Defining Local

A recent report from the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture explores the local food movement through a comprehensive literature review.  This 87-page report (including 16 pages of references) titled, “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues,” contains numerous analyses with tables and charts illustrating current opportunities and barriers to the local food system, and how consumers, institutions, retailers and the government play a part.  Read the Report Summary here if you’re time-crunched.  The full report is expansive, so I’ll touch upon a few statistics and issues that resonated with me.

Direct-to-consumer sales, such as farmers markets, road-side stands, and pick-your-owns, are up from 0.3 percent in 1997 to 0.4 percent in 2007.  This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it equates to $660 million in sales — pretty impressive.  Small farms, or those with less than $50,000 in total sales, benefit from these selling channels more than larger farms, making a case for supporting efforts to sustain and grow these channels to keep small, family farms flourishing.

Yet the report states that the time required to participate in these direct-to-consumer venues may negatively impact a farm’s ability to ‘scale-up’ with less time available to increase production and grow other marketing initiatives.  Additionally, price competition from multiple sellers, rejection based on quality requirements and supply chain logistics remain challenges for farmers.

Organic Baby Turnips Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op

Despite certain barriers, there is evidence that local food systems can increase employment and income in a community.  The report suggests that more conclusive evidence is needed to determine whether local food availability improves diet quality and food security, and asserts that local food’s impact on energy reduction and greenhouse gas emissions requires further research, as well.  Local food advocates cite a notable decrease in CO2 emissions, fossil fuels and energy use to help support the environment and climate change when working within local and regional food systems.

But with all of these findings and conclusions, the fundamental question looms — what  constitutes “local food?”

Contributed by Farm to Table