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Peace Studies at Manchester University | Plowshares | Indianapolis Peace Institute | Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace
  Volume 36   October 2009 


What's for Dinner: Local Food and the Path to an Ethical and Meaningful Life

by Colleen Hamilton


Being thankful for our food stems from knowing whom to thank: knowing who killed the beast, who picked the apple, and who gathered the grapes.  But how can we know if we do not see?  And how can we see if we are not near?  If, in fact, we are hundreds of miles from the cattle farm that raises our beef; if our apples were grown across the country; and if the other side of the world harvests and ships us our grapes?  It is easy to forget a spirit of thankfulness when the process is so extended and the origin so camouflaged.  The disjointed nature of our food system has environmental, economic, and relational consequences that inhibit our search for ethical and meaningful lives.  It has redefined how we view community, cooperation, and the infrastructure that moves food from sunlight and soil to plate.  Moreover, it has deeply degraded our relationship with the land and people that meet our basic needs.  Building meaningful community through the actions of the local food movement move us in the right direction to achieve both relational and environmental harmony.

Relationships are built over time, but the customary practice of growing up and growing old in the same locale no longer represents our experience.  According to the most recent census, over half of Americans changed residences over a five-year period.1   After World War II, “displacement” became “mobility,” an elite social value providing that the more money we have, the more we can live and travel where we choose.  The land ethic conceived of by Aldo Leopold posits a different standard of living based on rootedness.2   To be rooted is to be connected to the land and economic community of one’s place.  This connects one not only to physical features but to relationships and memories, contributing to a sense of “home.”  Rootedness builds on a model of community detailed in 1887 by Ferdinand Tonnies, a German sociologist.  Gemeinschaft is a traditional community based on an organic sense of the individual’s integral place in the communal group.  Individual welfare depends on and contributes to the welfare of the Gemeinshaft.  The alternative model of Gesellschaft, or an association of individuals, views community as a human creation outside of which individuals can easily live and flourish.  Community serves utilitarian purposes, providing what the individual person cannot.  This view recalls John Locke’s social contract theory, in which citizens contract with their governments to meet communal needs; outside of these simple functions, the Gesellschaft serves no purpose and individuals provide for themselves.

Peter Singer explores these perceptions of community in his book How Are We to Live?, in which he also discusses examples of mutually-beneficial cooperation.3   Singer writes, “…in a small, stable society in which everyone knows everyone else, cheats will not prosper.  But the less well we know the people with whom we live, work and deal, the greater the opportunities for some of them to benefit by deceit.”4   Relationships build accountability and trust which build mutually-beneficial relationships of cooperation.

This partnership feeds into David Korten’s framework of Earth Community, discussed in The Great Turning, which envisions a transformation from the current empire-based system into a more holistic cooperative model built on the positive potential of humanity.5   The principles of Earth Community construct a narrative of interconnectedness: spiritual consciousness, the highest order of human expression, views, “…Creation as a complex, multidimensional, interconnected, continuously unfolding whole.”6   This holistic perspective describes the Gemeinschaft community, further emphasizing the importance of knowing one’s “place”—not the restriction of mobility, but the guarantee of one’s meaningful contribution.  People can find meaning, then, by being rooted and belonging to a community whose welfare depends, in part, on their contribution.  Your existence has meaning because you contribute to the whole.

Although the connection of Gemeinschaften creates Earth Community, the “whole” to which individuals contribute does not represent all of humanity, but rather a more localized version of cooperation.  Just as ecosystems are specific to micro-environments, so communities are specific to the places they are rooted.  A plurality of models may, however, rely on a similar image, such as the concept of partnership provided by Korten.7   Concerning food, the model envisages local systems that recycle wastes into resources while maintaining human and environmental health.  The local aspect assigns responsibility and power to all stakeholders: growers, retailers, and consumers would engage in sustainable environmental, economic, and relational practices.  This community may be organized around a food co-op, a farmers’ market, or a community supported agriculture farm: the key is to create lives that are less fragmented, building and relying upon deepening bonds of trust.

This vision of an ethical, meaningful food life speaks of the movement toward local living economies.8   This model relies on long-term stakeholders in economic democracy; economic security through locally-sourced products; accountability in human-scale enterprises; long-term well-being of all stakeholders; internalized costs leading to honest pricing; and fair and balanced trade.  The development of local economies is both ethical and meaningful in that it emphasizes the health of the whole and requires individuals, through personal interaction, to contribute and share in the abundant and lean years.  Local living economies focus on creating livelihoods, producing more income for the community by keeping money in the neighborhood.  For example, the New Economics Foundation in London found that money spent locally generated twice as much money for the local economy: ₤10 generated ₤25 when spent in a local business, and just ₤14 when spent at a supermarket.  The cycle works in such a way that,

The farmer buys a drink at the local pub; the pub owner gets a car tune-up at the local mechanic; the mechanic brings a shirt to the local tailor; the tailor buys some bread at the local bakery; the baker buys wheat for bread and fruit for muffins from the local farmer.  When these businesses are not owned locally, money leaves the community at every transaction.9

Individuals are increasingly able to lead ethical and meaningful lives by participating in local economies.  The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, for example, has committed itself to sustainable agriculture, green building, renewable energy, independent retail, community capital, and zero-waste manufacturing.10   “Buy Local” campaigns have highlighted and increased accessibility to area resources, including farmers and market gardeners.  Awareness has changed buying patterns, which has in turn changed processing and distribution infrastructure and producer-consumer relations.  We now know whom to thank for our beef, apples, and grapes.

The furthest step toward an ethical and meaningful life through local consumption has been taken in the area of food sources, without which a local living economy would not be sustainable.  The process of moving from feedlot to pasture, from chemical to organic, from highly-processed petroleum-based food shipped to us from agribusiness around the world to healthier ethically- and sustainably-harvested food produced on neighboring land; this process in many communities has become democratized, localized, human-scale, participatory, honest, fair, and balanced—the definition of local and living.  However, this move in the right direction does represent a process, and as such it begins with a simple change in diet and ends in a healthier environment and humanity through commitment and patience.  When ten percent of food is purchased from local sources, corporate food will cease to be viable.11

The process begins by eating seasonally: we will never eat what is grown in our area or know how the selection changes year-round until we become familiar with the rhythm of a seasonal diet.  In-season food retains its freshness, nutritional value, and flavor, and the rhythm requires knowledge and creativity without sacrificing varietyOnce we have educated our palettes, we continue by educating ourselves: by knowing first the differences between agribusiness and family farms, and second the different means of growing, processing, and transporting food.  This knowledge transforms how we view food purchases. 

The first question is How is food grown?  In the large agribusiness column fall practices such as monocropping, pesticide use, and feedlot raising.  Monocropping is the industrial-size practice of planting a single crop requiring genetically-enhanced seeds, large farming equipment, and intensive pesticide and fertilizer application over large tracts of land.  This practice began largely after World War II as farm size and demand on American agricultural production grew.  Monocropping has resulted in an incredible loss of soil fertility: farming now depletes topsoil seventeen times faster than nature creates it.  Fertilizer and pesticides then run off and pollute waterways.  Moreover, we’re losing farmers faster than soil: since the 1970s, US farm exports have increased six-fold, but farm income has decreased by half.12   As a result, one-third of families have moved off the farm.13  The US Census no longer lists farmer as an employment category: less than one percent of the population qualifies.14

With farmers a dying breed, burgeoning agribusiness now “…owns the entire food (production) chain: seeds, machinery, fertilizer, pesticides, farm finance, grain collection and milling, livestock feed processing, livestock production, slaughtering, and processed food brands.”15   Moreover, a handful of international corporations own the “variety” of brands offered in every supermarket: as if our agricultural economy were an hourglass, squeezing products from many farmers through the narrow door opened by ConAgra, Cargill, ADM, Smithfield, and Novartis to reach the 300 billion consumers on the other end.  These companies control the “free” market and make the rules.  In 2000, five companies held forty-two percent of the food market; the four largest firms of the chicken, pork, and beef markets processed fifty, fifty-nine, and eighty-one percent respectively of all meat; similarly, sixty-one percent of wheat and eighty percent of soybeans are raised by the largest firms in their sectors.16   This market concentration means that, while forty cents of every 1910 dollar spent on food went back to farmers, in 1997, the figure dropped to seven cents per dollar.17  

Agribusiness has also fundamentally changed the way meat is raised.  Controlled animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have mechanized animal husbandry in a way that reduces illness to “stress,” a condition dealt with through growth hormones and antibiotics to allow meat production to continue in toxic proximity.  With forty-three percent of beef world-wide raised in CAFOs,18 animal advocates are right to be offended.  But all omnivores should be wary of “…unhealthy cholesterol composition, deadly E. coli strains, fuel consumption, concentration of manure into toxic waste lagoons, and the turpitude of keeping confined creatures at the limits of their physiological and psychological endurance.”19  

Finally, in the name of efficiency and high yield but at the expense of externalities (runoff, decreased soil fertility, fossil fuel pollution), our government offers a slew of subsidies to agribusiness.  As a result of post-World War II policies, when secretaries of agriculture like Earl Butz urged farmers to “get big or get out,” now seven percent of farmers cultivating thirty percent of the farmland raise eighty percent of our food, supported heartily by public finance.20   In the same era, the government began subsidizing commodity crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice because of increased demands on production.21   Artificially low prices worked up the food chain and lowered the price of meat and products containing high-fructose corn syrup, while discouraging the production of “specialty crops” such as fruits and vegetables.  These food policies do not support food quality and nutrition, but rather efficiency and quantity.  Moving meat production from farm to feedlot has also distorted the cycle of waste and resources, creating two separate problems: farms become barren while manure piles up as a pollutant.  We nurse both problems with the fuel-based solutions of synthetic fertilizers and waste treatment.

Once raised in a concentrated setting, food must then be dispersed to retailers, who may be located across the state or around the world.  The average distance between farm and plate is a shocking 1300 miles: strawberries from California, apples from Washington, beef from Brazil—the routes to putting oil into our foods are endless.22   Add to the cost of transportation the fuel consumption of farm equipment, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, processing and packaging, and we consume four hundred gallons of oil per person per year.  Moreover, industrial farming and road time both decrease the nutritional value of the food that finally arrive on our plates; organic fruits and vegetables contain fifty to sixty percent more antioxidants, and pasture-raised beef contains higher levels of vitamin E, beta-carotene, and omega-3 nutrients.23

This second step in the movement toward local economies—asking how food is grown and transported—obviously requires the most research and reflection.  It demands that consumers be conscientious and view their food bill as an investment portfolio: does my dollar vote for corporate farming, fuel gluttony, environmental degradation, and biased marketing?  Or do I support local farmers who know their customers and farm ethically and sustainably while examining the output of their farm in a holistic manner?  Why is the move toward local food a step in the right direction, and how does it help me lead a more meaningful and ethical life?

Several organizations have already considered these questions and are working to offer alternatives for consumers who want to opt out of the corporate food system.  Fast food, unsurprisingly, is emblematic of this system, devaluing food and mealtimes to calories and drive-thrus; its natural counterpart, then, is Slow Food, organized in 1986 during a protest of the first McDonalds in Rome.  In place of agribusiness, Slow Food advocates for local farmers; instead of standardized food, regional cuisines.  The organization celebrates food preparation and heritage often devalued by diets and chain restaurants.24   As an extension of this perspective, the Food Circles Networking Project in northern Missouri, proposed by the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and the University of Missouri, focuses on food security by putting a human face on all aspects of production.  FCNP links farmers, processors, distributers, wholesalers, retailers, restaurants and consumers within the boundaries of a sustainable “foodshed,”where the transactions at each link from farm to plate become more transparent in the model of Gemeinshaft.25   The less we rely on fossil fuels, the less their disappearance will threaten our access to food.

Perhaps more encouraging are the innumerable farmers’ markets that grace our country.  Because of a ten-fold increase in markets since 1976 thanks to the Farmer-to-Consumer Direct Marketing Act, finding one of the 4600 farmers’ markets countrywide is an easy third step in the move to local.26   Farmers’ markets provide consumers with fresh food and human contact with the small independent farmers who grew it, and they provide growers with local outlets, direct market access, and faithful customers creating stable and sufficient demand.  Farmers then maximize their returns, which, when combined with intensive and diverse planting, increase the profitability and thus viability of small farms.  In fact, scale has always been tied to profit, and the smaller the better: net income of a less than four acre farm reaches $1400 per acre; farms over 1000 bring in only forty dollars per acre.27  This margin of profit has not convinced everyone to go small, however, largely due to supermarket infrastructure favoring large producers.  Farmers’ markets, for now, provide one of the few means for large-profit but small-scale farmers to stay in business.  Shopping at markets becomes even more sustainable when small farms follow the biodynamic model.  In this integrated balance, wastes become resources as:

The plants feed the animals, as well as the humans who tend the land, and the animals, in turn, provide manure for natural fertilization of the plants, as well as dairy products and meat.  Every aspect of a biodynamic farm is integrated to reduce waste, maximize efficiency and production through natural processes, and create a space in which human, animals, and the earth can live together in mutually sustaining ways.28

Farmers’ markets represent a convenient stepping stone by putting consumers in direct contact with farmers who create this mutually-enhancing balance.  They also allow for consumers to move beyond these points of access to buy directly from the farm, developing direct relationships of support and helping consumers realize their position as stakeholders in the farms from which they buy.  This interaction strengthens community bonds and is just one small step away from the essence of rootedness: investing in a CSA.  Community supported agriculture gives new meaning to the idea of investing in food.  As a subscription-based system that requires payment at the beginning of the season, a CSA divides and delivers its produce for the year in weekly shares.  A member of a CSA might volunteer in addition to picking up baskets of fresh, seasonal, local produce.  This kind of involvement demonstrates a paradigm shift away from the abstract market toward real bounty and real need.  Robyn Van En of Massachusetts first initiated this radical model in 1985,29 involving the shareholders as much as the farmer in the success of the farm.  If too much rain floods the onions, everyone shares the loss; if a bumper crop of broccoli comes in, everyone shares the gain.

By giving people meaningful work in the context of steady relationships, involvement in a CSA roots us and adapts us to our place.  Buying local food will fundamentally change agriculture, which cannot continue its current level of resource consumption and disjointedness.  Local living economies create closed-loop systems that transform wastes into resources and create a holistic, instead of yield-based, view of agricultural systems.  In the same way, we can progress from measuring wealth in possessions to measuring it by the health of our communities and environment.  In this sustainable model, we not only support our principles through our investments but also our neighbors, living ethically with each other in a very direct way by belonging to a cooperative food network and taking part in the process of meeting our own food needs in an ethical way.  Part of a food community, we will then put down roots and see our food from seed to harvest, shaking the hand of the one who grows it in a shared spirit of thankfulness.



  • Principle: favor food grown in an environmentally-responsible way, delivered with minimal petroleum use, in a manner that doesn’t exploit farmers
  • If items are available locally, buy them from a farmer or ask the grocer to source them locally
  • Avoid processed foods; do your own cooking and preparation based on the seasons
  • Buy food with fewer ingredients: less energy processing and transporting ingredients
  • If not buying from your region, buy from one next door rather than one across the country: if not local, then local-est
  • Dry goods require less energy to transport than fresh, water-plump fruits
  • Consider energy used by an item in the frozen section, kept frozen from process plant to you
  • Define, for yourself, how local is local (your “foodshed”) and the importance of organic labeling (small-scale or industrial)



American Community Gardening Association


Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association


FoodRoutes Network


Local Harvest


National Family Farm Coalition


Robyn Van En Center for Community Supported Agriculture


The Rodale Institute


USDA Farmers’ Markets



In May, Colleen received her Bachelor of Arts degree in French. She is teaching English France, and plans to pursue graduate studies in linguistics. Colleen hopes to work in language policy advocacy. She is also passionate about food sustainability and loves to garden.



1. “Gross Migration for the Population 5 Years and Over for the United States, Regions, States, Counties, New England Minor Civil Divisions, and Metropolitan Areas: 2000.”  Census 2000, special tabulation.  US Census Bureau.  6 August 2003.  11 December 2008  <http://www.census.gov/population/www/cen2000/briefs/phc-t22/tables/tab01.pdf>.

2. Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac. (Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1968).

3. Peter Singer.  How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest.  (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1995), 30.

4. Ibid., 141.

5. David C. Korten.  The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.  (Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, Inc., 2006).

6. Ibid., 47.

7. Ibid., 295.

8. Ibid., 342.

9. Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert.  Mennonite Central Committee.  Simply in Season: A World Community Cookbook.  (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2005), 272.

10. BALLE.  Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.  5 December 2008 http://www.livingeconomies.org/.

11. Barbara Kingsolver.  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.  (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), 153.

12. Pamela K. Brubaker, Rebecca Todd Peters, and Laura A. Stivers.  Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community, and World.  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 18-21.

13. Ibid., 21.

14. Ibid., 316.

15. Lind, Simply in Season, 256.

16. Brubaker Justice in a Global Economy, 51.

17. Lind, Simply in Season, 292.

18. Ibid., 300.

19. Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 228.

20. Brubaker, Justice in a Global Economy, 55.

21. Michael Pollan.  “Farmer in Chief.”  New York Times, 9 October 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12policy-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&sq=pollan&st=cse&scp=5.

22. Brubaker, Justice in a Global Economy, 24.

23. Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 171, 239.

24. Good, Clean, and Fair Food.  Slow Food USA.  2008. 5 December 2008 http://www.slowfoodusa.org/.

25. Food Circles Networking Project.  University of Missouri Extension.  5 December 2008 http://www.foodcircles.missouri.edu/.

26. Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 37.

27. Ibid., 76.

28. Brubaker, Justice in a Global Economy, 20.

29. Ibid., 23.

30. Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 348.

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