WHEN Jessica Prentice, a food writer in the San Francisco Bay area, invented the term “locavore,” she didn’t have Lay’s potato chips in mind.
But never mind. On Tuesday, five potato farmers rang the bell of the New York Stock Exchange, kicking off a marketing campaign that is trying to position the nation’s best-selling brand of potato chips as local food.
Five different ads will highlight farmers who grow some of the two billion pounds of starchy chipping potatoes the Frito-Lay company uses each year. One is Steve Singleton, who tends 800 acres in Hastings, Fla.
“We grow potatoes in Florida, and Lays makes potato chips in Florida,” he says in the ad. “It’s a pretty good fit.”
Mr. Singleton’s ad and the other four will be shown only in the farmer’s home state. A national spot featuring all five potato farmers begins next week.
Frito-Lay is one of several big companies that, along with some large-scale farming concerns, are embracing a broad interpretation of what eating locally means. This mission creep has the original locavores choking on their yerba mate. But food executives who measure marketing budgets in the millions say they are mining the concept because consumers care more than ever about where their food comes from.
“Local for us has two appeals,” said Aurora Gonzalez, director of public relations for Frito-Lay North America, which is owned by PepsiCo. “We are interested in quality and quickness because we want consumers to get the freshest product possible, but we have a fairly significant sustainability program, and local is part of that. We want to do business more efficiently, but do it in a more environmentally conscious way.”
The original “eat local” movement, an amalgam of food and environmental politics, came of age a decade or so before the term locavore was coined in 2005.
To a certain set of believers, supporting locally grown food is part of a broad philosophical viewpoint that eschews large farming operations, the heavy use of chemicals and certain agricultural practices, like raising animals in large, confined areas.
“The local foods movement is about an ethic of food that values reviving small scale, ecological, place-based, and relationship-based food systems,” Ms. Prentice said. “Large corporations peddling junk food are the exact opposite of what this is about.”
But people on the other side of the argument say the widening view of what it means to eat locally is similar to the changes the term organic went through as it grew from a countercultural ideal in the 1960s and 1970s to an industry with nearly $25 billion in sales last year. A related debate about how to define sustainable farming is now gathering force in government, agriculture and business.
Concerns over food safety, quality and cost are driving people beyond hard-core locavores to seek out food that has traveled fewer miles and has a traceable provenance, said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the food conglomerate ConAgra.
The company recently began a marketing campaign to highlight its Hunt’s canned tomatoes, most of which are grown within 120 miles of its Oakdale, Calif., processing plant.
Of course, the tomatoes would be local only to people in the area. But if the company can show consumers its tomatoes are grown near the plant that processes them, shoppers who want to know where their food comes from might be more apt to buy them.
“The problem is there is absolutely no way we can have local produce within 100 miles of every person in America, so the question is how do we take it to that next level,” said Phil Lempert, a grocery industry analyst known as the Supermarket Guru who ConAgra recently hired to work on its Hunt’s tomatoes promotion.
Other companies are embracing the term “local” in their own ways. Foster Farms, a $1 billion company that is the largest producer of poultry products on the West Coast, markets its fresh chicken and turkey as “locally grown” because it contracts with hundreds of local growers in the states where it operates.
Some producers are stretching local to mean locale, emphasizing the geographic origin of their food. Dairy products from California, oranges from Florida and almost anything made in Vermont are getting special attention from marketers. Kraft is trying to figure out whether people in Wisconsin will buy more pickles if they know the cucumbers that go into a jar of Claussen’s are grown there.
“The ingenuity of the food manufacturers and marketers never ceases to amaze me,” said Michael Pollan, the author of “In Defense of Food” and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine. “They can turn any critique into a new way to sell food. You’ve got to hand it to them.”
Some people marketing their big-scale food on a small-scale level understand that. They say they’re not pretending to be something they are not.
“This is celebrating the notion of community,” said Dave Skena, vice president for potato-chip marketing of Frito-Lay. “We don’t use the term ‘locally grown’ because that’s a personal issue for so many people.”
Large farms usually given over to commodity crops are also having a local moment, driven in large part by economics.
In central California, the Sacramento County Farm Bureau recently started a “Grow and Buy Local” initiative with a $50,000 grant from the county.
Part of the money is being used to encourage 3,000 area farmers whose fields are filled with feed grain, safflower and other commodity crops to plant acres of grocery store crops like strawberries or artichokes, or to hold some fruit, like pears, back from the canner.
That fresh produce can then be marketed as local and sold to nearby institutions like hospitals and jails that want to buy food raised nearby. And some of it can fill farm stands, which helps satisfy consumers who want to buy local fruits and vegetables and don’t care as much about, say, farm size or organic practices, said Charlotte Mitchell, the executive director of the county farm bureau and a Foster Farms turkey rancher.
“We have to continue to feed the world, but we need to make people aware that going to that local strawberry stand is so important, too,” she said.
For some big agricultural interests, promoting local food has a protectionist bent. Sales of Virginia apples were hurt a few years ago when Chinese apples flooded the market, said Martha Moore, director of governmental relations for the 38,000-member Virginia Farm Bureau.
Those kinds of threats from imported food is one reason her agency started a local food marketing program last year.
“If promoting local agriculture will help America to become food independent, that’s what we want,” she said.
She doesn’t buy into all the values many local food advocates hold dear, like cage-free eggs; limited use of herbicides, fertilizers and other chemicals; and small farms.
“We don’t think the argument should be about the size of the farm,” she said. “It should be, ‘Do you know the farmer and where is the farmer from?’ You can have good and bad actors in any size farm.”
For hard-core locavores, watching the food industry adopt their language is frustrating. But it also means things are changing.
“You know the locavore phenomenon is having an impact when the corporations begin co-opting it,” Ms. Prentice said. “Everyone should know where things are processed. The ‘where’ question is really important.”