EXTENSION NEWS: Defining local food and its benefits | Archives

Andara Puchino

What does the term “local food” mean to you? Maybe buying produce or meat at a local farmers’ market? How about picking your own blueberries or strawberries at a local farm? Or eating at a restaurant that sources food from nearby farmers, ranchers, or fishermen? Local food can mean a lot of different things to us, which is part of the reason why it is not so easy to define.

In fact, local food does not have an agreed upon definition. In general, “local food” is often defined based on the distance it travels from production to consumption. According to the 2008 Farm Bill, local food is defined as food that is grown and transported less than 400 miles, or within the same state. State organizations, like the NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) and North Carolina Cooperative Extension, recognize local food as food grown, caught, or raised in NC. We as consumers also have additional characteristics we associate with local food, such as freshness, who produced the food and how it was grown or raised, as well as its benefit to our health and our community.

What is a local food system?Food systems encompass all the steps that food takes from farm to fork, including its production, distribution and aggregation, processing, marketing, sales, preparation, consumption, and even waste recovery. Local food systems include these steps on a smaller scale and encompass how food moves within a specific geographic location, such as a county, region, or state. According to the 2015 USDA Report to Congress, “ ‘Local and regional food systems’ refers to place-specific clusters of agricultural producers of all kinds -farmers, ranchers, and fishers — along with consumers and institutions engaged in producing, processing, distributing, and selling foods.” As consumers, we are part of food systems too. When we go to the grocery store or a farmers’ market, we are choosing to buy and consume foods on a global scale or local scale as well as what happens to the food waste we generate.

The benefits of local foodsNot having a single definition of local food makes assessing its impacts a challenge. However, current research is revealing how local food systems can benefit our communities. Direct marketing to consumers at venues such as farmers’ markets can be especially beneficial for beginning farmers, as participating farms are more likely to make a profit each year. Research supports that, on average, local fruits and vegetables sold through direct marketing are actually less expensive than those sold at grocery stores regardless of season, though location-specific factors influence pricing (ex. property tax, labor cost, etc.). While local foods are not necessarily healthier than non-local foods, increased access and consumption of fresh produce is linked to health benefits, such as decreased risk for heart disease and some cancers. Being able to consume vegetables and fruits at peak ripeness, when nutritional quality is highest, is another benefit. Local foods can also strengthen communities, increasing social ties between consumers and food producers as well as urban and rural areas, and increase civic pride through supporting community activities like farmers’ markets, food cooperatives, and community supported agriculture (CSA). By gathering to support local food, networking can lead to addressing other community issues, like economic development and food insecurity.

How can you help support local foods? One way is to commit a portion of your food dollars to regularly purchase locally grown food. Another is to advocate for purchasing local food in daycare centers, schools, or offices. You can also plant a family or community garden to produce food for yourselves and/or donate to food pantries. And there are many other ways! By supporting local agriculture, you are helping local food producers, your community, and likely your health in the process.

For more information on the impacts of local foods and how to purchase locally in our area, contact N.C. Cooperative Extension at the Lee County Center office and ask for Meredith Favre, Local Foods Coordinator, for more information.

For more information on the impacts of local foods and how to purchase locally in our area, contact N.C. Cooperative Extension at the Lee County Center office and ask for Meredith Favre, Local Foods Coordinator, for more information.


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