How Local is Local?

Is it 50 miles? 100? Can an entire state be considered local? You can drive the length of Rhode Island in under an hour, but Texas is larger than entire European nations.

There is an audible buzz about eating local foods. According to the food service marketers at Mintel, the appearance of a local label on restaurant menu items has gone up 13% in the past year, with 58% of restaurant-goers interested in seeing more locally grown products on menus. Everyone from growers to retailers to restaurateurs is looking to capitalize on the trend, and yet with so much at stake, we have no real definition of what local really is. What we have instead is an awful lot of wiggle room.

The local food movement is part of a broader movement toward sustainability. The global corporate food model separates producers and consumers through a chain of processors, brokers, distributors, shippers, and retailers. By contrast, the goal of localizing is to build food systems that are built into the economic, environmental, and social health of a particular place. Sustainability is paramount when everyone is a stakeholder in the future.

In the U.K., the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association ( defines local strictly in terms of a producer’s distance to the market– usually within a 30 mile radius. In France, there is the concept of terroir, which is tied to the special characteristics that the geography, geology, and climate bestow on its products. Here in the U.S., the standard hasn’t been codified, but the USDA is moving toward a radius of 400 miles- essentially a day’s drive, which is known as a DGD or day-goods-distance. The distance is a mere jaunt for a Texan, but for the Rhode Islander, 400 miles is a trip through nearly a dozen states and even more distinct ecologies and growing regions.

The definition does matter. There is a lot at at stake, and the potential to abuse the public’s trust. Clearly, the geography matters. But it seems impossibly arbitrary to apply the absoluteness of miles traveled to the creation of sustainable economic communities.

One Response to How Local is Local?

  1. You’re name popped up in Foodbuzz and I remembered I haven’t been here in awhile. And of course the day I stop by there is a completely relevent post. Local food is an important topic to me but I agree that definitions can create confusion.

    Good timing to because I just covered a post on growing your own spices — even if you live in a non-exotic locale. And on that note, even though spices are often imported from MUCH further away then a mere 400 miles I think they encourage eating more foods local. Spices are an efficient import: they’re dried and have low weight and volume (one shipment of saffron satisfies a lot more people than the equivalent load of strawberries). And most important spices provide variety in food so you can re-invent local harvests and essentially avoid the zuchini burnout syndrome. Just my .02. Great topic!

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