For those of you who’ve read my previous blogs, you know I’m a word nerd. I’m motivated to learn about the ways we talk about food and the stories that we tell about it. The Localize team often talks about local food being at “arm's length,” so I decided to dig into this term to understand its positive aspects and significance.
The phrase is most often used in business to refer to an arm’s-length transaction. In such a transaction, both parties are on an equal footing: a food producer wants the highest price for his food, while a consumer wants to pay the lowest price. By my reckoning, that means that it is between these two prices in which the fair value of the food is agreed.
Arm’s-length often connotes a lack of friendliness or intimacy. Keeping someone at arm’s length means at a distance away from oneself. However, what if we thought about the term in a literal way? With local food, the arm’s-length value can offer a greater intimacy. Consider yourself an arm’s length from your garden, from your farmer—that’s not much of a distance.
Furthermore, consider the physical concept of being at arm's length. The human arm obeys the Golden Ratio. According to the Golden Ratio, your arm’s length should be approximately 1.618 times the length from your elbow to the end of your hand. With this ratio in mind, a balance exists in the transactions that involve food moving from one hand to another.
The term arm’s-length therefore implies steadfastness in the distance between us and those with whom we transact. Throughout human history, there has been a hand-to-hand transfer of knowledge, information, stories, and yes, goods like food. Nowadays it's becoming rarer to buy products directly from the producer. Moreover, it's common for a food item to go through multiple transactions between its producer and the end buyer. Dozens, if not hundreds, of transactions might occur between field and table.
At farmers' markets, we have the benefit of a direct conversation with the producer or maker of our food. We can ask questions, and when the final deal is made, our dollars are directly transferred from consumer to producer. There is a social transaction between the buyer and seller that accompanies the food: the quality of the product, the quality of the information shared, the trust in the veracity of the food story, the merits of the seller’s pitch. As we form relationships with and loyalties to our food producers, the Golden Ratio creates a balance in this arm’s-length transaction.
By eliminating distance between producers and consumers, we can create a closer-to-actual arm’s-length distance between where our food is produced and our mouths. Part of the value of local food is that we can acquire all of those important attributes that have nothing to do with the final purchase. Trust, narrative, relationships, and storytelling seem like intangible things, but we value them. We develop a loyalty to our food producers when these values are available at an arm’s length away. And thus, “arm’s length” can carry much more intimacy than I originally thought, making it a fitting phrase to apply to local food.