Cartographic Communities of Locavores: Local Ideographs & Spatial Rhetoric

Darcy Mullen

abstract | I employ Michael McGee’s concept of the ideograph as a lens with which to understand “local” as a rhetorical tool of the Locavore genre. In Locavore texts, the ideograph of “local” creates a rhetoric of space that employs cartographic ideation to delineate “local” space. I define spatial rhetoric as the use of space as a rhetorical device to create social knowledge that leads to a social literacy of space. Reading space as a rhetorical or pedagogical tool allows us to examine instances when language seems to be insufficient for expressing socio-spatial experiences and cultural ideas of space. For Locavores, “local” both creates a place meant to be read and carries particular guidelines or rules for operating in “local” space. Furthermore, the ideograph of “local” creates social knowledge regarding place and a literacy of space. Interacting with the “local” space created by specific Locavore projects, furthermore, relies on both spatial literacy and an activated and continuing process of public pedagogy. The rhetoric produced by “local” as a cartographic measurement in the Locavore genre suggests that different spatial rhetorics are required to reflect lived experience and understanding of spatiality. The ideographic nature of spatial terms such as “local” is crucial to understanding the complexities and challenges for the members of the Locavore community, specifically regarding the activation of social knowledge and spatial literacy. Although the focus on “local eating” is significant for a variety of political, ecological, and economic reasons, the rhetorical situations and literacies activated by the ideograph of “local” oppose the purported goals of the Locavore movement.

keywords | locavore, local, foodshed, food-security, rhetoric, genre | Download Article PDF


Geographers, farmers, and Locavores lack a consensus of what “local” means.[1] In this essay, I examine how the term “local” activates spatial thinking.[2] The term “local” activates spatial rhetoric that has the feeling of nearby space, when it often means an area much larger than its meaning suggests. The Locavore texts I examine here—Gary Paul Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon’s 100 Mile Diet, and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma—all make decisions about what constitutes local and examine the spatio-social consequences from different constructions of local.[3] These texts are crucial for reading how local activates contemporary spatial literacies.

The Locavore texts share a pattern of spatial guidelines to define “local” and my project emerges from that repetition. I ask: what do these texts mean when they say “local”? What does a cartographic definition of local emphasize and activate?[4] How do different and subsequent definitions of local work rhetorically to create complex spatial imaginaries for the social movement of Locavores and the larger system of American food? What do the social constructs of local as a spatial imaginary activate for social knowledge and spatial literacy? How has the spatial imaginary of local changed the way we use “local” in everyday life? What are we saying when we call something “local”?

Through close readings of the foundational Locavore texts, I identify exactly how each uses the ideograph of “local.” I argue that what these texts, and this genre, show is that “local” has become a marker of cartographic space at odds with what “local” purports to mean. I conclude that the spatial rhetoric of the Locavore movement does not automatically foster spatial justice. 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 for spaces that do not align with what local affectively confers, then we will end up with policies that do not fit the understandings or needs of our respective foodsheds.


In Locavore texts, the ideograph of “local” creates a rhetoric of space that employs cartographic ideation to delineate local space. I define spatial rhetoric as the use of space as a rhetorical device to create social knowledge that leads to a social literacy of space. Reading space as a rhetorical or pedagogical tool allows us to examine instances when language seems to be insufficient for expressing socio-geographic space. For Locavores, the ideograph of “local” creates social knowledge regarding place and a literacy of space. Interacting with the local space created by specific Locavore projects, furthermore, relies on both spatial literacy and an activated and continuing process of public pedagogy. The rhetoric produced by local as a cartographic measurement in the Locavore genre suggests that different spatial rhetorics are required to reflect lived experience and understanding of spatiality.

I utilize McGee’s concept of the ideograph from his article, “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology” as a critical lens in order to explain “local”—the primary ideograph in the Locavore genre of texts. Ideographs are words or phrases that that are taken for the objective or concrete terms of a given social positions or principles.[5] They are the words with which discourse communities engage in acts of rhetorical persuasion. Early in his essay, McGee explains that, “the political language which manifests ideology seems characterized by slogans, a vocabulary of ‘ideographs’ easily mistaken for the technical terminology of political philosophy.”[6] Ideographs are rhetorical tools that, according to McGee, masquerade as objective language even when they are often not neutral or objective language at all.[7]

Take the example of an ideograph often used in contemporary food discourse and by Locavores: free-range. When comparing the diachronic meaning of “free-range” with its synchronic realities there is grand asymmetry. James McWilliams writes in Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly that the regulatory realities of “free-range” do not match up with the image of allegedly happy chickens roaming free in a pastoral paradise.[8] On average, “free-range” chickens have twelve to twenty-four square inches of space, whereas the industrialized concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs) affords fifty square inches per chicken.[9] To allot “free range” chickens twelve square inches of space is a substantial contradiction in what we imagine “free-range” to mean. Free-range farming can in fact be more industrial, or “concentrated,” than CAFO farming.[10]

“Free-range” chickens evoke a grassy, pastoral, non-industrialized, happy patch of nostalgic farmland. “Free-range” diachronically evokes images of a nostalgic farm of the past when manifest-destiny-like expansion into the Wild West was still possible because the open range was still ‘open.’ (This sense of “range” obviously eschews the presence of Native Americans.) Class considerations withstanding, for the consumer, the choice to purchase “free-range” chicken due to its diachronic, ideographic meaning or not to purchase “free-change” chicken due to synchronic, ideographic literacy indicates an orientation of belief. “Free-range” creates both “symbolic” and “objective environments” that very much become part of the lives of people and literally change the landscape of food production areas. The ideograph “free-range” illustrates how the contextual use of this phrase identifies “one-term sums of an orientation.”[11]

As in the example of “free range,” when ideographs are the focus of a conflict or criticism, it is when their diachronic and synchronic meanings are at odds. McGee calls “structural dislocation” what happens to ideographs in which there is either a logical or a contextual disconnection between diachronic and synchronic meanings.[12] In the example of the ideograph “free range,” structural dislocation is certainly the problem. Outrage over the use of “free-range” to describe a twelve to twenty-four square inch space thus (and understandably so!) comes from a contradiction in diachronic and synchronic meanings of the ideograph “free-range.” McWilliams writes, “The ‘free-range’ language is purposefully loose and can easily be manipulated to mislead consumers.”[13] This is not a purely semantic focus on the term “free-range” but of the literal practice described in the legal definition and the resulting social confusion. Like “free range,” “local” is a charged rhetorical tool and taken largely for granted as technical terminology or a shorthand for which there is a presumed understanding.[14]

Defining “Local” Outside the Locavore Genre

“Local” did not figure as an ideograph in American food protest writing prior to Nabhan’s 2002 text.[15] In McWilliams’s assessment of the situation of food in America in Just Food, he notes that “Locavores…. have never really defined ‘local.’”[16] To clarify this important point, Locavores have not presented a united definition for “local.” In spite of this, the founders of the Locavore movement have very specific, personal, and idiomatic definitions of local that all share the quality of being a space that is a mappable radius. I posit that “local” as a tool for spatial rhetoric is in part a reaction to the ideographic phrase of “1500 miles”—the most-cited distance that food travels from farm to plate. McWilliams explains that without a common definition the movement falls back on slogans, such as:

restoring the local ‘foodshed,’ rediscovering the ‘taste of place,’ ‘relocalizing’ the food system, ‘reembedding food into local ecologies,’ and, once and for all, ‘coming home to eat.’[17]

This last Locavore slogan (“coming home to eat”) is a clear reference to the foundational text of the Locavore genre, Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat.[18] These “slogans” are ideographs used to explain the philosophy of Locavores. The philosophical components for Locavores are described here as practices aimed at: (1) healing the food system, (2) finding terroir (or the taste of place), (3) emphasizing the area or location of the food system, (4) situating food within a specific ecological context and, lastly, (5) rooting eating as a domestic, individualized, or familial act.[19]

We can extend the dilemma faced by Locavores further when confronted by the spatial rhetoric evoked by “local” as an ideograph. Diachronically, “local” indicates a sense of spatial immediacy. However, in rhetorical practice, and synchronically, “local” has meanings that often contradict actual spatial immediacy. The acknowledgement of this contradiction is largely unexamined in the discourse of the challenges facing the Locavore movement, which is an additional obstacle for Locavores. As “local” became an ideograph with material consequences for life, scholars such as E. Melanie DuPuis are concerned with the consequences of this lack of consideration. In her editorial, “How I Got Drafted into James McWilliams’ Anti-Locavore Diatribe,” DuPuis asserts that her critical questioning of the Locavore movement is not about “lambasting the movement. The point tends to be that the movement could be more effective if it were more self-critical…that this one strategy won’t save nature or gives us social equality…That’s a very different point than decrying a movement’s ‘sacred cows.’”[20]

Scholars that express interest in good-faith analyses of the efficacy of the Locavore rhetoric, tactics, and practices are all too often labeled as opponents—or enemies—of the movement. Here DuPuis suggests that McWilliams (at best) grossly misrepresents both the overall message of her work and the specifics of her findings. DuPuis wants to shift the discussion of the ethics of the Locavore movement from a series of pathos-heavy arguments, towards an authentic, logos-centric discourse about the flaws, challenges, and strengths of its practices. Her position echoes one of the primary concerns for Locavores—that individuals should have a say in the possibilities and options within their food systems, and that their actions in those systems determine the shape of those systems.

For Locavore texts, “local,” is a rhetorical device that employs the boundary of a cartographic radius to make a space a “local” place. My concern is with how these texts use cartographic ideation systems and the resulting effects of that cartographic thinking. The spatial and cartographic lexicon of Locavores is a defining part of their rhetoric, which is why it is curious that there has not yet been full analysis of the spatial dimension of this particular social movement. Scholars instead have focused on the ethics, politics, implementation, economics, or sustainability of the Locavore’s goals.

Coming Home to Eat

Coming Home to Eat outlines Nabhan’s experiment of a year of local eating in the American Southwest. He begins the preface 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.”[21] In this opening sentence, Nabhan mentions the two ideas that have the most importance in the text—eating locally and global food politics—and immediately places readers in a discussion about both local and global scale and space. Nabhan further elaborates on the main idea of his book 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.”[22]

Nabhan’s story begins in a specific location and promises active participation in the creation and production of one’s own food alongside others with likeminded values and skills. The emphasis on space from the opening sentence carries through into this passage—especially in the space created by “a 250-mile radius.” The meaning of the word local takes shape bit by bit as Nabhan details the perimeters of his “fifteen-month ritual.”[23]

Nabhan further explains “This is no diet, and it has no defined zones, other than a 250-mile loop about my home that I drew this morning on an old Arizona Highways map.”[24] The first quality of local—that it indicates a relationship with the place where one lives and the space where one acts within a community—provides the synchronic context for the ideograph “local” as a cartographic marker specific to the individual (meaning that every home would have a different definition of local). Although mentioned rather casually, this 250-mile loop is critical to Nabhan’s project as well as the larger genre of Locavore writing. In conversation with Nabhan, he pointed out that the cartographic requirements that Locavore movements extrapolated from his original project were intriguing, stating, “something I thought was a literary device became a geographic marker.”[25]

Nabhan’s definition of local in Coming Home to Eat defines “local” as a specific distance-based radius which is previously absent in American food protest writing. Local as a measurement superimposed on a map creates a space that is: 1) a social construct differing from “state areas” such as towns, counties, cities, counties, or states; 2) areas of cultural affiliation, such as communities; 3) areas defined in response to geographic characteristics, such as regions, watersheds, or foodsheds. The establishment of “local” as a cartographic measure in this specific text is new in American food protest writing. Nabhan did not define “local” as a preexisting territory, like his town of Tucson, or a social or political institution or structure common to community members amongst whom he resides. Nabhan’s definition of local as a radius “within 250 miles of my home” maps a very specific place.[26] A simple black and white line drawing of that 250-mile radius (originating somewhere southeast of Phoenix and northwest of Tucson) sits opposite the title page of Coming Home To Eat, presumably echoing the circle Nabhan drew on his “old Arizona Highways map.” A 250-mile radius is roughly equivalent to 196,250 square miles. In comparison, the third largest state—California—is 155,959 square miles.[27] Clearly, this radius covers more ground than the state of Arizona, which comes in at 113,634 square miles.[28]

Figure 1: Map of “local” as a 250-mile radius

In addition to the overwhelming majority of Arizona, this zone encompasses significant parts of Mexico, California, Nevada, and New Mexico. Here the word “local” represents a 250-mile loop that both encapsulates states and traverses national borders, while still describing what is felt or imagined to be a much smaller space, a paradox which illustrates the difficulty with taking “local” as an objective word. Local does not have the diachronic association of a state-sized space. This produces the sense of structural dislocation that McGee considers consequential for ideographs with conflicting diachronic and synchronic meanings.

Nabhan’s “rules” gain clarity as he includes his aspirations for the project’s slight caveat of “not having rules.” The ideograph of “local” starts to develop synchronic rhetorical meaning as he further explains the perimeters of local. An early modification to the definition emerges with Nabhan’s description of his hope for native foodstuffs:

I hoped that nine out of every ten kinds of plants and animals I would eat over the coming months would be from species that were native to this region when the first desert cultures settled in to farm here several thousand years ago.[29]

He expresses hope not only for foods that come from within a certain area (the previously defined 250-mile radius) but also that these foods will be the descendants of food from “several thousand years ago.”[30] This further contextualization of local emphasizes a diachronic understanding of local as one that is to some degree space-based but also one determined by the history of a place. “Local” food here is food that comes from within a certain space, as part of an eco-historical lineage. These two components of “local” (in a certain space and stretching back in time) reject notions of the contemporary ordering of that particular place. To look for native foodstuffs both excludes and prioritizes different parts of local space that house these different systems. The local space emphasized is therefore determined cartographically and through the sense of chronology emphasized by its ecology.

The above quoted figure of nine out of ten foodstuffs is also the figure Nabhan offers regarding the amount of things that Americans consume from “nonlocal” sources.[31] His modifiers for the primary rule—to eat native foods, and more specifically, to avoid processed, “global” food—are two qualifiers that help fortify Nabhan’s definition of local food, and by extension, what he means by “local.” In that case, “local” is somewhere between “global” and “native” space. If the two terms are treated as binaries (as they are in this comparison), then “local” is certainly more similar to “native space” than “global space.” This provides further insights as to diachronic meanings associated with the ideograph “local.” To attach “native” to the ideograph “local” is to evoke a long contradictory history of the term “native” as pejorative or celebratory. Specifically, in discussions on globalization and its reach, an emphasis on local specificity is encouraged as a way to avoid overgeneralization or the over application of theories regardless of an area’s unique historical or cultural context. The comparison of “global” and “native” cannot be overlooked in the context of defining the vertical, diachronic associations that “local” carries.

Nabhan’s definition of local here relies on synchronic and diachronic meanings, and as we will see in the next Locavore texts, it functions as a rhetorical tool of the sum-terms of philosophical orientation for Locavores and provides future Locavores with the nuts and bolts for spatial rhetoric. This process begins the activation of a literacy of space for local as a spatial form. The Locavore texts that follow Coming Home To Eat continue the process of teaching eaters how to read “local” space.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle defines “local” differently from Nabhan in that its spatial rhetoric relies on spatial understandings that presume naturalized, cartographic containers of the state. The concluding essay in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (“Looking for Mr. Goodvegetable”) is where we find the quantifiable definition of local ultimately determined by the text.

Kingsolver’s text is comprised of writing from both her husband, Hopp, and one of her two daughters, C. Kingsolver. The Kingsolver family creates a meta-authorial, polyvocal text that is part narrative, part how-to manual chronicling how they ate “locally” for a year. The “story” of the Kingsolver’s text is about “one year of deliberately eating food produced in the same place where we worked, loved our neighbors, drank the water, and breathed the air.”[32] Here we can see that the sense of local from this early passage includes where one works, lives, and the watershed to which one belongs.

In defining the scope of “local,” the Kingsolvers begin with looking at the chain of food production and its possibilities within their surrounding areas. They had “farmers in [their] county” for meat; they also “knew of some good dairies in [their] state” and “a local mill that ground corn, wheat, and other flours, but its wheat was outsourced from other states.”[33] Here, the options for imagining local are the county and the state.[34] But there is a huge difference between the sizes and purposes of counties and states. A state-sized space is an unlikely spatial category for describing, as Kingsolver states, “the place where [one] worked, loved [one’s] neighbors, drank the water, and breathed the air.”[35] Yet, Locavore texts such as Kingsolver’s equate the place of local with a space that is at least state-sized.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle approaches its conclusion with a series of questions interrogating the size and scope of “local,” and Hopp answers them in his last essay in the book, titled “Looking for Mr. Goodvegetable,” in which he asks, “How nearby does local have to be?”[36] Hopp expands the area of “local,” beyond a geographic area of the average neighborhood or commute, to an area much larger. Hopp again poses the question: “How local is local?”[37] The following passage begins an answer:

Our friend Gary Nabhan, in his book Coming Home to Eat, defined it as a 250-mile-radius circle for the less-productive desert Southwest. By contrast, the Bay Area group Locavores ( recommends a 100-mile-radius circle for the more fertile California valleys. It depends on the region and on the product. For us, in Appalachia, seasonal vegetables are literally next door, but our dairy products come from about 120 miles away.[38]

This definition of local gestures to characteristics of the land as well as possibilities for food production (which resembles the definition of a foodshed). To define “local” as dependent on region or product emphasizes the synchronic meaning of the ideograph but seems to exclude diachronic meanings of “local.”[39]

From the above quoted passage, we can extrapolate that a local space has a 120-mile radius. The area of a 120-mile radius measures 45,239 square miles, roughly somewhere between the size of the 31st and 32nd largest states, Mississippi (46,907 square miles) and Pennsylvania (44, 816 square miles).[40] Forty-five thousand square miles is a different sense of “lived space” than Kingsolver initially described as the local place where one works and lives. This further complicates the technical terminology presumed with the ideograph of “local.”

Figure 2: Map of “local” as a 120-mile radius

From the above quoted passage where the definition of “local” emerges, Hopp continues the explanation of how the limitation of “about 120 miles” is perhaps imperfect but better than no cartographic marker at all. He writes:

For us, in Appalachia, seasonal vegetables are literally next door, but our dairy products come from about 120 miles away. That’s better, we think, than 1,200, which is also an option in our store. We bear in mind our different concerns: fuel use, pesticide use, quality, and support for farms. By pushing the market with our buying habits, we continually shape our buying choices, and the nature of farming.[41]

In the statement, “That’s better, we think, than 1, 200 [miles],” there are two points to note: first, the space described by that radius, and, second another ideograph within Locavore discourse. We can further presume Hopp is alluding to the ideograph of 1500 food miles.[42] It shares an area value that correlates with idea of national space as a naturalized container.

Local as response to the ideograph of 1500 food miles further shows the term as an ideograph that has a specific (synchronic) reaction to the cartographic reference point of national space. For example, Hopp acknowledges that one of the challenges facing Locavores is that local food is “naive and elitist, whereas industrial agriculture is for everybody.”[43] The problem in the ideograph here—“local” as elitist”—is, as McGee cautions, more than a semiotic problem, and it illustrates that the ideograph is structurally dislocated. The text further addresses the issue of local food as elitist in stating what would seem to be the most obvious critique of why Kingsolver’s project is untenable for the average person. Taking a tongue-in-cheek tone, Hopp writes, “Oh sure, Barbara Kingsolver has forty acres and a mule (a donkey actually). But how can someone like me participate in the spirit of growing things…?”[44] The act of “growing things” can be removed, or replaced, by buying things. Purchasing is an act that contributes to the “spirit” of an agricultural act.

Kingsolver and Hopp’s definition of “local,” like Nabhan’s, relies on both synchronic and diachronic meanings, and structural dislocation occurs as a result of asymmetries between those meanings. The readable local space created by Kingsolver and Hopp, however, relies on the diachronic understandings of spatial forms (such as state and county). Taken as a sum-term for orientation of the community of Locavores, Kingsolver and Hopp rely on the spatial rhetoric of local from Nabhan’s definition. We can further see that there may be structural dislocation between “local” as a space created by the individual as opposed to “local” space as reminiscent of naturalized containers of space.

The 100 Mile Diet

In 2007, the same year as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Smith and MacKinnon published The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating.[45] From their title, it is clear that Smith and MacKinnon narrowed the scope of “local” from a 250-mile radius, and even further from a 120-mile radius, to a 100-mile radius. Like Kingsolver’s polyvocal text, Smith and MacKinnon’s book alternates chapters between the two authors. In the acknowledgements, they mention that throughout the process of writing their text they learned and “became aware of the emerging local foods movement.”[46] They affirm, “Several leaders in this field warrant recognition: Sage Van Wing and the Locavores (…Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Coming Home to Eat.[47]

For Smith and MacKinnon, the local (synchronic) space that they create needs to have similarities in climate, terrain, and landscape. They ultimately end up using spatial rhetoric that employs, yet again, the discursive form of naturalized, national space as a category for mapping space. Consider the following passage where Smith and MacKinnon describe how they relate to their food system prior to doing the 100-mile diet: “We were sinking into this world around us, a place whose boundaries and limits we’d never really known…. Distance is the enemy of awareness.”[48] The boundaries and limits here imply that having illiteracy of space is dangerous. The “enemy of awareness” is the danger in distance, and spatial literacy supposedly disarms that threat.[49]

Prior to settling on a 100-mile radius, Smith and MacKinnon began their yearlong experiment by asking what eating within a 200-mile radius would mean for their particular spatial realities. The 200-mile boundary comes from the ecological footprint model developed by the bioecologist Dr. William Rees of the University of British Columbia.[50] Rees’s program estimates how much of the earth’s resources (in acres) one consumes yearly, thus determining one’s “ecological footprint.”[51] For calculating resources used by food, users enter the average distance their food travels, and “its lowest option [is] ‘200 miles or less.’”[52] When Smith and MacKinnon “looked at a map, however, that distance [of a 200-mile radius] didn’t make sense” to them.[53] Here we get a nod to constructing a boundary of local based on preexisting features of where one lives—different from the previous texts. Their concerns are about locations of producers within the foodshed—an area the size of South Carolina is too big to be a “local” area.

One significant development in the definition of local in this text is that Smith and MacKinnon determine the size of their local space by the characteristics of their surrounding geographic area. This is significant because this approach to space reverses the common (and problematic) notion of, as Doreen Massey states in For Space, “the imagination of space as a surface on which we are placed.”[54] What Massey states as a fault in spatial imagination is performed with previous ideographs of “local.” Smith and MacKinnon instead create a “local” space determined by “bioregional place.”[55] This layer of synchronic meaning for local is one that attempts a reconciliation with its diachronic other. Definitions of local that do not follow the same territories of foodsheds (like the original 250-mile radius of “local”) perform cartography that determines arbitrary spaces with which to act “locally.” Radius as “local” cartography constructs terrains that do not necessarily align with lived space or foodsheds.

For Smith and MacKinnon, the local space that they created needed to have a sense of coherence in climate, terrain, and landscape. Through considering these conditions, they came up against the naturally occurring, material circumstances of their space, explaining:

A 200-mile line, drawn outward from our apartment in Vancouver, might leap mountain range, cleave river valleys, enter landscapes so different from ours that if you took a stranger from one to the other, he might imagine he’d entered another country.[56]

Using their home as a tentative radius for the boundaries of local space, the differences in the terrains within the 200-mile radius are too different for them to consider a 200-mile radius as a construct of “local.” Leaping, cleaving, and entering into these two opposite landscapes (mountain ranges vs. valleys) is far too much opposition for a local space to encompass. The implication here is that, in “local” space, people should not feel as if they move from one terrain to another.

They conclude the passages quoted above with the following realization: “Poring over the map that day, we considered, for the first time ever, the boundaries of the place in which we live.”[57] Boundaries here are constructs of terrain and climate. This marks a significant difference in how Locavore texts engage with rhetorics of space and place. In the process of defining local place, the space itself contributes to the mapping of the boundary of a “local” place—not the other way around. This rhetoric of space, again, differs from the other texts in this genre so far.

Smith and MacKinnon decide that, in addition to the considerations of homogeneity in geography and climate, there are practical reasons to define local as extending from Vancouver to Victoria, on the end of Vancouver Island. They explain that Vancouver Island is no small area, that “Vancouver Island, itself [is] the size of Vermont.”[58] By comparing their local area to Vermont, they liken the local boundary to the size of the 43rd largest US State, roughly 23,957 square miles.[59] When they consulted a map, they “drew it into a circle and measured the distance. It was, almost to perfection, 100 miles. The 100-Mile Diet.”[60] The definition of “local” as a 100-mile radius works out to 31,416 square miles, or an area between the 38th and 39th largest US states of Indiana and Maine.[61]

Figure 3: Map of “local” as a 120-mile radius

Like Nabhan, and Kingsolver and Hopp, Smith and MacKinnon grapple with space in the ideograph of “local.” The shifting structural dislocation for the ideograph of local as a space created by the individual (Nabhan), to local space as reminiscent of naturalized containers of space (Kingsolver and Hopp), to local space as a response to geographic factors is apparent in the juxtaposition of these texts. Smith and MacKinnon’s definition differs most strongly in its attempt to reconcile structural dislocation resulting from disparities between synchronic and diachronic meanings. The space created is both readable and innovative in its cartography, while emphasizing the imperatives of the Locavore movement. Nevertheless, Smith and MacKinnon’s advancement of the ideograph has slipped, synchronically, away from its original permutation. Following this text (and groups like the Bay Area Locavores), “local” has come to be a synonym for a 100-mile radius.[62] Popular 100-mile diets place a radius upon one’s location without adjusting for terrain, ecologies, or the specifics of existing foodsheds.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Pollan is the last author comprising the founders of the Locavore genre. His use of the ideograph of “local” differs from Nabhan, Kingsolver, Smith and MacKinnon’s in a variety of ways.[63] Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Pollan’s project is that, while Pollan still uses mile-based thinking to describe what defines a local area, his text is ultimately concerned with how “economy” is modified by the adjective “local” in the phrase “local food economy.” Pollan’s employs local as a stable term that modifies other terms. His text treats “local” as fixed category in order to explore possible participation in a “local food economy.”

In his lengthy discussion of Polyface Farm of Swoope, Virginia, Pollan explains that, depending on one’s political position, terms in our food system (such as “organic”) have multiple and contradictory meanings. Pollan flags some significant terms for both Locavores and contemporary food movements that may be in need of further consideration here:

Then there is this further paradox: Polyface Farm is technically not an organic farm, though by any standard it is more ‘sustainable’ than virtually any organic farm. Its example forces you to think a lot harder about what these words—sustainable, organic, natural—really mean.[64]

Pollan flags the terms “sustainable,” “organic,” and “natural” as words in need of more consideration. These three terms (like the previous example of “free range”) are also ideographs (and ought to be analyzed). To consumers, the story told by the term “organic” is that the food is clean and safe. Mid-sized and small farmers hear expensive, counterproductive, and regulated beyond common sense. For “Big Organic” stores, such as Whole Foods, “organic” means vast profit. These reasons (in addition to others) are reasons to “think harder about” the word “organic.”

In the quotation above, “local” is not included in the list of words that we need “to think a lot harder about.” The omission of “local” as a word in need of more theorization does not seem to be a fluke; it is assumed to be a concrete term, devoid of the slippage that causes problems for terms like “organic.” Pollan’s text uses “local” in terms of distance, rather than social or cultural definitions. He concludes chapter fourteen, “The Meal: Grass Fed,” with a meal produced by farmers “within a leisurely drive of the farm where it had been grown.”[65] Pollan explains that this decision kept “with the whole local food chain concept.”[66] The spirit of the “local food chain” concept persists if we are within a drive of our food (but this seems more of a suggestion than a fact). The “local” space suggested here is the drivable distance to Polyface Farm.

Other passages use mileage markers for what local might mean for individual consumers in a “local food economy.” Pollan quotes Polyface customers as “driving over an hour” to get to the farm.[67] We might presume that a minimum distance of 60 miles is indicated. He also quotes a customer, who states, “I drive 150 miles one way in order to get clean meat for my family.”[68] Additionally, if a consumer purchases Polyface products at a farmers market, they might be purchasing from deliveries driven up to “300 miles” away.[69] In other words, “local” can mean a space from a minimum 60 miles to the high end of 300 miles. This wide range pushes the boundaries of how local has been mapped (thus far) by Locavore texts.

The other passages that inquire about the role of local in “food economies” do note that “local” is a word fraught with grey areas, yet the text does not seem to acknowledge that this ambiguity may be the consequence its lack of definition. For example, Pollan states, “[o]f course, just because food is local doesn’t necessarily mean it will be organic or even sustainable.”[70] Here “local” is a set thing. Food can be “local” without question about what that means, but its sustainability or organic qualities are not to be taken for granted. This seems to further be indicative of Massey’s critique about space, or DuPuis’s critique of “local,” as undertheorized. When Pollan’s text says “local,” it implies a definition of local that is space-based, and involves “opting out” of some “food economies” in favor of others.

Pollan’s text might be seen as divergent from the other texts in the Locavore genre in that it opts not to offer a specific cartographic definition of “local,” such as Nabhan’s space of a 250-mile radius. Instead, defining local as an area anywhere between 60 and 300 miles emphasizes the synchronic variability of the ideograph.

Figure 4: Map of “local” with a range of a 60 to 300-mile radius

This definition of “local” space adds the dimension of economics to “local” food that other senses of local suggest but do not directly address. Local as a fundamental part of an economic system is also a departure from local as an individual or home-based idea. “Local” as a spatial imaginary specifically related to food economies (with a radius from 60 to 300 miles) emphasizes a kind of social knowledge that allows the market to be the primary force for determining space. Furthermore, Pollan’s understated definition of “local” is dependent on reading space in neoliberal market systems.


Structural dislocation in spatial literacies of “local” food faces challenges that are more than semiotic games. Ideographs are also part of real life. As the primary Locavore texts use the ideograph “local,” they prioritize synchronic meanings over diachronic ones. However, ideation that maintains the spirit of “going local” emphasizes a diachronic sense of local that may in fact clash with synchronic, cartographic senses of local. “Local” space as a cartographic reality creates a community (Locavores) that maintains cartography as a specific guideline for its politics. Ultimately, this process begins the activation of a literacy of space for local as a spatial form. The Locavore texts continue the process of teaching eaters how to read local space. Structural dislocation between “local” as a space created by the individual—as opposed to “local” space as reminiscent of naturalized containers of space—further complicates what is already a murky ideograph. Public policy is one area where we can identify specific concerns emerging from the structural dislocation created in the tension between the synchronic cartographic or mileage-based meanings of “local” and the diachronic sense of immediacy or community that is still part of the ideograph’s meaning.

Following the foundational Locavore texts, we do have a USDA definition of local, first acknowledged by Locavore texts in Vicki Robin’s 2014 Blessing The Hands That Feed Us: Lessons from a 10-Mile Diet.[71] In 2008 Congress amended the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act.[72] In the amendment, “locally” and “regionally” are near synonyms, 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.”[73] The USDA defines “local” food as coming from a 400-mile radius or within a given state.[74] While correlation does not equal causality, it cannot be overlooked that two common forms of spatial rhetoric—as radius measurement and as naturalized container of state space—are now part of our legal lexicon and reality.

Figure 5: Map of “local” with a 400-mile radius

While the case might be made for a state-sized space to be considered, even Smith and MacKinnon turned away from an idea of local as large as the size of South Carolina. If a space the size of South Carolina is, synchronically, too big to be “local” for original Locavores, then what are we gaining from the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act definition?

In “Community Food Security: Practice in Need of Theory?” Molly D. Anderson and John T. Cook address the problem and necessity of dealing with terms like “local.”[75] Moreover, they explain that when terms such as “local” and “community” become concrete terminology for the jargon of Community Food Security (CFS), theoretical and pragmatic road blocks occur. Anderson and Cook explain that many of the problems with public discourse and policy making for CFS come from a lack of theorization within the rhetoric of CFS, stating that they “believe that CFS as a concept suffers from loose definitions and absence of a theoretical structure [emphasis added].”[76] These two concerns, slack definitions and a lack of theory, are concerns I have attempted to highlight here in the history of the ideograph of “local.”

Anderson and Cook suggest that the rhetorical use of local may be part of the problem with defining the community in CFS. They write:

Sometimes this question [that of community] is confused with the question of what is “local,” perhaps because both have a spatial dimension. We do not see the two questions as necessarily linked: the community in question must be defined for CFS to have any meaning, but whether various aspects of food systems are local or not is part of a range of options for implementation, not necessarily part of the conceptual definition of CFS.[77]

“Community” and “local” problematize each other. Any “conceptual definition of CFS” will have to deal with the spatial dimension implicit in the diachronic meaning of “community.” Furthermore, as “local” is revised by both Locavore communities and the USDA, the spatial sense conferred to “community” seems open to revision as well.

In order for policy makers to determine the role that local food has in CFS, they will need a definition of “local” without structural dislocation—the definition needs to make sense. A rhetorical analysis of “local” as a spatial ideograph matters in this case, as in the case of Anderson and Cook’s statement regarding food policy:

Food policy councils are part of the set of distinguishing elements of CFS in the US… and they operate more or less independently in many cities to build local food policy from scratch. But perhaps there is a particular set of decision-making bodies, or a sequence of policy measures, that tends to be effective at the community, city, state, regional, or national levels. We know very little about the trade-offs and synergies among policy options.[78]

In terms of policymaking and the bodies that will make decisions about CFS or the organization of LFS, the way policies organize people matter. Thinking at “the community, city, state, regional, or national levels” obviously evokes different possibilities for populations and foodsheds. These potential bodies for defining local are, again, naturalized containers of the state with different implications for those eating, working, and living in a given local area.[79]

Anderson and Cook conclude their article asking, “[I]s increased reliance on local foods vital for CFS, whether a community wants this or not? Should more people grow their own food in backyards, schoolyards, or community gardens for CFS?”[80] As this analysis of the Locavore genre shows, the space of food must be considered a socio-geographic one. Any theory of CFS or metric to measure “local” food will have to account for spatial thinking that influences how we define communities, foodsheds, and their participants.

Spatial justice for CFS or LFS requires consideration regarding how communities themselves think spatially. Sebastián Cobarrubias and John Pickles emphasize the ever-present necessity of spatial and cartographic implications for social movements in their essay, “Spacing Movements: The Turn to Cartographies and Mapping Practices in Contemporary Social Movements.”[81] For the Locavore movement (as Cobarrubias and Pickles note regarding social movements more broadly), to “think and act spatially and more specifically cartographically,” is to employ a spatial rhetoric.[82] For this reason, a resulting cartographic lens in subsequent definitions of “local” must remain active when analyzing ideographs for this social movement. The primary ideograph “local” has created a form of social knowledge that is now legislated as a top-down process. It is still in its early years of enactment, and we have yet to see how this legal definition of the ideograph “local” promotes or obfuscates sovereignty in CFS or LFS.


[1] Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dr. Laura Wilder, Dr. Tamika Carrey, and Dr. Bret Benjamin for their support, comments, and careful reading throughout this ongoing project. I also want to thank the Graduate Association for Food Studies for their thoughtful feedback and exciting conversation when I first presented a conference version of this paper. Additionally, I want to thank Gary Paul Nabhan for taking the time to talk, at length, in Saratoga, NY during the most inhospitable weather.

[2] Michael C. McGee, “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology,” in Quarterly Journal of Speech 66 (1980). Reprinted in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader, ed. John Louis Lucaites, Celeste Michelle Condit and Sally Caudill (New York: The Guilford Press, 1999), 425-440.

[3] See: Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (New York: Harper, 2007). Gary Paul Nabhan, Coming Home to Eat (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002). Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon, The 100-Mile Diet (New York: Random House, 2007). Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (London: Penguin, 2006).

[4] Nabhan, Coming Home to Eat, 33.

[5] McGee, “Text, Context, and the Fragmentation of Contemporary Culture,” 435.

[6] Ibid., 427.

[7] McGee gives examples of ideographs as “words only (and not claims),” such as “property,” “religion,” “right of privacy,” “freedom of speech,” “rule of law” and “liberty.” A term such as “liberty” is ideographic in that it summarizes and encapsulates a large history of events, signifiers, and rhetorical situations that both are, and were, significant to political philosophies. In evoking “liberty,” a political philosophy operates with the presumption that the shared understanding of that ideograph is universally accepted.

[8] James E. McWilliams, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (New York: Little Brown, 2009).

[9] Ibid., 148.

[10] McWilliams also writes: “Even the industry admits that ‘free-range’ means little more than a token light at the end of an enormously long tunnel, and that most birds spend their lives trapped inside the ‘grow out facility’ rather than stretching their wings and roaming the earth after grubs. In essence, there are no uniform standards for ‘free-range’ as there are for organic foods” (149).

[11] McGee, “Text, Context, and the Fragmentation of Contemporary Culture,” 429.

[12] Ibid., 434.

[13] McWilliams, Just Food, 149-150.

[14] McGee, “Text, Context, and the Fragmentation of Contemporary Culture,” 429.

[15] The key ideographs for previous American food protest writing, such as “organic” and “big food,” refer to the means of food production—or the how rather than the where of food production.

[16] McWilliams, Just Food, 18.

[17] Ibid.,18.

[18] Nabhan, Coming Home to Eat.

[19] Ibid., 14. McWilliams explains that one of his primary concerns about the Locavore movement is that the influence it has on food literacy is ultimately destructive for consumers. He states his specific concern is “that well-meaning locavores who have the power to influence thousands of consumers down the primrose path of localism will come to realize that their dreams were unrealistic after it’s too late.” Ibid, 9. The rest of his book explains that there are more pressing issues to both the American and global food systems than “localism” and that the focus on localism unfortunately detracts from other issues. These other issues boil down to what McWilliams calls “the locavore’s dilemma”—a clear nod to another Locavore text—Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pierre Desrochers’s 2012 The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-Mile Diet takes this phrase and runs with it as an organizing principle.

[20] E. Melanie DuPuis, “How I Got Drafted into James McWilliams’ Anti-Locavore Diatribe,” Grist, September 2, 2009,

[21] Nabhan, Coming Home to Eat, 13.

[22] Ibid., 13.

[23] Ibid., 32.

[24] Ibid., 35-36.

[25]Gary Paul Nabhan, in discussion with the author, January 23, 2014.

[26] Ibid., 33.

[27] US Department of the Interior, “Profile of the People and Land of the United States,” last modified September 23, 2015,

[28] Ibid..

[29] Ibid., 38.

[30] Ibid., 38.

[31] Ibid., 34.

[32] Ibid., 20.

[33] Ibid., 34.

[34] Ibid., 34.

[35] Ibid., 20.

[36] Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 348.

[37] Ibid., 349.

[38] Ibid., 349.

[39] Ibid., 349.

[40] US Department of the Interior, “Profile of the People and Land of the United States.”

[41] Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 349.

[42] McWilliams, Just Food, 19.

[43] Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, 338.

[44] Ibid., 180.

[45] Ibid., 24. While Smith and MacKinnon live in Canada, I consider them part of the American Locavore movement and genre of texts, due to the adoption and the popularization of “The 100-Mile Diet” as a slogan in the states.

[46] Smith and MacKinnon, The 100-Mile Diet, 264.

[47] Ibid., 264-265.

[48] Ibid., 54-55.

[49] Ibid., 55.

[50] Ibid., 7.

[51] Ibid., 8.

[52] Ibid., 8.

[53] Smith and MacKinnon, The 100-Mile Diet, 8.

[54] Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage Publications, 2005), 7.

[55] Robert Feagan, “The Place of Food: Mapping Out the ‘Local’ in Local Food Systems,” Progress in Human Geography 31.1 (2007): 23-34.

[56] Smith and MacKinnon, The 100-Mile Diet, 8.

[57] Ibid., 8-9.

[58] Ibid., 9.

[59] US Department of the Interior, “Profile of the People and Land of the United States.”

[60] Smith and MacKinnon, The 100-Mile Diet, 10.

[61] US Department of the Interior, “Profile of the People and Land of the United States.”

[62] Maggie Gosselin, Sarah Klein, and Jessica Prentice, The Local Foods Wheel, accessed 2014,

[63] The previous Locavore texts had as their singular focus year-long projects in which they examined what it means to eat locally. Pollan’s text, however, emerged amidst that particular moment asking what it means to eat in the American food system. Due to his noted role as an public intellectual, his popularity as a nonfiction writer, and the rhetorical situation in which The Omnivore’s Dilemma is situated, he is often thought of as one of the emergent Locavores, even if the book that gained him notoriety as such does not actually focus on a local-based inquiry.

[64] Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 131.

[65] Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 262.

[66] Ibid., 262.

[67] Ibid., 241.

[68] Ibid., 242.

[69] Ibid., 247.

[70] Ibid., 257.

[71] Vicki Robin, Blessing The Hands That Feed Us: Lessons Learned from a 10-Mile Diet (New York: Penguin, 2014).

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] The Library of Congress, “Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act (2008),” Bill Text Versions 110th Congress (2007-2008) H.R.2419, accessed 2014,

[75] Molly D. Anderson and John T. Cook, “Community Food Security: Practice in Need of Theory?” Agriculture and Human Values 16.2 (1999): 141-150.

[76] Ibid., 142.

[77] Ibid., 146.

[78] Ibid., 148.

[79] John A. Agnew, “The Devaluation of Place in Social Science,” in The Power of Place (London: Allen & Unwin, 1989).

[80] Anderson and Cook, “Community Food Security: Practice in Need of Theory?” 148.

[81] Sebastián Cobarrubias and John Pickles, “Spacing Movements: The Turn to Cartographies and Mapping Practices in Contemporary Social Movements,” in The Spatial Turn: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2009): 36-59.

[82] Ibid., 37-38.


Darcy Mullen is a PhD student at the University at Albany, focusing on rhetoric and social movement studies (specifically the rhetoric of local food systems). This particular paper comes from Chapter 2 of her dissertation, “There’s No Space like Home: Locavore Writing and Rhetorics of Place.” Other research interests include rhetoric, pedagogy, food studies, and spatial theory. Her recent publications include an essay on the politics of place and tourism, “Tales From Nowhere: Burma and The Lonely Planet Phenomena” in Antae, and a chapter on pedagogy and disability studies in the edited collection Lessons in Disability: Essays on Teaching with Young Adult Literature.

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