terrorist or locavore-as-terrorist suggests that a terroir-ist is dangerous, politically subversive, or someone that actively harms dominant political structures. The positive connotation associated with the word locavore seems to soften the sense of terrorist that is conferred here, perhaps to the point of invoking the proverb “One government’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist.” That Nabhan labels this poem a “manifesto” (another ideograph) further implies that the poem itself is instructive for taking political action. The last ideograph in the poem’s title, “place,” points to potential relationships between food politics, the politics of terrorism, and border control within the spatial rhetoric valued by the poem’s dietetics.

The title “A Terroir-ist’s Manifesto for Eating in Place” further contains a juxtaposition of concrete-feeling words (“manifesto,” “eating,” and “place”) against the mobility and geographic vagueness of “terroir”—as well as against what it means to be a terroir-ist/locavore. Following the title, patterns emerge as each of the poem’s six stanzas begin with close variations of the line “Know where your food comes from”[3] (Nabhan, Coming Home to Eat 311). This directive is a reminder to readers that the origin of their food (or the space of their food) is only imaginary until they make a real effort to learn where it all comes from. Acquiring this knowledge takes on different forms in each stanza, implying that there are many different ways of knowing.

          Sequentially by stanza, the way that one discovers where his or her food comes from is “through knowing those who produced it for you,” “by the very way it tastes: / its freshness telling you / how far it may have traveled,” “by ascertaining the health & wealth / of those who picked & processed it . . .” and knowing if “where your shrimp & fish once swam / were left richer or poorer than before / you & your kin ate from them,” “by the richness of stories told around the table / recalling all that was harvested nearby / during the years that came before you,” and finally “by the patience displayed while putting [your foods] up” and “by the slow savoring of each and every morsel” (Nabhan, Coming Home to Eat 311–12). With the exception of “through” in the first stanza, the means of acquiring this knowledge is introduced with the transitive verb “by,” implying that within the formal structure of knowledge acquisition there is a necessary object to make the sentence (and therefore the knowledge) meaningful. The information-as-objects that allow one to know this information about the terroir of food are multiple: (1) social connection, (2) freshness as a spatial indicator, (3) the health of both food producers and foodsheds, (4) storytelling about the history of the foodshed, and (5) unhurried time as both “patience” and “slow savoring” (311). These five points offer a strong summation of the contemporary ethical eater and, more specifically, the locavore eater.

            Charlotte Biltekoff explains in her 2013 text Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health that there is a new emphasis being placed on the pleasure (and thus pathos) of eating in alternative food movements, and that pleasure is linked with neoliberal ideals and how notions of responsible and ethical citizenship have been shaped by the economic and political ideals of neoliberalism. She states, “The ethos of neoliberalism shifted the burden of caring for the well-being of citizens from the state to the individual and recast health as a personal pursuit, responsibility and duty” (Biltekoff 97). Such an ethos asks that each individual citizen sees him- or herself as both a microcosm and responsible actor within the larger space of the state. Biltekoff continues, “As the burden of solving social problems and preserving the health of individuals shifted from the public to private sector, alternative dietary ideals reinforced the increasingly important social values of personal responsibility and conspicuous consumption” (97). She cites Kingsolver and Pollan as writers of texts that “modeled and celebrated what it meant to be a good eater in the context of alternative food while subtly, and inadvertently, naturalizing what it means to be a good citizen in the context of neoliberalism” (98). We can extend this perspective to Nabhan, as evidenced in how the poem naturalizes neoliberalism as a part of the food system in the lines beginning with “by.”

          The sixth and final stanza of the poem explains why this knowledge (and hence knowledge-through-terroir) matters. Nabhan suggests that social action is possible “when you know where your food comes from” (Coming Home to Eat 311). In other words, spatial literacy about a foodshed is a necessary requirement for social action. He writes that one can help protect the ecosystem,[4] as well as the food producers,[5] through legislation.[6] As we see reinforced in the opening lines of each stanza, the pure act of knowing (or having literacy of the foodshed) is the most important part of social action for a locavore. The poem concludes,

We as humans, have not been given

roots as obvious as those of plants.

The surest way we have to lodge ourselves

within this blessed earth is by knowing

where our food comes from. (313)

Rooting in a place through knowledge about that place is not synchronically how to “lodge” one’s self in local space. The best one can do is attempt to gain a literacy of one’s foodsheds and the logics of one’s emplacement in those foodsheds. However, for this to be a “terroir-ist’s manifesto,” it is a manifesto for operating in vague (if not fully imaginary) space.

          Amy Trubek explains in her 2008 text The Taste of Place that terroir “is rooted in geography, but it is not confined solely to a specific region (contrary to the definitions favored by local food activists)” (209). For the well-known example of terroir in wine, a grape varietal will exhibit characteristics of its soil and permaculture regardless of the given crop crossing territorial or regional borders. While the idea of rooting a taste in a particular place is the very definition of the word, Trubek makes the important point that terroir gestures towards place as a moving or movable target that does not align with “the definitions favored by local food activists” (209). Terroir, then, represents the vivid sensory perception of topothesia: an intense representation of an imagined, or imaginary, place. For such an example in Nabhan’s poem, the fourth stanza asks that locavores, or specifically terroir-ists, ought to

Know where your food comes from

By the richness of stories told around the table

Recalling all that was harvested nearby

During the years that came before you. (Coming Home to Eat 311)

This knowledge of a sense of place—terroir—is accumulated through storytelling and imagining the qualities of the given place as a historical site. “Terroir” is an ideograph that implies a set of dietetic guidelines that, much like “local,” does not seem to have a fixed understanding beyond a pleasure in eating: “Know where your food comes from / by the slow savoring of each and every morsel” (311).

          For the locavore/terroir-ist, the poem prioritizes terroir as a pedagogical rule for space that may or may not be traditional or regional. As stated in the second stanza,

The terroir of the wine
Reminding you of the lime

In the stone you stand upon,

So that you can stand up for the land

That has offered it to you. (Nabhan, Coming Home to Eat 311)

“Terroir” here is still a taste of place, and one that moves a locavore/terroir-ist to social action. However, if in the discourse of food studies “terroir” is a suspect or structurally dislocated ideograph, it is worth asking what is gained in using the word as the sense of place to activate knowledge—or action—for a discourse community. “Local” and “terroir” point us to imagined places that are often structurally dislocated, which is a symptom of neoliberal spatial formations.

          Following the locavore texts, we do have a USDA definition of “local,” which is first acknowledged in locavore texts beginning with Vicki Robin’s 2014 Blessing the Hands That Feed Us: Lessons from a 10-Mile Diet. The USDA defines local food as being produced within a 400-mile radius. This definition emerged in 2008 when Congress amended the "Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act." In the amendment, the words locally and regionally are near synonyms that are defined as “(I) the locality or region in which the final product is marketed, so that the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product,” or ‘‘(II) the State in which the product is produced” (United States, Congress). The foundational locavore texts were written between 2002 and 2007, so this 400-mile definition comes after. In Harvey’s terms, this radius, or use of “state” as a spatial container, does not allow for “conditions of possibility” (139). We have instead an ideograph fighting with its diachronic and synchronic meanings. Perhaps a struggle within the ideograph of “local” is the reliance on an ideograph for spatial rhetoric that both operates within and sustains neoliberal ideologies (as we see in the concrete example of CSA frameworks). Regardless, the locavore movement, the genre of locavore writing, and the US definition of “local” are still rather young, and it is worth keeping an eye open to how these different social elements continue to evolve.

Works Cited

Biltekoff, Charlotte. Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health. E-book ed., Duke UP, 2013.

Brewster, Cori. “Toward a Critical Agricultural Literacy.” Reclaiming the Rural: Essays on Literacy, Rhetoric and Pedagogy, edited by Kim Donehower et al., Southern Illinois UP, 2011.

Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom. U of Chicago P, 2002.

Harvey, David. Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development. Verso, 2006.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Harper, 2007.

Klein, Naomi. Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Picador, 2008.

McGee, Michael C. “The 'Ideograph': A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology," Quarterly Journal of Speech 64, 1980, Rpt. Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader. Eds. Sally Caudill, Michelle Condit and John Louis Lucaites. New York Guilford Press, 1998, pp. 425–40.

McWilliams, James E. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. Back Bay Books, 2009.

Mullen, Darcy. “Cartographic Communities of Locavores: Local Ideographs and Spatial
            Rhetoric.” Graduate Journal of Food Studies, edited by Carla Cevasco, vol. 3, no. 1,
            Sep. 2016, pp. 7–18.

---. “There’s No Space Like Home: Locavore Writing and Rhetorics of Place.” Dissertation,
            University at Albany, 2017.

Nabhan, Gary Paul. Coming Home to Eat. W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

---. Personal interview. 23 Jan. 2014.

Pollan, Michael. Omnivore’s Dilemma. Penguin, 2006.

Robbin, Vicki. Blessing the Hands That Feed Us: Lessons from a 10-mile Diet. Penguin, 2014.

Smith, Alisa and J. B. MacKinnon. The 100-Mile Diet. Random House Canada, 2007.

Trubek, Amy. The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey Into Terroir. U of California P, 2009.

United States, Congress. Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act (2008). Bill text versions, The Library of Congress, 2007–08. 110th Congress, House Report 241,www.congress.gov/bill/110th-congress/house-bill/3161/text.

United States, Department of the Interior. Profile of the People and Land of the United States. 23 Sep. 2015, nationalmap.gov/maps.html.


[1] Ideas in this particular paper come from Chapter 1 and 4 of my dissertation: see Mullen, “There’s No Space Like Home: Locavore Writing and Rhetorics of Place.” Portions of the introductory paragraphs also appear in my 2016 article “Cartographic Communities of Locavores: Local Ideographs and Spatial Rhetoric.”

[2] Recently, in a personal interview, Nabhan pointed out that he has been surprised at the cartographic requirements that locavore movements extrapolated from his original project, stating that “something I thought was a literary device became a geographic marker.” 

[3] The first line of the first and second stanzas is “Know where your food comes from” and the first line of the third stanza is “Know where your food has come from.” The fourth and fifth stanzas also begin with that initial line, “Know where your food comes from,” and the sixth and final stanza begins with “When you know where your food comes from” (311–13).

[4] “You can give something back to that soil, / Something fecund & fleeting like compost” (311).

[5] “You can give something back to those lands & waters, / That rural culture, that migrant harvester, / Curer, smoker, poacher, roaster or vitner” (311).

[6] “Or something lasting & legal like protection” (311).