What is “Local” Food?

In an era when individuals are beginning to consider their “carbon footprint” and evaluate their consumption patterns many are looking for ways to eat that are more environmentally friendly and will help bring economic opportunity to their communities. The “Local” food movements has been growing steadily over the past number of years and have raised the interest of the Government and large foundations to understand who is behind the movement, what the economic and environmental benefits are and what issues surround the movement at this time. http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ERR97/ERR97.pdf

There is no single definition of what constitutes “local” food but according to a USDA pamphlet, local refers to products sold within 400 miles of origin or within the state where it was produced. http://www.ers.usda.gov/Publications/ERR97/ERR97_ReportSummary.pdf

Whole Foods defines local differently depending on which store you shop at, but as a corporation calls local products that travel for less than a day or  7 or fewer hours by car or truck.

Studies show consumers think it means within 100 miles http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6064

Economists and Food Industry Researchers have researched and written on the ambiguous nature of “local” http://www.choicesmagazine.org/magazine/article.php?article=108 but agree that it is a label that appeals to consumers and has real dollars behind it, 7 billion in 2011 according to World Watch Institute www.worldwatch.org.

The “local” food movement is creating real economic opportunities for small businesses and local economies. It’s argued that Local Food or “Community Food Enterprises” have certain competitive advantages over large global food businesses and although they face certain challenges have incredible potential for creating economic opportunities within communities around the globe. The Gates and Kellogg foundation issued a report in 2009 http://www.communityfoodenterprise.org/ with some compelling findings about the overall benefits, economic opportunities and potential for the “Local” food movement internationally.

So eating local is good. But as consumers we should ask ourselves what our goals are and make sure if we are paying the extra price we know why and where that money is going. Local may not always mean “Green”. Marketers are well aware that many consumers are willing to pay higher prices for “locally” produced food. And if lowering your carbon footprint is the goal, just eating “local” is not always the best choice, Andrew Martin examines this issue in his article for the NYTimes “If It’s Fresh and Local, Is It Always Greener? http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/09/business/yourmoney/09feed.html?ref=localfood

If you are trying to understand what the “costs” of production, distribution, and packaging are for each item you purchase it’s an impossible task. Labels can help but they can be misleading. Hopefully with continued and increasing consumer demands, companies will give us more information about the products and make strides to make their production, distribution and packaging more environmentally friendly and their practices more visible on all fronts.

So eat “local”, when it makes sense to you. And learn the questions to ask.

Here are a couple of interesting visuals on the “local” food economy

Growth of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) 1984-2011


An interesting InfoGraphic comparing “Local” and “Fair Trade” food movements.


Finding Local Food Products in your Area (for the US):




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