chip aislePhoto: TheTruthAbout…, via FlickrThe Ethicurean probably had it right when it declared yesterday that “local” jumped the shark. The shark in this case (or is it the jumper? I’m never sure which is which) is Frito-Lay and its Big Food brethren, which have embarked on marketing campaigns emphasizing the “local” producers who supply them. The NYT lays it out:

Frito-Lay is one of several big companies that, along with some large-scale farming concerns, are embracing a broad interpretation of what eating locally means. This mission creep has the original locavores choking on their yerba mate. But food executives who measure marketing budgets in the millions say they are mining the concept because consumers care more than ever about where their food comes from.

“Local for us has two appeals,” said Aurora Gonzalez, director of public relations for Frito-Lay North America, which is owned by PepsiCo. “We are interested in quality and quickness because we want consumers to get the freshest product possible, but we have a fairly significant sustainability program, and local is part of that. We want to do business more efficiently, but do it in a more environmentally conscious way.”

This is of course just the latest in a long line of greenwashing efforts that various conglomerates have engaged in of late, and Tom Philpott is right that it’s more laughable than threatening. But their intent here isn’t really to reach out to locavores and convince them of the benefits of this or that processed food. No, Big Food is “going local” out of fear that the multitude of recent food contanimation scandals have caused consumers to question the quality and security of processed food. This is about food safety, not sustainability. Indeed, a Conagra spokesman explicitly invoked consumer concerns regarding “food safety, quality and cost” as the motivating behind their own “local” marketing campaign.

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With salmonella, E. Coli and swine flu in the headlines, Big Food is searching for a way to regain the trust of consumers. What Frito-Lay and Conagra are doing isn’t really that much different from what Ocean Spray has done for a while with their ads or even from those old Bartles and Jaymes wine cooler commercials (which were a total fabrication) — Big trying to create the illusion of Small. And anyway, the campaign is limited to the few growing regions that the industrial food business buys from — California, Florida and parts of the Midwest. Ironically, given the geographical limits a centralized food system puts on them, this isn’t a marketing campaign that can necessarily scale.

What really interested me about the article was the section decribing how some largescale growers in California are being encouraged to move away from commodity crops and towards “specialty crops,” aka fruits and vegetables, that could be sold to local wholesalers and at farmers markets:

In central California, the Sacramento County Farm Bureau recently started a “Grow and Buy Local” initiative with a $50,000 grant from the county.

Part of the money is being used to encourage 3,000 area farmers whose fields are filled with feed grain, safflower and other commodity crops to plant acres of grocery store crops like strawberries or artichokes, or to hold some fruit, like pears, back from the canner.

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That fresh produce can then be marketed as local and sold to nearby institutions like hospitals and jails that want to buy food raised nearby. And some of it can fill farm stands, which helps satisfy consumers who want to buy local fruits and vegetables and don’t care as much about, say, farm size or organic practices, said Charlotte Mitchell, the executive director of the county farm bureau and a Foster Farms turkey rancher.

This development is not at all in the same class as the warm-and-fuzzyish “local” ad campaigns of Conagra and Frito-Lay. What these Sacramento growers would do is EXACTLY what people interested in a more localized food system want. We want growers to abandon crops that are sold into the industrial meat and processed food system and instead grow things that their neighbors can eat fresh. There’s no hypocrisy there, no corruption of the “local” label. As Mark Bittman has observed, as important as organic practices are (and as the the only sustainable form of agriculture in a post-carbon world, they are crucially important), right now it’s far more important to get people eating larger amounts of fruits and vegetables and less processed food and meat. And while I don’t appreciate Big Food’s attempt to appropriate all the positive connotations of local food for itself, I do appreciate growers, no matter how large, who decide to fill local consumers’ need for healthy food rather than the needs of industrial food processors and their insatiable demand for raw materials.