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“What is Local?” More Than Meets the Eye…
November 5, 2013
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Written by Amy Cortese

We locavores talk about ‘local’ all the time – it’s a term we take almost for granted. But what exactly does it mean to be local? That was the question posed recently at a panel discussion and entrepreneur showcase hosted by Slow Money NYC – fittingly, at Brooklyn’s 61 Local. The event, which included presentations by local entrepreneurs, attracted a diverse group of foodies, businesses and investors.

It turns out, there’s more to ‘local’ than meets the eye. The concept encompasses a value system and spirit of community that transcends geographic footprints and rigid square-mile formulas, according to the panel, which included some of New York City’s leading localists.

For Keith Cohen, the owner of 61 Local and a panelist, it’s a matter of craft and the care and pride that goes into making a product. That viewpoint is communicated in the impeccably sourced menu at 61 Local, which ranges from locally-made craft beers and charcuterie to Sahadi’s hummus. “When I make a decision about who to deal with on the vendor side, I don’t make decisions about miles and radii – I make it based on craft and relationships,” he said. That vision was shared by Keith Cohen, who owns the historic Orwasher’s bakery on the Upper East Side. Building on the bakery’s nearly century long legacy of providing pumperknickel, rye, challah and other varieties of bread, Cohen tries to source his grains locally—in the process nudging along a resurgence in locally grown grain.

But is local always the best choice?, asked moderator Erica Dorn of Accion. For example, is a local but large scale farm that uses industrial farming techniques better than a more distant family-owned farm that practices sustainability?

Jon Zeltsman, president of Down to Earth Markets, which manages about 20 farmers markets in the NYC region and Westchester, argued that a product from a more distant farmer with whom the market has a trusted relationship is often the better choice. When Zeltsman and his wife started Down To Earth Markets 22 years ago, they were looking to fill a gap for ‘clean’ food and community in their Westchester town. As Down To Earth has grown over the years, its selection criteria has evolved as well, he said. Sustainability, quality, community scale and a trusted relationship are equally as important to Zeltsman as proximity. He summed up this pragmatic view of local by invoking a humorous bumper sticker that reads: My karma ran over my dogma.

As businesses and consumers, we grapple with these questions every day. But increasingly they confront us in our role as investors as well, as more people look to looking to align their money with their values. Locally-owned enterprises help keep money in the community and build strong local economies. But it’s not black and white. For example, Wall Street—for better or for worse—is a hometown industry, she noted, and one that injects a lot of money into the local economy and helps keep farmers markets and local artisans afloat. On the other hand, Wall Street firms may engage in behavior that has harmful effects on society and the environment (remember the financial crisis?). So the discussion has to be about more than location, she said. Still, if Americans shifted even a tiny portion of the $30 trillion they have in long terms investments and pension funds—mostly tied up in the stocks and bonds of large publicly traded corporations— to locally owned enterprises, it would be a huge boon to the Main Street economy.

The bottom line is that local, while a geographically rooted concept, entails value judgements—whether your are an entrepreneur, foodie or investor.