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Website Fights ‘Local-wash’, Reveals Which Food Retailers Truly Serve Up Local

Website Fights ‘Local-wash’, Reveals Which Food Retailers Truly Serve Up Local

October 26, 2015 |

A screenshot of the Local Local website features three of its key features: searching for, discovering, and connecting with food businesses that provide local fare. (image courtesy Reed Shelger/Local Local)

A screenshot of the Local Local website features three of its key features: searching for, discovering, and connecting with food businesses that provide local fare. (image courtesy Reed Shelger/Local Local)

A popular new restaurant proclaims that it serves only local food and drink. But how do its customers know if the restaurant’s food is truly local? A new website looks to answer this question.

Local Local, founded by Reed Shelger in 2014, provides an online directory of restaurants and other food retailers that procure and sell local foods.

Shelger, who worked as a consultant in the commercial food industry after earning an undergraduate degree in managerial economics from the University of California, Davis and a master’s in business administration from Rice University, saw firsthand how grocery stores and restaurants “local-wash.” “Local-washing” is defined as exaggerating or fabricating the extent to which food comes from local sources.  

During his stint as a food-management consultant, Shelger’s interest in local foods grew. He watched Food, Inc., a documentary about the commercial food system, and he read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book by Michael Pollan that critiques how Americans eat. Through learning and continued involvement in “big food,” he felt a calling to act on his interest in local foods. As a result, Local Local was born.

“Commercial food is a flawed system in many ways,” says Shelger. “What’s lacking is transparency.”

Consequently, transparency is the foundation of Local Local. Farms and food retailers establish profiles on the site. Then, farms provide descriptions and photos of their growing practices, in addition to relevant third party certifications. Restaurants and retailers share a list of producers that supply their food—after a verification process, these local food purveyors are approved for inclusion in the directory.

To boost transparency even further, all businesses registered with Local Local must accept a legal agreement. Finally, end users of the site can report businesses that do not actually sell locally-sourced food.

Shelger saw the Internet as a great tool for ensuring that establishments that advertise local fare back up their words with actions.  

“I felt that technology could help answer this question,” he says. “People can’t do research every time they go out to eat.”

But, Local Local does not actively define what constitutes local, and it does not serve as an enforcer.

“Our site does not make judgments; it just provides transparency,” Shelger says.

Ultimately, the mission of Local Local is to increase the availability of locally– and sustainably–produced food by bringing together locavores with producers, restaurants and retailers that provide local foods. Shelger envisions that greater access to local foods will help decentralize the food supply, improve environmental health, bolster local businesses and economies, and provide tastier and healthier fare.

Based in Houston, Texas, Local Local features about 500 directory listings in the Houston area. Shelger plans to expand the listings, hopefully nationwide.

“We’re just at the tip of the iceberg,” says Shelger. 

Currently,Local Local is self-funded, and there is no charge to use the system or to be listed in the directory. Eventually,Shelger expects a registration fee to go into effect, and hopes to eventually unroll a mobile app.. For now, he is focusing on getting the word out about the service and expanding both the database and number of users.

Local Local’s biggest obstacle, he says, is getting more food businesses and end users to use the system. To this end, visitors to its web site can suggest businesses to be included in the directory. Local Local will follow up on these suggestions.

“We’re getting the word out, we have our boots on the ground,” he says. “We’re going up against a massive industrial food system that’s well-organized and well-funded. All players need to have a plan to connect.”

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