At least for a week, I'm living the local life. At the request of Scott Menzies, one of the coordinators of the Humboldt County Independent Business Alliance (HumIBA), I took the "Go Local" pledge for Independents Week, the first week in July. Basically what it amounts to is promising to do most of my shopping at locally owned and operated businesses.
That's something I already do, at least to some degree. Not that I steer clear of all chains and big boxes: I'd just come back from a Costco run when Scott called. (I figured the $4.99 rotisserie chicken in my fridge would last through several meals.)
I didn't need groceries on Wednesday, but I did a bit of shopping in Arcata: bought myself a box set of DVDs at The Works and picked up a summer read for my wife at Northtown Books. In both cases I was dealing with clerks who are friends, and spending my money at businesses owned by people I've know for years. I know exactly how independent they are, and that they depend on locals like me to stay in business.
On Thursday a friend who works at the Arcata Co-op came by around dinner time. The Co-op was hosting the monthly Arcata Chamber of Commerce mixer. There was a spread of local food. Would I like to go? I agreed, seeing it as an opportunity to expand my knowledge of all things local. The mixer portion of the program seemed to be over by the time we arrived -- speeches were underway -- but there was still some good local food: Humboldt-grown grass-fed beef on toothpicks, wedges of award-winning Cypress Grove chevre, bowls of chips (Bien Padre? they didn't say) and my favorite salsa, Casa Lindra.
I got to talking with the store manager, Sue Coulter, and asked what the word "local" means to her. "It's supporting local businesses," she replied. "Here at the Co-op we use local farmers and local sources as much as we can."
She went on to tell me about a book the store keeps called Trust Your Sources, detailing the provenance of "truly local" products sold at the Co-op. The "book" (actually a big binder kept on a counter near the bakery) grew out of one employee's experience participating is one of those extreme locavore challenges that involves a strictly local diet. Megan Blodgett (now an ex-Co-op worker) spent 30 days in 2007 eating only food grown in Humboldt County. (She also blogged about the experience at mymonthoflocalfood.blogspot.com.)
I mentioned Casa Lindra as an example of a local product, but was surprised to learn that the salsa is not in the "book.' Why not? Coulter wasn't sure. She thought maybe because the tomatoes come from out of the area.
On Independence Day I walked down to the Arcata Plaza, where the local Chamber of Commerce was throwing their annual Fourth of July Jubilee. I ate local food, including an Indian fry bread strawberry shortcake topped with a mound of whipped cream from a can (probably not local). And while my wife shopped for flower bulbs from the local bulb farm (which also happens to be one of the biggest flower growing operations in the U.S.) I chatted with John McClurg, owner of the successful local glass (re)manufacturer Fire and Light, whose booth was selling, among other things, blue glass hearts that say, "I (heart) Arcata."
In the center of the Plaza, Jubilee organizer and Arcata Chamber Executive Director Brenda Bishop was manning a booth selling baseball programs and Arcata tee-shirts.
Without having read this week's cover story, which touches on the Chamber's "Shop Local" campaign, I asked her: When the Chamber says, "Shop Local," what does that mean?
"That's a loaded question," said Bishop. "But definitely local means ... visiting and supporting the stores that are independent stores, that are locally owned, locally produced. That's what we try to focus on. We know we have some kind of mainstream type stores -- we have Safeway and these center-type stores that are local stores. But we really mean 'shop local,' to shop the little merchants in the area first; to think about going there before going to the bigger more corporate areas."
Arcata Chamber membership is not limited to local independent businesses. "As a matter of fact we have members all the way from Alta Dena, Calif. to Brookings, Ore." said Bishop. "But we'd like people to shop here first, even if that is shopping at Safeway."
On Monday I reviewed variations on the term local with Menzies.
"For us, it's independent and local," he began, explaining that HumIBA sees businesses with majority local ownership as independent, but excludes locally owned chains. Safeway is ineligible. Same with the locally-owned McDonald's franchise. Pierson's and other Ace Hardware affiliates qualify since Ace is a buying cooperative, not a corporate franchiser.
He conceded that, "there are different definitions of local," including the Arcata Chamber's use of the word. "Their holiday ad said, 'Shop Local First,' then the biggest name in the ad was Best Western, which is a chain ... I don't feel that they were intentionally local-washing, but theirs is a definition of 'local' that doesn't match ours. Part of our work is to educate people so they know local is not just geographical."
My last call was to Lindra Lomeli, CEO of Casa Lindra, a business she founded locally in 1983. Her salsa is manufactured and packaged in Arcata. Most of her sales are local. She concedes that not all the ingredients are local.
"When you think about it, there's nothing that's processed locally that doesn't have some material from elsewhere," she said. "They don't grow tomatoes in Humboldt County -- not enough for my purposes, anyway."
She is, in fact, fiercely independent. "I'm not a corporation; I don't want to be a big corporation. I want to be independent. And I am."
Why isn't she listed in the trusted source book at the Co-op? Simply because she didn't return the required form. "Too much eff-ing paperwork. I don't need it. People know my salsa. They know I'm local."