FAQ’s: Local and Regional Food Systems

What is a local food system? How local is local food? What is a regional food system? Why does it matter if food is locally grown? What are the challenges to developing more local and regional

Woman buying arugula

What is a local food system?

A local food system is one based on production, distribution, and consumption of food products at a local level. Just a few examples include:

  • Shopping at a farmers’ market
  • Eating at a restaurant that serves local food
  • Being a member of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm
  • Storing produce from your garden for the winter
  • School cafeterias serving fruits or vegetables grown in the area

All of these actions contribute to development of a local food system.

A local food system can generate numerous benefits for farmers, consumers, and communities, including fresher food, less pollution, a more vital local economy, and stronger community relationships.

The development of a local food system should not restrict people’s eating habits; it should instead raise a community’s awareness, providing residents with the opportunity to know where their food came from, how it was produced, and the ability to make choices that support their local community and reflect their values.

How local is local food?
It varies. Sometimes ‘local’ is defined as within the town or county, within a certain distance (such as a 50-mile radius), or by a watershed or other ecological boundary. It also is usually understood to mean food that comes from independent farmers and producers, rather than from large corporations.

What is a regional food system?
A regional food system is similar to a local one in focus and goals, but on a somewhat larger scale, usually a county, multiple counties, or sometimes even a whole state. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably.

Why does it matter if food is locally grown?
In the U.S., the average item of food has traveled an estimated 1,500 to 2,500 miles to reach your table (Worldwatch Paper #163: Home Grown: The Case For Local Food In A Global Market). Long-distance shipping relies on vast quantities of non-renewable fossil fuels, which pollutes the environment and accelerates global warming. Food often travels for days or weeks, leaving it with less flavor and nutritional value. Additionally, when consumers have little or no knowledge of where their food comes from, they are unable to choose what kind of food to eat or influence how it is produced.

The shorter shipping required for locally grown food translates to reduced fuel use, less pollution, and fresher foods for consumers. Produce picked and eaten at the height of ripeness has more flavor and, when handled properly, more nutritional value. Local farmers can offer a wider range of produce varieties and can focus on those bred for flavor and nutritional value. Additionally, buying from local producers enables consumers to choose food produced without chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified organisms.

What are the challenges to developing more local and regional food systems?
While consumer interest in locally grown foods is strong and growing fast, the structure of the industrialized U.S. food system limits small and local producers’ ability to respond. Local and regional food packing and processing facilities are rare, and it is very difficult for a local producer to get his or her products into a supermarket.

Market concentration has severely limited the independent producer’s options. Local producers pay more of their own costs and have fewer options for processing and marketing their products than they did several decades ago. These trends have been driven by federal agriculture policy that overwhelmingly promotes and subsidizes large-scale, industrial production and long-distance transport over local production and distribution by independent farmers and businesses. Small-scale producers at home and abroad are struggling to survive within a system of global trade that favors industrial-scale operations, low wages, and weak environmental and health protections.

Despite these challenges, consumer interest in local food is driving development of new markets around the country, in the form of farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and restaurants and institutions featuring locally grown foods.

Is local food more expensive?
It varies, depending on numerous factors. When food is in season, produced nearby, and sold directly by the producer or with only one intermediary, it is generally less expensive than “conventional” food produced on a global scale. Local food that is certified organic or produced using other high-quality systems may cost a little more — just as long-distance-produced organic food does.

However, it is important to note that the low price of products produced by the global food system relies on cheap labor and costs passed on to the public (for example, Americans pay for government subsidies to industrial-sized farms in our taxes, while environmental degradation from long-distance shipping and pesticide use is a cost that we will all have to pay). Local products that are fresher, safer, and more nutritious provide better value per dollar.

Can low-income people benefit from local and regional food systems?
Yes. Local and regional food systems can make fresh, healthy foods available to people of all income levels. The extent to which low-income people benefit depends upon factors such as pricing and accessibility of local foods. Benefits are generally greatest when there is substantial community involvement in and control of the local food system.

Many community-based food initiatives focus on ensuring access to local food for everyone by starting farmer’s markets or farm stands in low-income communities, encouraging schools to buy produce from local farms, or offering sliding-scale fees and flexible payment options for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm shares. Direct farmer-consumers marketing can make it possible for farmers to earn more while offering lower prices to consumers.

Would local and regional food systems make us more food secure?
Yes. Local food production helps to ensure consistent, stable food access. Decentralized, local food production and distribution systems are less vulnerable to disruption by transportation failures, natural disasters, contamination, or sabotage. Relying on food from a combination of local, regional, and more distant sources would protect communities against disruptions at any one level. Local food systems also protect food security by maintaining a greater diversity of plant varieties, which protects the resiliency of our food supply in the face of changing conditions.

How does buying local food benefit farmers?
Farmers in the U.S. have been squeezed for decades by rising costs, falling prices, and fewer market outlets, to the point that most are losing money growing food. Small family farmers are unable to compete in the global marketplace against large, government-subsidized agribusinesses. Selling directly to local consumers provides small farmers with a market they would not otherwise have — allowing them to continue to farm and stay on their land. Prices in local markets tend to be good for farmers and the relationship with their community often gives them flexibility to choose what to produce and how. Additionally, farmers generally enjoy getting to know the people who eat their food and becoming an integrated part of the community.

How does buying local food benefit communities?
Getting to know the people who grow and market your food builds relationships based on understanding and trust – the foundation of strong communities. Local farmers markets’ and CSA farms provide opportunities for community members to connect with one another and with the land around them. A local food system can also be responsive to the needs of the community in a way that a global food system cannot; the relationship between the consumer and farmer allows the farmer to grow foods to meet specific consumer demand (e.g., ethnic or organic foods).

How does buying local food benefit the local and regional economy?
Purchasing locally grown food keeps local farms in business and keeps money circulating within the community. Independent, family-owned farms provide more local jobs and contribute to the local economy at higher rates than do large, corporate farms. Farms and restaurants that feature local foods are increasingly becoming a draw for tourism, and a vibrant local economy helps protect the region from national and global recessions.

Buying local food gives consumers more direct influence over how food is produced. It can be a powerful tool for moving our economy away from a race to the bottom in environmental and health standards and toward principles of democracy, community, health, and sustainability.

How does buying local food benefit the natural environment?
Buying local food reduces reliance on fossil fuels for shipping, which in turn reduces air and water pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases. Local food is often grown without synthetic chemicals or genetically modified organisms, reducing agricultural pollution. Local farms ensure open space and wildlife habitat, while production of a wider range of plant varieties protects biodiversity.

How can I buy local foods and support local food systems?
There are many ways for individuals, organizations, and businesses to support local food systems. See the Take Action! section for specific ideas and resources.

Updated 11/2010