You know the locally grown movement is nearing absurdist territory when potato chip manufacturers jump on the bandwagon.

Chips stretch definition of locally grown
Andy Nelson
Markets Editor

Or, depending on how well they’re received, try to jump on the bandwagon but actually get thrown under the wheels by angry locavores.

In case you hadn’t heard, five potato farmers rang the bell of the New York Stock Exchange in May, thereby launching a marketing campaign in which the Frito-Lay chips their spuds are turned into will be billed as “locally grown.”

According to The New York Times, in one ad in the campaign, Hastings, Fla.-based grower Steve Singleton says, “We grow potatoes in Florida, and Lays makes potato chips in Florida. It’s a pretty good fit.”

While this understandably is bound to give the locally grown folks fits, I have to admit taking a certain perverse delight in it.
Maybe this is proof that locally grown has jumped the shark and can return to its proper — though important — place.

It’s useful to distinguish between what we might call “locally grown, the reality” and “locally grown, the marketing phenomenon.”

Of course everyone loves locally grown, the reality. Everyone loves it when their next-door neighbor brings over a bag of cucumbers and peppers from the garden. Everyone loves eating the berries from the local pick-it-yourself farm. Everyone loves hitting the jackpot at the farmers market.

It’s locally grown, the marketing phenomenon, that’s problematic. And a phenomenon it is, with the brightest stars in 2009— the president and first lady — leading the way.

It’s amazing how many times Mrs. Obama in particular has popped up in the news in the past few months talking about the virtues of locally grown.

There’s the White House garden, of course, which features lettuce, squash, cucumbers, peppers and other vegetables.

There was the recent anecdote about the Obama family’s campaign culinary preferences a year ago: “My big concern was making sure we ate well on the road. We started looking at our diet, trying to eliminate junk, getting seasonal fruits and vegetables that were grown locally.”

When the president and first lady had a date night recently, for dinner they chose, knowing the whole world would find out, Blue Hill, a New York restaurant known for its locally grown produce.

Who can argue with the Obamas putting fresh produce in the spotlight? And yet, by so conspicuously emphasizing local, they are, inadvertently or not, adding fuel to the fire of the whacko locavores who think that if it’s not grown within an hour or so drive, it’s bad for you and bad for the world.

The president needs to remember that while, on the one hand, he and his wife are pushing locally grown, on the other, he’s calling for a new era in food safety.

As we’re seeing increasingly in the produce industry, the two can be mutually exclusive. Effective traceback and other food safety programs are not cheap. In many cases, it’s the big growers who ship nationwide, not the mom-and-pop operations who back the truck up at the farmers market or the local retailer, who can afford them.

Locally grown fruits and vegetables? Of course. But not if supporting them means demonizing the producers who deliver healthful, affordable — and safe — food year-round.

Now it’s off to the store to look for Kansas-packed potato chips made with Kansas spuds.

Email anelson@thepacker.com

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