McDonald's "We Buy Local" Campaign Lures Locavores, Critics Call It "Localwashing"

McDonald's is getting on the local food bandwagon in the state of Washington with what they are calling the "We Buy Local" campaign. If you go to their nifty website with a map of the state of Washington you'll find a picture of a potato, an apple, fish, and milk indicating that these are all locally sourced products at Washington state McDonald's restaurants. They have a fact sheet touting the statistics and billboards plastered around Seattle with a picture of french fries under the headline; "Served in Seattle, Grown in Pasco."

Adweek is quick to note the skeptical response;

...a small disclaimer appears at the bottom: “Participation and duration may vary,” which has some industry experts categorizing the campaign as "localwashing.”

Eric Giandelone, director of food-service research at Mintel, said the inclusion of the disclaimer on the billboards leaves McDonald's open to criticism because "[the chain] isn’t spelling out percents or numbers that we can verify." Giandelone cited a campaign for Chipotle Mexican Grill, which promised to increase its locally grown produce from 35 percent in 2009 to 50 percent in 2010, as part of the “Food with Integrity” program. In fact, Chipotle redesigned nearly all of its marketing efforts in 2010 to reflect that goal.

I have to give them credit for the creative effort. They've basically cherry picked the items on their menu that happen to be grown in Washington, a state that is big into the local food movement. Of course most McDonald's throughout the country sell french fries from potatoes grown in the Northwest, fish sandwiches made from fish harvested in Alaska, and apples grown in Yakima/Wenatchee. They are not actually changing any of their practices to make them more sustainable or healthful. They're taking a convenient present reality and slapping the brand "local" on it. The one benefit is that it does educate Washington consumers about where their food comes from.

If they're really going to win me back to eating at McDonald's I'd like to see some sourcing information on every food item on the menu. For example, I'd want something that tells me where the beef comes from in their hamburgers.

In general I think this is a good sign that local food is moving more and more into the mainstream consumer conscience. I'll get excited when I hear that McDonald's has transformed their national distribution network into regional foodsheds and that they actually are changing food acquisition practices. For now a little educational "localwashing" will have to do. If the campaign is successful in Washington I wouldn't be surprised to see some version of it rolled out in regions across the country.