Food Words for Thought: 'Locavore' as 2007's Word of the Year

Brian Halweil of Edible Communities and editor of Edible East End checks with ... a word or two.


Local squash at New York City's Union Square Greenmarket.

You may not have heard that "locavore"—a person who feeds mostly on food grown or caught or gathered nearby—was named word of 2007 by the good people at the New Oxford American Dictionary. But at a time when many Americans have already capitulated on diet-related resolutions—both Weight Watchers and Special K retained major billboards in Times Square as the ball dropped—there is no doubt that our eating habits have turned a corner.

It was just three years ago that Jessica Prentice, a San Francisco woman, decided to eat only food originating within 100 miles and called herself a locavore. Inspired by a crescendo of contaminated food imports, rising gas prices, and a craving for food that hadn't been processed and packaged and sapped of life by longhaul trucking, environmentalists, foodies, parents, family farmers, and anyone who cares about what they put in their mouths increasingly make local their chow of choice.

Today, the appearance of locavores from Maine to Alaska parallels the meteoric rise of local food on restaurant menus, supermarket shelves, and school cafeteria trays. Major health care providers like Kaiser Permanente are hosting farmers' markets at their clinics and packing their salad bars with local mesclun. The Portland, Oregon–based fast food chain Burgerville, 50 locations and growing, serves a simulacrum of the McDonald's menu, made entirely from wheat, beef, potatoes, and cheese raised in the Pacific Northwest. has seen traffic triple in the last two years as 300,000 unique visitors each month search out farmers' markets, pick-your-own farms, cheesemakers, and meat producers in their ZIP codes.

Big players up and down the food chain, from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods, are figuring out how to transport food a couple of hundred miles instead of several thousand—a challenge, since the current spread of farms and existing shipping infrastructure can make it easier and cheaper to purchase long-distance food. Industry surveys peg "local" at just a few percent of national food sales, although it's a sector soaring at 22 percent a year, according to consumer research firm Packaged Facts.

So don't call us a Locavore Nation just yet. Now is more like the amuse-bouche stage.

But one word really doesn't capture the tectonic shift that is happening in America's alimentary affairs. We are becoming more gastroliterate, as a blossoming culinary lexicon sets us a bright, new place at the dinner table.

In a revolt against anonymous food, the new American eater wonders not just about "food miles" (a term created simultaneously in the late 1990s by British and Iowa State researchers to describe how far our food travels from farm to plate) but also about "foodsheds" (coined in 1996 by University of Wisconsin sociologist Jack Kloppenberg to denote that sphere of people and land that feed us).

When shopping for dinner, our victual vocabulary includes terms to help us choose meat, including "cage-free" (chickens raised without confining battery cages), "grass-fed" (feeding livestock on pasture that has found a resurgence in concerns about everything wrong with modern meat), and "heritage breed" (turkeys, sheep, lamb, pigs, and other livestock that are particularly beautiful and tasty because they haven't been manipulated by modern breeding).

There are even designations such as "shade-grown" (raised in a way that protects the rainforest) and "fair-trade" (products that offer a fair compensation and working conditions to farmers) to help us select coffee or chocolate or sugar grown by farmers in far-off lands. We may get a weekly box of food from a "CSA" (community supported agriculture, a term from the 1980s used to denote a farm membership) or we may study the seafood counter for "C.O.O.L." (mandatory country of origin labeling that has been approved for seafood—but not meat and produce) or scorn "GMOs" (genetically modified organisms).

Not everyone knows these words. But their very existence pushes agribusiness, food policy, and consumers toward a new place. Armed with a broader knowledge of how food can be categorized, American eaters seek out food that is better for them, farmers and the planet. Instead of "eating thoughtlessly," as farmer Wendell Berry once warned, the American eater is beginning to probe, refuse, and demand better.

Consider that in the last four years, Edible Communities, the national network of local food magazines that Edible East End is part of, has soared to 51 magazines—from San Francisco to Brooklyn, from Iowa to the Carolinas—all devoted to sustaining their local food community by telling its story. Collectively, our readership stands at nearly 5 million people clamoring to become more powerful eaters by learning what produce can be raised in a greenhouse in January, why a pig raised outside tastes better, and how the farm bill affects our daily lives.

As food gains prominence in our nation's cultural dialogue, understanding how we eat can shine a light on all those dysfunctional aspects of our food system, from abuse of farmworkers to stubborn subsidies to chemical pollution. Which means that a series of buzzwords like locavore, seemingly trivial on their own, add up to some very different choices at the checkout counter.

It's worth noting that Oxford's choice for word of the year has often been prophetic. Phone number was the choice 80 years ago, and fridge, pizza, nonstick, and Big Mac are other food terms that made the cut. Last year's choice of carbon neutral foreshadowed the Nobel Committee recognizing Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Senate passing its first greenhouse gas reduction bill. So, tase, MRAP vehicle, and other less appetizing words of 2007 notwithstanding, the choice of locavore should mean a very toothsome future.