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The Birth of Locavore

Jessica Prentice coined the word “locavore” which was chosen as the Oxford Word of the Year! We asked her how the word came about. Her answer is below.

There’s only one word for it: giddy. That’s how I’ve been feeling since reading the first email informing me that “locavore” was voted 2007’s “Word of the Year” by Oxford University Press. It’s the same feeling you have when you’re twelve years old and the guy you have a crush on gives you a valentine, and doesn’t give one to anyone else. You blush, you jump up and down in your seat, and you send excited text messages to the people you know will understand.

And how exciting to be asked to blog about it and be able to tell the story from my point of view! From the very beginning, the word “locavore” had legs. It’s actually been a fascinating phenomenon to watch: to see something that never existed before take on meaning and gather momentum. It’s also a phenomenon that would have been impossible before the internet. So, how did the word “locavore” come about?

I was one of the many thousands of people nationwide who had become attracted to local foods. At the farmers market, I discovered a relationship to my food that I had been longing for and missing for my entire urbanized existence… Here I bought vegetables and fruit that had been harvested that morning from a field just an hour or two away from where I lived. I got to know the farmers who had grown the food, and got to put my dollar directly into their hands. I bought cheeses made from the milk of cows that I could watch grazing from my car window if I wanted to. I bought eggs from chickens that pecked around for worms amidst grasses the way they’d been doing for thousands of years before factory farming. I bought meat from cattle that had never even seen a feedlot. I bought loaves of bread (sometimes still warm!) from a baker who had loaded the oven that morning.

I was completely hooked, and for years I went out of my way to do my food shopping at the farmers market. My understanding of the ecological and social issues was a process that happened simultaneously. The more I learned about our globalized food system, the more lacking in common sense it seemed. Not only are most people missing out on the age-old pleasures of eating real, fresh foods grown and prepared in the context of community, but as a species we are burning fossil fuels at rapidly increasing rates, and releasing ever more carbon gases into the atmosphere. Factory farms exploit workers and the earth, abuse animals, and contribute to a society in which factory-processed foods have become staples—creating a population that is simultaneously overfed and undernourished. The more I learned, the more committed I became to the idea that strong local food systems are essential for environmental sustainability, food security, social equity, and the economic vitality of thriving communities.

While working as the Director of Education at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, I met Sage Van Wing. Sage was another of the many people who had gotten turned on to local foods, and our acquaintance was built on our shared passion for local and sustainable food systems. In April of 2005, having left the farmers market to focus on writing my book (Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection), I was on a writing residency in West Marin, and would occasionally walk into the nearby town of Point Reyes to pick up food, do a bit of research, or just take a break. Sage worked at the town’s beloved local bookstore, and I would sometimes browse their titles and chat with her.

It was during one of these chats that Sage told me she had an idea she wanted to run by me… She had just finished reading Gary Paul Nabhan’s book Coming Home to Eat, about his experiment with spending a year eating only foods grown or harvested within a 250-mile radius of where he lives near Phoenix, Arizona. Deeply inspired, Sage thought: wouldn’t it be cool to challenge people in the Bay Area to eat locally for even just a month? It would be an experiment to see what we could and couldn’t find within a certain radius of our homes. The idea struck me immediately as one whose time had come. It was too exciting to pass up and I told her I was in. She wrote a press release and solicited a couple of other friends to get involved. I already had an active website for my work around food, and asked my web designer to create a webpage for our challenge. Sage was calling it “Foodshed for Thought”.

One of the other women on board was local chef Dede Sampson, who had done some work connected to the San Francisco Chronicle food section. Our press release made its way to the desk of one of the food section’s lead writers, Olivia Wu. The Chronicle was doing a whole series of articles focusing on various environmental issues, and our challenge made a perfect focal point for a food section article. Olivia decided to use me as her example of the challenge in action, and brought a photographer along to follow me shopping at the farmers market and then cooking a meal for the three of us in my home kitchen, based entirely on ingredients grown within a hundred-mile radius. Luckily, she liked the meal!
As she was working on the article, however, Olivia felt strongly that our group needed a moniker. Most projects like this come out of a group of people already associated with some entity, such as a business or a non-profit organization—but we were just a group of women who had gotten excited by an idea and were willing to put some time and energy into creating the challenge. As her deadline approached, Olivia gave me a call and insisted that we come up with a name for ourselves. She was apprehensive about using the phrase “Foodshed for Thought”; she wanted something a bit catchier, and something that referenced us and not just the challenge. “Okay,” I told her, “when do you need it by?”

“Five p.m. today,” was her answer!

That gave us only a few hours to come up with something. I called Sage, but couldn’t reach her, so I left her a message saying that I was working on it. I didn’t know where to start, so I wrote down:

  • “Local Eaters”
  • Then, beneath it:

  • “Some Women Who Eat Locally”

Clearly, this wasn’t going to be easy…

I have always loved words. The Greek, the Latin, the Germanic, and the Anglo-Saxon influences on modern-day English are both romantic and fascinating to me. So an obvious step was to browse etymology websites in search of roots and affixes drawn from either Latin or Greek that might convey the idea of “local eaters” with a bit of elegance or style. The Greek word for “to eat” is phagein—the root of the word “esophagus”—which I didn’t think would make a very pretty word! The Latin root of local is locus, and the Latin root most associated with eating is vorare, both of which seemed to fit aesthetically as well as semantically. It wasn’t long before I found myself debating the pros and cons of “locavore” and “localvore”—and intuitively preferred the former.

These were my reasons:
1. Flow: the word flows better without the “lv” in the middle. It’s easier to say.
2. Nuance: in my opinion, “localvore” says too much. There is little mystery to it, nothing to discover. It says that this is all about eating locally, end of story. But the word “local” is rooted in locus, meaning “place”, which has a deeper resonance… This movement is about eating not only from your place, but with a sense of place—something we don’t have an English word for. There is a French word, terroir, which implies the sense of place that you get from eating a particular food or drinking a particular wine. Unfortunately, it looks a lot like “terror”, something Americans are touchy about at the moment. I do know one wonderful local farm here in the Bay Area that has made an English play on the French word by using the term “tairwa”, but it hasn’t really caught on.
3. Credibility: “locavore” could almost be a “real” word, combining roots derived from two Latin words: locus, “place”, with vorare, “to swallow”. I like the literal meaning of “locavore”, then: “one who swallows (or devours!) the place”!
4. Levity: because of the Spanish word “loca” embedded in “locavore”, there is a little tongue-in-cheek, playful quality to it. I enjoy both the potential for teasing embedded in “locavore” and the potential for serious discussion—which is crazier, people who try to eat locally, or our current destructive globalized food system?
5. Operatic potential: read the word as if it were Italian, and it rhymes with “that’s amore”!

My father has since pointed out one other advantage locavore has over localvore: the latter could be misread as “lo-cal vore”! It would be really terrible to be misconstrued as promoting a weight-loss diet—especially for someone who loves rich food as much as I do. Plus, it cuts a bit too close to home… With the loss of small-scale integrated farms, it is indeed challenging in many parts of the country to find enough locally grown calories to feed the local population throughout the year.

That evening I was able to reach Sage by phone and run the word by her, and she approved. I left messages with the other women in our group and then sent the word on to Olivia Wu, with the qualification “the best that we can come up with…” She emailed me right back with just two words: “love it!”

Within a week her article was published, and within a few days of that you could google “locavore” and find over a dozen entries. The movement was already alive and kicking, and happy to have a word it could work with. Eat-local challenges began springing up around the country. Once Barbara Kingsolver used it in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle it was just a done deal.

So I’m still giddy. It doesn’t bother me at all that some locavores call themselves localvores—what higher honor for someone encouraging people to eat with a sense of their place than to have local and regional variations on your word?! And just to put icing on the cake, someone has turned my picture into a lolcat-style “lolcavore”. I have to admit I’d never even heard of lolcats before, but now I am just so proud… so very very proud.

And just for the record… I am hardly a purist or a perfectionist. (I was also proud when the New York Times called me a “pragmatic” voice in the movement.) Personally, I don’t use the word as a whip to make myself or anyone else feel guilty for drinking coffee, cooking with coconut milk, or indulging in a piece of chocolate. There are things it makes sense to import because we can’t grow them here, and they’re either good for us or really delicious or both. But it doesn’t make sense to watch local apple orchards go out of business while our stores are filled with imported mealy apples. And if you spend a few weeks each year without the pleasures of imported delicacies, you really do learn a whole lot about your foodshed, about your place, about what you’re swallowing on a daily basis.

Thanksgiving is upon us—what better opportunity to “swallow the place” instead of just swallowing a factory-farmed turkey? Why not gather with loved ones and give thanks for the gifts of your little location on our planet? Once upon a time, all human beings were locavores, and everything we ate was a gift of the Earth. To have something to devour is a blessing—let’s not forget it.

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