What Does Local Mean?

What Does Local Mean?

August 21, 2013

Chef Alice Waters brought it to light, but currently, the true definition of “local” shares a vagueness and lack of precision akin to “all natural.” Defining local is not a simple task. A CRS report for Congress states, “The single statutory definition for ‘locally or regionally produced agricultural food product’ in the United States applies to products transported less than 400 miles or within the state in which they are produced.” The definition’s origin is the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. 

Using the “local” label challenges retail chains spanning more than one state since a farmer’s produce two miles away can’t be classified as “local” if it is across the state border, yet the produce of another farmer 100 miles away within the state of the store can be identified as “local.” 

Trust is an important factor in consumer loyalty. If a retailer showcases “local” in its offerings, the knowledge of what that means can help to reduce shoppers’ confusion on what exactly is local in that case. According to an August 2013 article in Facts, Figures & the Future, “Just five percent of shoppers say they shop for local foods at big-box retailers, and just 15% do so at national supermarkets, even though these formats offer one-stop convenience. That’s because shoppers trust them least when it comes to local foods.”  

Pro-Local Food Systems:

The American Public Health Association, in its recommendations for a healthy, sustainable food system, “Encourages cooperative efforts in local food systems, with governmental support, to—

a. Improve local food marketing, distribution, and processing capacity and infrastructure 

b. Establish and promote food policy councils to enable evaluating food systems and recommend changes

c. Reduce barriers to obtaining sustainable, locally produced, fair trade and healthy foods

d. Increase state and local cooperative extension program activities targeted to small farms and those producing fruits and vegetables.”

These recommendations point to the challenges of promoting and sustaining quality local product.

The USDA Local Food Systems Concepts, Impacts and Issues report addresses local government efforts to aid the presence and expansion of farmers markets to communities and the inclusion of the use of SNAP benefits at markets to encourage consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. The main audience of the report is food retailers but most of the discussion is the awareness by certain retailers of the great opportunities that exist in promoting local foods. These retailers include local food procurement activities in their CSR reports as evidence of promoting the local community.  

Anti-Local Food Systems:

People endeavoring to be “local” in their businesses are challenged by “onerous food safety regulations designed for industrial-scale ventures to short-sighted farm policies…to the crushing weight of global food brands on struggling local businesses," reports WorldWatch, an independent research institute devoted to global environmental concerns.

Environmental implications can be related to a locavore farming system according to an article on Freakonomics.com. “In order to maintain current output levels for 40 major field crops and vegetables, a locavore-like production system would require an additional 60 million acres of cropland, 2.7 million tons more fertilizer, and 50 million pounds more chemicals. The land-use changes and increases in demand for carbon-intensive inputs would have profound impacts on the carbon footprint of our food, destroy habitat and worsen environmental pollution.”

What do consumers think when they see “local?”

The support for more local stemmed largely from a desire to reduce the “food miles” – a distance a product is transported – in the food we eat. Trucking melons 1500 miles so we can eat them beyond the local season was considered environmentally unfriendly. More Than Miles, Commentary by Marty Strauss, Environmental Engineer and Molecular Biologist

A resounding 95% of single urban household shoppers say they are willing to pay more for local food, 57% of low income families said they would, which is significant in tying in with farmers markets and organic. “In food stores where penny margins produce pivotal profits, merchants could lift performance through local foods - if they secure a supply chain to bring them in, market them prominently, and message customers about their benefits,” says theFacts, Figures & the Future report.  

Local awareness depends on how strong the support systems are for local in one particular area. Chicago Grown as reported by Grist magazine will be “the first label issued by a major city specifically to promote its urban ag culture,” inspired by the 1990’s ”buy local” campaigns. The Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture based in Massachusetts celebrated its 20th anniversary with its Be a Local Hero program. They have an extensive Find Local Food Index on their site, with a goal to double the amount of food in diets to 25% over the next 20 years. Partners include the USDA Rural Development, AMS and Risk Management Agency. 

“Co-ops can be significant local engines.” The Lempert Report provides National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) figures in it’s article “Co-ops have big local impact.” For every $1,000 spent at a local food co-op, $1,604 in economic activity is generated in the local economy. That’s $239 more than if that $1,000 was spent at a conventional grocer.

The farmer and their voice in “local”:

The Farmers Markets Coalition formed a national task force to define “What Makes a Farmers Market?” The approved text states, “A farmers market operates multiple times per year and is organized for the purpose of facilitating personal connections that create mutual benefits for local farmers, shoppers and communities. To fulfill that objective farmers markets define the term local, regularly communicate that definition to the public, and implement rules/guidelines of operation that ensure that the farmers market consists principally of farms selling directly to the public products that the farms have produced.”  While this is a pro-active effort for local clarification at farmers markets, the effectiveness of this policy could depend on the strength of the local market organizers, and vary widely.

The National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association lobbies federal legislators on local food and food sovereignty. They believe that the real food safety solution is unregulated local trade direct from producer to consumer. 

Further definitions based on geographical distance, or fresh or processed, varies within jurisdictions. In Clarke County, Virginia, for example, no one can sell at the farmers markets unless they raised or made it themselves but that may not apply to every place there are farmers stands.  

Retailers and food regulations by city, county, state:

Frankly, it can’t be easy for a grocer to want to carry local produce. According to a white paper by the Northeast Organic Farming Association, in just New York state alone, authorities include: the Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Department of Heath (DOH) which share jurisdiction over food safety; the Local Health Department, under the auspices of the DOH and then the Department of Agriculture and Markets who enforce food safety regulations at a local level. The Department of Agriculture and Markets alone has 15 divisions and 18 programs many of which apply to farm-direct sales and food safety, including a Division of Food Safety & Inspection.   

 Supply and Demand:

“People may have a desire for distinctiveness when they choose local versus a desire to be similar to others (global),” says a report from the Journal of Consumer Research on “What makes consumers choose local brands over global ones.” (Zhang/Khare). The Hartman Report, Consumer Understanding of Buying Local concludes big brands can use the notion of local to their advantage with seasonal products. The report emphasizes “quality markers, such as use of local ingredients and narratives of local production and origin, are factors that resonate most strongly with consumers when it comes to determining what is authentically local.”  

Mike Faupel of The Sustainability Consortium has found access to local foods is of great social benefit to producers and consumers of food products. Interview with Mike Faupel, COO of The Sustainability Consortium

Safeway features videos on its website featuring their local producers. Customers can get to know the local farmers that sell to their stores, but this does require additional research on the part of the consumers. People have to want to make the effort to do their research. Supermarkets can inspire them to do so. Wegmans, voted the number one supermarket by aConsumer Reports Magazinesurvey in 2012, has a “locally grown” label for their produce from local farmers.