I was amused – and not really in good way – last weekend by the large, chain grocery store near my house. I was there picking up a couple of things when I saw a “Locally Grown” sign over a pile of tomatoes. It being tomato season here in Illinois, I walked over to see if it said where, exactly, these tomatoes were from. I wondered if it was a nearby farm, as a friend of mine recently discovered was the case at her grocery store (of this same chain) in Washington state. Imagine my surprise when the little stickers on the tomatoes said “Mexico”! A closer look at the “Locally Grown” sign included small print that said “Products of Canada, US, and Mexico.” Quite a generous definition of local!

I find cause for hope and concern in this. First, the fact that a national grocery store chain even has signs proclaiming their food was locally grown shows an encouraging level of public concern about where our food comes from. To me, it seems to indicate some level of critical mass has been reached that the grocery store sees spending time and money on this form of advertising as a worthwhile investment. That’s good news!

The perhaps less good news is that phrases like “locally grown” don’t mean much if our locale is expanded to include whatever supply chain the store already has in place.  And if people take the sign at it’s (biggest) word and buy it, assuming that “locally grown” means somewhere that most people would recognize as near-ish. Then it’s really just a trick to keep everything the same.

However, being in a hall-full mood today, I think questionable signs may not be all bad. They may serve to further the discussion. I, for one, like to buy local products when I can, but I don’t believe we all should all the time. One reason: those of us in densely populated northern cities would struggle to eat by January. Heck, we wouldn’t get through the summer if we relied solely on local farms as they exist today. So maybe that sign will lead to a conversation about not only what local means, but also what role Mexico should play in our food supply chain. Maybe it can be educational. It certainly gave pause to the produce manager, who asked me why I was taking a picture of the produce sign with my cell phone (which sadly didn’t turn out well enough to post here). He asked out of pure curiosity, but was left rather embarrassed and speechless when I asked him if he considered Mexico local. If nothing else, the sign gave him something to think about. It’s a start.

-Nancy Michaelis