One family's adventures in localism - East Valley Tribune: Phoenix & The Valley Of The Sun

One family's adventures in localism

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Posted: Sunday, September 25, 2011 3:45 pm | Updated: 9:11 pm, Sun Sep 25, 2011.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The first real snag came around Day 120. For four straight months, the Levitch family had stuck to their 365-day pledge to "go local" — forgoing Starbucks venti iced teas for blends sold from a Scottsdale vendor, trading the sales rack at Anthropologie for second-hand shops, switching from a grocery chain to the farmer's market, even skipping a school event because it was at McDonald's and not an independent eatery.

Who could have guessed that their socially conscious, yearlong quest to buy strictly from locally owned businesses would be imperiled by ... socks?

But there was 7-year-old Rex removing his shoes at a birthday party to reveal a rip perfectly sized to allow his big toe to play peek-a-boo.

"Being local isn't so cool when your kids are wearing holey socks and showing them to all your friends," his mother wrote in a blog chronicling this family of four's adventures in localism. "Are we local or loco? I'm not so sure."

Julie Levitch isn't exactly the activist type. She's a suburban mom with a taste for Old Navy tank tops, Chipotle tacos and Kate Spade handbags. She, husband Randy and their two boys, Rex and 4-year-old Judd, live in a manicured neighborhood in the resort playground that is Scottsdale, with a strip mall on every corner at the busy intersection just down the road.

She was, before Jan. 1, a rather typical consumer: Starbucks, Costco, Target.

Then one day last November the Levitches arrived at a favorite restaurant — a mom-and-pop Middle Eastern place next to a Subway in one of those nearby malls — to find an out-of-business sign on the door. It was hardly an unusual sight in a debilitated economy, but what happened next is less common: This ordinary American family took it upon themselves to do what they could to help.

"One Local Family" was born, and the Levitches became part of a growing nationwide movement to promote the merits of supporting local businesses.

"A lot of businesses went under in the last few years, but this one really hit home," 42-year-old Julie said of the shuttered restaurant. The husband-and-wife owners did all the cooking, greeted their customers, remembered their names — a throwback to what America was before the chain-store sameness of today.

Yet when Julie mentioned this loss, others shrugged. So Julie, who runs her own marketing company, and Randy, 50, who manages a portfolio of small businesses for American Express, decided to change their own ways — and blog about their efforts — in hopes of inspiring others to follow.

The "localism" movement has taken many forms in past years: Urbanites growing their own corn or raising chickens. Farmers markets cropping up in metroplexes. Restaurants advertising locally produced ingredients. But with the backlash against big-box retailers and an economy purging small businesses everywhere, "buy local" has gone from a mere trendy catchphrase to a more widely recognized way of bolstering the U.S. economy — one community at a time.

"This is the way people believe ... you can save the world," said Michael Shuman, who travels the country helping communities jump-start "buy local" endeavors. He sees banks offering certificates of deposit that invest solely in local businesses, coupon programs targeting local merchants, mentorship programs for independent business owners.

The Levitches are hardly the farming types — she grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, he in Spokane, Wash. — so they figured they'd take a more practical approach to "localism" by simply shifting their purchasing decisions for one full year. Practical, perhaps. Simple? Hardly, especially with two young boys who crave Chick-fil-A kid's meals and need underwear.

Things started out smoothly enough: They opened a local bank account. Started Googling for locally owned grocery stores. (There was actually one just up the street.) Julie found Local First Arizona, a buy-local coalition with some 2,000 members, and quickly had a list of options for dining, entertainment, necessities. More Internet sleuthing turned up some locally owned gas stations.

As readers found the One Local Family blog, suggestions flowed in: A tea shop for Julie's caffeine fix, a reminder that PetsMart is based in Arizona (a good thing for Captain Ziffel, the tabby cat.)

The family has visited local farms and found a place to rent camping equipment for a Cub Scout outing. And while some individual items cost more, Julie estimates her family has actually saved money by shopping less and avoiding frivolous purchases.

But not all has been easy.

When Rex's school held a fundraiser at McDonald's, Randy and Julie endured stamping feet as they explained to their first-grader why they couldn't attend.

Last month yet another obstacle cropped up: School supplies. Luckily, the local grocery store had all the required glue sticks, notebooks, crayons and folders. Only thing missing: a headset for computer lab, and there was an extra at home. "We spent $65 on everything we needed for second grade. No muss, no fuss," Julie wrote in the blog, musing that if the parents of all 700 students at the school bought their supplies in a similar manner, some $455,000 would have been spent at local businesses.

One recent study in Grand Rapids, Mich., showed that for every $100 spent at a local business, $73 remained in the local economy — compared with $43 if that same $100 was spent at a non-local merchant.

The Levitches have demonstrated how just one family can have an effect.

"It's incredibly important what they're doing," said Kimber Lanning, founder of Local First Arizona. "The takeaway for people is that every dollar counts."

Scottsdale business owner Kate Tanner can attest to that. Tanner, who owns a toy store called Kidstop, heard about One Local Family and invited Julie to the store. Kidstop soon became the subject of a blog entry and THE place Julie began recommending to friends for local toys.

Has the publicity helped Tanner's 12-year-old business? "Absolutely," she said.

Perhaps most heartening is the influence the family's efforts have had on others. The baby sitter promised to shop locally as much as possible. Randy's co-workers, when choosing a lunch spot, know without asking that it has to be locally owned.

"It kind of gets everybody thinking about it," said Randy, though few are ready to adopt the family's yearlong pledge.

Come January, the Levitches acknowledge they aren't likely to stay 100 percent "local" either, though they know that their purchasing patterns — and mindset about what keeps a community's economy afloat — have been forever changed.

"Are we going to be as extreme? Probably not," said Julie. "I think it irritates some people when we say we can't go to dinner at such-and-such place. Not everybody finds it as entertaining as we do."

Julie's mom included. When she read the blog post describing Julie's solution to the sock dilemma (she finally found some $8 socks from a locally owned running store), a care package soon arrived in the mail, boys' socks inside. Julie later learned they'd been purchased at ... Walmart.

"Yeah, well," she said of her mother's endowment. "She thought that was a little too far."

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