Societies have always traded with one other, creating long-term partnerships with neighboring communities and even peoples on the other side of the world. But as trade routes have become dominated by a few giant corporations, the idea of establishing new routes closer to home has become more popular. Since the early 2000s, interest has been mounting in the economic, environmental and health benefits of local foods to the tune of $8.7 billion in farm revenue. And now the term “local” possesses huge cachet when it comes to marketing farm products.
While global trade routes have existed for millennia, until about a century ago most people relied on their local food systems. The invention of the refrigerated railway car in the late 1800s changed all that and allowed produce and other perishables to be shipped around the country, so that, for example, Bostonians could eat California lettuce in January. One hundred years ago, the top few companies in both the meat and railroad industries consolidated and controlled so much of the market (driving down prices for producers and driving up the costs for consumers) that the government had to step in with strong antitrust laws to break them up. Unfortunately, we have permitted these laws to lapse.
When the interstate highway system was completed in the 1960s, refrigerated trucks took over coast-to-coast shipping (which formerly had been the domain of the railways). 1 Food processing and truck shipping has been big business ever since. Today, food and agriculture companies are consolidated, and most of the world relies on a few global companies for the growing, processing, distributing and retailing of food. As of 2015, the largest companies in each sector controlled 85 percent of the beef packing industry, 66 percent of pork packing and 51 percent of broiler chicken processing. 2 When the top four companies control more than 50 percent, a market is generally seen as uncompetitive.
Even as the increasingly complex food system has become globalized, the public’s interest in where food comes from has increased. When it comes to buzzwords, the term “local” has been trendy for more than a decade. In 2006, “locally grown produce” ranked second in overall restaurant sales. 3 In 2016, 44 percent of chefs surveyed identified local sourcing as the culinary trend that had increased the most, and 21 percent predicted that it would still be the “hottest menu trend” in 2026. 4 On the farm side, the USDA estimates that more than 167,000 farms sold food to local markets in 2015, resulting in $8.7 billion in revenue. 5 However, there are so many steps in-between the producer and the consumer that the farmer gets less than 15 cents per consumer dollar. 6
A local food system is one that shortens the distance between food producers and consumers, both literally and figuratively. In recent years, as consumers have become more interested in local food, markets have developed for direct-to-consumer sales, and also for institutional sales. But there are challenges involved in bringing local food back to scale.
“Local” is generally understood to mean products that are grown and processed relatively nearby to where they are sold, purchased and consumed. The term is also associated with small-scale independent producers and environmental stewardship. The 2008 Farm Bill states that a product may be transported up to 400 miles from its origin and still be considered a “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product;” but, a 2010 US Department of Agriculture (USDA) study on local food found no consistently accepted definition. 7
In practice, the use of “local” varies by community; “regional” is sometimes more apt. (We use both, depending on the context.) In Des Moines, Iowa, farmers’ market vendors must come from within the state, while the food shed of New Orleans’ Crescent City markets offers products from across the whole Gulf Coast, including Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, as well as from fishermen who ply the waters of the Gulf itself. Tiny, rural Calicoon, New York, has a 75-mile limit for its farmers’ market. San Antonio, Texas has twice that limit, or 150 miles. The Park Slope Food Coop, in the heart of Brooklyn, NY, defines local as coming from within 500 miles to supply the produce needs of its more than 16,000 members. 8 But because “local” has no strict definition, “local washing”of products that are not produced close to home is happening more and more.
The local food trend took off and got established through direct-to-consumer markets such as farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture programs. As demand for local food has risen, additional marketing systems have been developed to scale up regional food systems and make these products available to more people.
1 billion dollars
in annual sales at farmers' markets across the country
Farmers’ markets have enjoyed exponential growth in the last 24 years, increasing from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,268 in 2014 9, with total annual sales now estimated at $1 billion. 10 Now, they are the most recognizable faces of the local food movement.
Community supported agriculture (CSA) programs are another popular way to “get to know your farmer.” CSA members buy a “share” of a local farm’s projected harvest in the form of a weekly box of fresh produce and other farm products. Payment is often made at the beginning of the season, which provides much needed income to farmers in early spring when they buy seeds and other inputs. The arrangement distributes the risks and rewards of farming between farmers and consumers. Local Harvest, an online local sourcing database, includes 4,000 CSAs. 11
The community-supported model of buying a share of the harvest has also grown far past produce. LocalCatch.org, a community supported fishery network, has more than 400 sites in its database; there are community supported flowers, meat shares, dairy products and more. Overall, the USDA estimates that 115,000 operations were selling direct-to-consumer in 2015 (to on-farm stores, farm stands and online marketplaces), totaling $3 billion in sales. 12
As farmers’ markets and CSA programs grew in popularity, communities began to realize that the purchasing power of institutions like schools, universities, hospitals and prisons could develop a burgeoning regional food system more quickly than individual shopping habits — and in so doing would get fresh, local food to many more people. Farm to institution programs were the answer: schools, hospitals and other institutions purchasing food for their students and patients directly from local farmers. The idea took off, and in 2009 the USDA even added a farm to school team. As of 2012, more than 40 percent of school districts across the country had farm to school programs. 13 Research from 2011 found that about six percent of hospitals had started a local food program. 14
Some national organizations have been instrumental in this work. The National Farm to School Network has been a source of practical information to schools and advocacy groups wanting to develop local programs. At the college and university level, the goal of Real Food Challenge is 20 percent “real” food (local, organic, produced by independent farmers) by 2020. It trains students to advocate for real food on their own campuses, including working with dining services to make the change. Health Care without Harm includes healthy food as one of its key program areas and partners, with more than 1,000 hospitals in North America to address their food sourcing. 15 And recently, cities and other stakeholders around the country have adopted or are advocating adoption of the Good Food Purchasing Policy, which provides criteria and goals for municipal food sourcing based on five core values: supporting the local economy, health, workforce, animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
To scale up a local and regional food system so that local food is available in supermarkets and is accessible to everyone (not just those with access to farmers’ markets) requires infrastructure beyond farmers and buyers. Many small slaughterhouses, grain mills, canneries and regional distribution networks have consolidated or closed down in the last fifty years, and that can make it difficult for farmers to get their products to customers. This gap is especially a challenge for farmers who are too big for direct marketing at farmers’ markets or CSAs but too small to meet the needs of global distributors.
Long before “local” was a buzzword, farmers were organizing themselves into cooperatives to address this issue, marketing their products together for more volume and more market clout. For example, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives has assisted farmer cooperative development for fifty years, particularly working with Black farmers who have faced rampant discrimination from the USDA as well as in the marketplace.
Additional kinds of processing and marketing solutions have also developed in more recent years. Lack of processing infrastructure is especially a challenge for livestock farmers, who have a short window to slaughter when their animals reach the right weight. With far fewer slaughterhouses and butchers, it can be hard to get an appointment at the right time. An aggregator can address this challenge. These companies sell meat from multiple farmers who meet certain humane and environmental standards under one recognizable brand; they also take care of butchering, sales and marketing — all the non-farming parts of a farm, business which many farmers do not enjoy.
Many aggregators call themselves food hubs, and these channels have seen 288 percent growth since 2006. 16 Some food hubs, like the Portland, Oregon-based Food Hub, which serves six western states, are primarily online platforms that facilitate connections between seller and buyer; others, like Virginia’s Local Food Hub, are a connector, distribution center, consumer educator, farmer trainer and more.
The global food system, like many other parts of the globalized economy, extracts wealth from communities and sends it to shareholders and CEOs many states or countries away. Local food systems, on the other hand, retain wealth and support the local economy. 17 Farmers’ markets have a positive effect on nearby businesses, 18 and the money that small farm operators make selling locally gets spent locally as well, on everything from machinery and seeds to a cup of coffee and a new hat. Food processed and distributed locally creates jobs in related sectors; every newly added full-time job at farmers’ markets newly adds a part-time job in other sectors. 19 All told, the impact can be major: a recent study found that if the State University of New York, a network of 64 schools across the state, spent 25 percent of its food dollars on fresh foods grown in state, it would create $54 million in economic output. 20 That is why struggling rural regions across the nation are investing in local food infrastructure as economic revitalization. 21
Many farmers who sell local food use environmentally sustainable methods to farm (such as manure rather than chemical fertilizer), organic pest control methods, cover crops and the like. Because there is no environmental certification for being a “local” farm, it is not guaranteed that methods used are sustainable. Less than five percent of farms selling locally are USDA Certified Organic, though nearly half of all organic farms sell locally. 22 Organic certification is an expensive, time-consuming process, and many farmers who sell locally do not think that their customers value the certification enough to make it worth the effort. Some use terms like “beyond organic,” and will gladly talk about their practices with inquiring customers. Preserving open space is another benefit of viable, small farms, as land is used for growing food rather than developed for a strip mall. Finally, food produced locally is fresher and can be traced back more easily to its source in case of foodborne illness.
Due to the popularity of buying “local” foods combined with the lack of a clear definition for what local means and a widespread lack of certification for companies purporting to sell so-called local products, the term has been misused to “local wash” a global company. For example, by 2009, Lay’s potato chips was using “local” to advertise in states where its potatoes are grown. The claim was technically true, but a global chip brand owned by PepsiCo is not how most people think of “local” potato chips. 23 Similar branding attempts have become commonplace in the years since.
When does marketing products as “local” (when they are not) constitute false advertising? A good question. More troubling is fraud, which can be harder to spot. A 2016 investigation revealed that many goods marketed as “local” in restaurants and at markets did not, in fact, come from local farms at all. The findings point to the disparity between farmer costs and what restaurants and consumers are willing to pay. 24 Shopping at farmers’ markets that conduct regular audits of their vendors is one way to ensure that what you are buying is what you think it is. Also consider that if a price looks too good to be true, it probably is.
This leads to another challenge of the local food movement: when buyers are faced with the true cost of food raised by small-scale producers using environmentally friendly methods, they often balk. The economies of scale of the global food system has many efficiencies that lower consumer prices. However, they do that in part by externalizing costs — whether costs in health care from diet-related diseases, costs of water clean-up from fertilizer runoff or many others. These are all real costs that someone will have to pay down the line, but because these costs are not figured into prices at the grocery store or chain restaurant, food pricing at such establishments are often lower than at farmers’ markets.