The World: Available Now In Your Local Produce Department

The World: Available Now In Your Local Produce Department

• Everything Global is Local — and Vice Versa

The catchphrase “think globally, act locally” helps us focus on how local actions have a global impact. The Life You Can Save’s core message is that a small change in our consumption habits can help alleviate extreme poverty. As Professor Peter Singer shows, skipping a latte or two a week at the local café would let you donate enough to prevent an infant’s death in Africa. You’ll never miss the lattes.   

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In an advanced economy, consumers “act globally” every day.   How?  It’s what we spend on gadgets and gizmos, cars and clothing.  Roughly 20% of our spending for ‘durable goods’ is for imports.  For clothing and shoes, it’s much higher.  

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco–Economic Letter (Aug. 2, 2011 – Table 1).  

You know the “find my phone” app?  Imagine an app showing the raw material sources, labor inputs, shipping routes and the distribution chain for just what’s in your backpack or briefcase.  You’d see hundreds of dots and crisscrossing lines.   For just one product it might look like this:

Source: Whole Chain Traceability Consortium (Nov. 7, 2011). 

But even if there were such an app, we couldn’t possibly keep track of all the data, or know what life is like for the worker in Taiwan. 

Now consider for a moment the U.S. grown, fresh produce at your local grocery store.  That couldn’t seem more local.  But it is quite “global” because U.S. farmworkers are almost all foreign born.  And because most are undocumented, they have no real rights in terms of wages or working conditions.  They live in extreme poverty in the richest country on Earth.   See

U.S. Employment Eligibility of Hired Crop Labor Force

Source: National Agricultural Workers Survey, U.S. DOL – Emp. &Training Admin, Ch.1 (2010).  

The “line” between your table and these workers is shorter than you think, and it ties you directly into the longer “lines” between them and the “dots” in their home countries.  They are the local face of extreme global poverty.  So it’s good to “think locally,” as you “act globally,” to turn the catchphrase upside down.   I did just that a few weeks ago. 


• Fighting Extreme Poverty A Penny At A Time

I live in Tampa, Florida, and make a lot of pizza at home.  Cheap, fast and tasty.  Well, except for the tomatoes.  Why are the “fresh tomatoes” grown in Florida so, well,  lousy?  Looking for the answer, I read “Tomatoland”, a book by Barry Estabrook.  He explains why tomatoes are so tasteless, but, more importantly, he documents the unbelievably inhumane working conditions and extreme poverty of the laborers who pick tomatoes in Immokalee, Florida.  Immokalee, a two-hour drive from my table in Tampa, is the “tomato capital of the United States.” It is also “ground zero for modern slavery,” according to the Office of the U.S. Attorney in Fort Myers, Florida, which has successfully prosecuted a number of slavery cases based on the abuse of these workers.  

Source: Barry Estabrook, “Tomatoland” (©2011).

See also

Estabrook chronicles the efforts of an Immokalee-based coalition of foreign-born farmworkers pushing for a “one penny a pound” increase in the wholesale price that buyers – fast food restaurants, big grocery players – pay for tomatoes.  The “penny a pound” initiative asks buyers and growers to donate just one penny a pound to improve the working and living conditions of these farmworkers.  Workers who eat in the fields, in the Florida sun, hands and clothing covered with pesticide; who live with their families in rattletrap trailers without running water, heat or air conditioning; and who pay to shower with a hose.   The coalition has raised $11 million dollars to aid these workers and their families.   Walmart – yes, Walmart, the largest employer in the US – recently signed on.  And, a few weeks ago, the coalition ended a peaceful, ten-day march in Lakeland, Florida, in an attempt to bring Publix (a large, southeast U.S. grocery chain) into the program.  

Source: Author photo

I walked with the workers and their families in Lakeland and got a chance to “think locally.”  And now I see that thinking is the easy part; what’s required is to connect your synapses to your shoes.  Or connect the “penny” to the “pound.”  Having thought the matter through, I’ll never see my local produce department quite the same way.


This is but one example of how just what we eat is “acting globally” and hence the need to “think locally.”  Do it for your children, to teach them how to “live simply, so others can simply live.”  Do it for the farmworkers who feed your family but go to bed hungry.  Think locally, and you will know, in a way charts and graph can never show, what you should do.   


• It’s About The Life You Can Save

Conscientious altruists often differ over whether their efforts are better deployed “locally” or “globally.”  False dilemma.  Extreme poverty exists in your community (or at least it does in mine) and everywhere else in the world.  Doesn’t matter where you start–the key is to get started.  The issue isn’t “global v. local,” it’s about doing what we can as effectively as possible. 

Check out (and write a check to) the organizations that “The Life You Can Save” vets for you.  But “think locally” as well.  Spread the word — with your lips and shoe leather — about what can be done to address extreme poverty.  Professor Singer shows how much good you can do by spending a dollar or two a week on someone other than you.  That’s as “local” as it gets. 

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Will we eliminate extreme poverty in our lifetime?   Perhaps not.   Perhaps, as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said: “nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime.” 

But your lifetime is all you have.  Let’s get busy.

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About the author:

Steve MacIsaac

Steve MacIsaac is a lawyer with a small solo practice in Tampa, Florida. He works with the homeless through his local church, and has worked with the poor in Nicaragua through the El Ayudante organization, which operates a mission facility in Leon. He is particularly interested in efforts to reform U.S. agricultural and food aid policies.

The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.