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What is “Local” Food?

Anyone who has shopped at a farmers market can appreciate the freshness of the food, the interaction with farmers, and the opportunity to learn how the food was produced. As an economist with the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), I’m also interested in what local food systems look like in the United States and how locally grown food products are delivered from farms to consumers. ERS recently published two studies (Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues, and Comparing the Structure, Size, and Performance of Local and Mainstream Food Supply Chains) that together provide a national perspective on local foods and tell detailed stories about local food supply chains.

Nationwide, local foods are often sold directly to consumers through farmers markets, roadside stands, and community supported agriculture. Direct sales through these and other outlets are a small but growing part of U.S. agriculture, and are especially important for small farms. But sales of locally produced food occur through other outlets, too. Local products may show up in supermarkets, restaurants, and schools, and a growing number of major food retailers are introducing local food sourcing initiatives.

USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) studies the economic impact of local and regional food systems.

USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) studies the economic impact of local and regional food systems.

A set of targeted case studies of local food supply chains bear out these national trends. We visited and talked with farmers, cooperative grocery stores, retail distribution centers, food processors, and supermarkets across the country to learn more about how they operate. For example, Larry Thompson farms 145 acres within 20 miles of downtown Portland, OR, and focuses his sales of blueberries through farmers markets and farm stands. Todd Churchill founded Thousand Hills Cattle in 2003, and is working with other small ranchers to bring local grass-fed beef to Minnesota residents through direct sales as well as mainstream grocery stores like Kowalski’s.

Their stories and others in the reports demonstrate the wide variety of ways local foods reach consumers.  Some of our findings confirm commonly held beliefs, for example, that producers receive a greater share of retail prices in local supply chains despite the cost of undertaking the distribution and marketing themselves.  One interesting finding was that, while “food miles” are lower in local supply chains, fuel use on transportation per unit of product varies significantly across locations and products.  We learned a lot in these first studies and look forward to discussing our findings in future posts, in addition to further research needs, such as the relative environmental impacts of different supply chains.

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