Introduction: Local and Regional Food Systems

An overview of local and regional food systems


There is a quiet revolution happening in the U.S. and it is connected to local food. Whether in family meals or in restaurants, Americans are enjoying the delicious taste of local dairy, vegetables, and fruits. Farmers´ markets are springing up in villages, towns, and cities across the country. Parents and teachers are supporting more local food in school cafeterias. An increasing number of supermarkets and groceries are including local produce. Community gardens and urban farms are growing food in cities, and soup kitchens and food banks are using produce from local farmers to meet the emergency food needs of hungry Americans. Low-income communities are creating new models of food production and distribution, with healthy and nutritious food available for all. As these initiatives grow, they are developing into local and regional food systems.

People enter this local food movement in many ways: one way is through taste. Have you ever bitten into a garden-fresh tomato and experienced an incredible burst of flavor? There are reasons you don´t get that same burst of flavor when you bite into a perfectly round and red tomato from the conventional supermarket. Food travels an average of 1500 to 2500 miles from farm to fork. Produce varieties are now selected for appearance and their ability to withstand that long journey rather than for taste — and the flavor that the fruits and vegetables do have gets lost as they travel for miles in a truck or sit in a warehouse.

On that journey, food loses not only taste but also nutrients and dollar value — eighty cents of every dollar spent on food pays for marketing inputs such as labor, packaging, and transportation. Most of the money we spend on food does not go either to the farmer or to support the community where the food is produced. People, therefore, are also joining the local food movement for reasons of nutrition, social justice, and solidarity. They want to become part of a local and regional food system that values nutritious food, environmental sustainability, small farms, and strong local economies.

What Is a Local and Regional Food System?

A food system comprises the interdependent and linked activities that result in the production and exchange of food. These include farming and community gardening; processing; storage; distribution and transportation; food access via grocery stores, restaurants, and street food, as well as nutrition programs such as school meals and SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called the Food Stamp Program); cooking and food preservation; and food recycling through gleaning, food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens.

A food system is local when it allows farmers, food producers and their customers to interact face-to-face at point of purchase. Regional food systems generally serve larger geographical areas such as a metropolis, a state or even multiple states, and they often can work with farmers who have larger volume of single products to sell.

According to The Case for Local Food Systems, a white paper by the Farm and Food Policy Project, “local food systems have strong appeal for a number of reasons. Among the most compelling are fewer ‘food miles’ and fewer associated greenhouse gas emissions; more diversification and sustainable production; less vulnerability of the food supply to widespread contamination, intentional attacks, and disruption from natural catastrophes; better access to fresh produce; more stable farm incomes; and more jobs and wealth retained in the local economy.”

Community Food Security and Local Economic Security

Building strong local and regional food systems is about more than just good taste — though everyone should have the right to delicious, nutritious food. Local food systems create community food security, in which all community residents are able to obtain a safe, culturally appropriate, nutritionally-sound diet through an economically and environmentally sustainable food system that promotes community self-reliance and social justice. Community food security has many meanings in a community. It gives access to nutritious food, which becomes part of the community culture. It builds the local economy and restores pride in a community´s self-reliance. It brings nutritious food into the educational curriculum, and therefore affects the self-esteem and the health of children. It changes the landscape though community gardens and urban agriculture.

Community food security, therefore, is as much about the health of the local economy as it is about healthy local food. Developing local food trading networks to link food producers with consumers increases community food security and boosts local economic security. These networks return control of the means of production and exchange to the community, giving it more power and autonomy. Economic power is returned to those who have been deprived of such power.

Communities around the country have conducted local economic analyses demonstrating ways that food dollars flow out of the economy — including money that consumers pay for foods that could be produced locally but aren’t, and the amount that local conventional farmers pay for inputs, debt payments, and other expenses. The Center for Popular Research, Education and Policy (C-PREP) in New York State found that residents of low-income neighborhoods (both urban and rural) spend “substantial sums of money to purchase basic food, all of which local farms and food producers have the capacity to produce.” C-PREP estimates that “for every $1 million of new farm revenue from local basic food purchases, the local economy could grow by $2 million in new income and 1.45 jobs.” Multiplying this out to the New York state level, the study estimates that if New Yorkers would buy just “10% more of their food from New York farmers and another 10% from New York food manufacturers, they would fuel economic growth with 17,000 new jobs and $16.5 billion in new revenue.”

Transition from Global to Local

Strengthening local and regional food systems, however, is not about isolationism and it doesn’t mean having to give up coffee and olive oil. It is about recognizing the impact of our food choices and food dollars.
It is about having the right to know where your food came from, who produced it and how, and the chance to buy food that supports your local community and reflects your values. It is about re-weaving a complex web of connections — social, economic, ecological, and political in nature — that are being torn asunder by our industrial global food system.

The global food system disenfranchises small-scale farmers, destroys local food systems, increases inequality, and reduces biodiversity. Around the world, groups of farmers and others who care about control of their food have organized into a movement for food sovereignty, defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” In practice, food sovereignty might look like a global network of local and regional food systems.

Internationally, the peasant group La Via Campesina is at the forefront of the food sovereignty movement. In the related fair trade movement, groups such as Transfair are creating fair trade networks, allowing communities to connect across borders through the exchange of a fair price for products such as chocolate, rice, or bananas. The farmers who receive fair prices for these products are able to reinvest this money into their local economies and food systems.

At the local level, food sovereignty is about building community control of your food — by conducting a community food assessment, starting an urban farm and market, or connecting your local farmers to institutions — that is, through building viable local and regional food systems. Buying food grown closer to home is not a quaint throwback to an agrarian age. It is a powerful tool for transforming our economy away from a race to the bottom in environmental and health standards, and toward an economy that is based on principles of democracy, community, and sustainability.


    Updated 7/2010