What qualifies as local food? It’s kind of a trick question.
A small, densely populated country like England uses it to designate foods produced within a 31 mile (50 km) radius, although so does large and sparsely populated Canada. France is guided by the combination of geography, geology, and climate that create the identifying characteristics of terroir. The standard is especially difficult to codify in the U.S. where a single ranch in Texas is bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island, while a 30 mile radius in Delaware brings produce from four states beyond its borders.
‘Local’ is like the Supreme Court’s test for pornography: I know it when I see it.
The USDA defines local and regional foods as those produced and distributed within a 400-mile radius, but it’s just a statutory definition that creates eligibility for federal programs that support local food systems. Retailers all have their own definitions: Walmart’s ‘local’ produce is grown in a store’s home state; Safeway (whose brands include Dominick’s, Genuardi’s, Von’s, and Randall’s) classifies local as food produced within an eight hour drive of an individual market; Krogers (subsidiaries are Ralph’s, Fred Meyer, and Fry’s) vaguely interprets local as foods produced in a given state or region of the US; Supervalu (Albertsons, Jewel-Osco, and Lucky) applies a ‘local’ label to food grown in regions that are as broad as four or five states; Whole Foods defines it as produce grown within a day’s drive of its stores. The strictest definition comes from shoppers; according to the 2015 Local Food Consumer Shopping Survey, 96% of consumers define a local food radius as 100 miles from production to point of sale.
Whatever the meaning, we’re willing to pay a premium for the ‘local’ label.
Even as consumers tighten the definition, they’re loosening the pursestrings and expanding the scope. Demand has moved beyond produce to meat and seafood, bread, cheese, and other dairy. The greatest spike in interest is in dry goods like beans and grains, a category that the industry used to believe was least likely to warrant a local premium. Three-quarters of all consumers are willing to pay a higher price (usually stated as 10-25%) for local foods, and nearly half of all shoppers will make a special trip just to find them.
‘Local’ has become shorthand for fresh, high quality, and environmentally friendly.
Consumers also tend to assign feel-good attributes to the local label like better food safety, organic practices, humane treatment of animals, and production by a small, family farm. By contrast, they draw inferences regarding industrial food production, assigning attributes like less healthy, lesser quality, unfair labor practices, poor environmental stewardship, and a slew of unsafe additives. In both cases, some assumptions are valid, some are not, for example fruits and vegetables that are grown outdoors in warmer but distant climates will nearly always be greener than local crops that have to be grown in greenhouses. This doesn’t mean that we should be eating air-freighted raspberries in the dead of winter, but there’s room for some relief from a winter diet of local turnips and cabbage.
Local foods are best when they are part of a broader movement toward sustainability.
The corporate food model separates producers and consumers through a chain of processors, brokers, distributors, shippers, and retailers, while a local model connects producers and consumers in proximate or direct relationships. It creates food systems that are woven into the economic, environmental, and social health of a particular place. Sustainability is baked into the local model because everyone is a stakeholder in the future.