There is one consistent response to questions about the research behind the benefits of local food systems: it depends. This lack of clarity is partially because there is no single definition for “local” food (Holcomb et al., 2018). Therefore, the benefits of local food systems are not guaranteed since they depend on how local food is grown or raised, distributed, and consumed. When service providers understand community members' expectations and the proven benefits of local food systems, we can work together to build local food programs that create desirable community outcomes.
How do organizations and individuals define local food?
- The 2008 Farm Bill, which guides the U.S. Department of Agriculture, defined local food as food grown and transported fewer than 400 miles or within the same state.
- State organizations such as the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) and North Carolina Cooperative Extension (NCCE) use state boundaries to define local food. State branding programs, which are initiatives that distinguish products grown and/or processed within a state with the intent to increase sales of local food products, operate in all 50 states (Naasz et al., 2018).
- Consumer definitions vary widely. For some, local food includes assumptions about how the food is grown or raised such as pesticide-free or hormone-free (Richards & Vassalos, 2023). For others, it depends on who grew the food such as small-scale or family farmers. Some say it depends on how far the food has traveled such as the “100-Mile Diet” (Smith & MacKinnon, 2007). The distance used to define “local” may also vary by area of residence because rural residents identify “local food” with a smaller area than urban residents (Sneed & Fairhurst, 2017). Alternately, some consumers say that it depends on how the food was marketed (directly to the consumer at a farmers market or roadside stand).
- Researchers often use “direct marketing” as the definition for selling food locally because short supply chains represent the close connection between farmer and consumer. Direct marketing includes farmers who sell directly to consumers at farmers markets, roadside stands, “you-pick” operations, agritourism activities, and community supported agriculture (CSA). Historically, there is limited data available about extended supply chains — those with more intermediaries between farmer and consumer (Low et al., 2015). Researchers have been studying these supply chains because analyses have found that they have the potential to increase farmer profitability (Bauman et al., 2018; Dunning, 2016; Hardesty et al., 2014).
Despite these different definitions, research has shown that consumers have relatively consistent attitudes toward and beliefs about local food such as freshness, healthfulness, safety, high quality, and economic benefits to their community (Onozaka et al., 2010). In this article, we summarize the research about the environmental, economic, health, and community benefits of local food systems to provide practitioners, community members, and interested consumers with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions.
Local food is often assumed to be environmentally beneficial because of reduced transportation distances and the use of sustainable agricultural practices. The term “food miles” is frequently used in the media to suggest that there are environmental benefits when food is transported locally from farmer to consumer, as compared to the distance involved in the global food system that distributes food around the world. However, research does not support the idea that local food systems are necessarily more environmentally sustainable than regional, national, or global food systems because of reduced transportation (Enthoven & Van den Broeck, 2021). There are two reasons. First, transportation only accounts for approximately 11% of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture (Low et al., 2015). More than 60% of the emissions and energy used in food systems occurs during the production, processing, packaging, or selling of food (Poore & Nemecek, 2018). Second, with transportation, research shows that efficiency is often more important than distance. Larger quantities generate “economies of scale,” which means that the costs for producing, processing, distributing, and marketing a product are typically lower with larger volumes. In addition, the methods of transportation used in regional, national, and global food systems (such as ship, rail, or tractor trailer) create fewer emissions than transportation in local food systems, which often includes several short trips by producers and consumers (Avetisyan et al., 2014; Brodt et al., 2013; Canning, 2011; Cleveland et al., 2011; Coley et al., 2011; Edwards-Jones, 2010; Edwards-Jones et al., 2008; Heller & Keoleian, 2003; Loiseau et al., 2020; Mariola, 2008; Weber & Matthews, 2008).
In addition, many consumers expect local food producers to use more environmentally sustainable agricultural practices than nonlocal farmers (Sneed & Fairhurst, 2017).
However, the use of specific agricultural practices is not guaranteed in local food systems. Farmers and producers, wherever they are located, choose from a wide variety of production methods that depend on multiple factors, such as the crop they grow or livestock they raise, the climate, market demands, and other factors that are specific to their individual farm operation. Some research suggests that farmers who sell directly to consumers are more likely to use organic management practices and are less likely to use pesticides and herbicides than conventional producers (Low et al., 2015; Schoolman, 2018). However, other research suggests that conventional producers are more likely to have land in conservation and use no-till practices, which are also important environmental practices, than producers who sell directly to consumers (Low et al., 2015). Consumers who are concerned about agricultural practices can look for certifications that indicate the practices that have been used such as organic, fair trade, or animal-welfare-approved. Consumers can also build a relationship with a local farmer or producer and then communicate directly about their production practices.
Another issue that connects local food systems and environmental benefits is the reduction of food waste, which mitigates climate change by lowering carbon emissions because unconsumed food in landfills releases methane gas (US EPA, 2021). A recent study found that on-farm food loss was up to 42% of unharvested produce, both marketable and unmarketable which are referred to as “seconds” because of aesthetic quality (Johnson et al., 2018). Reducing food waste along the supply chain can create new market outlets for growers and help reduce food insecurity (Gunders et al., 2017). For example, private companies such as Imperfect Foods and Misfits Market ship excess produce to consumers at discounted prices (Richards & Hamilton, 2018). Many food banks have begun paying growers a small amount (enough to cover labor and packing costs) for their “seconds” to distribute to food-insecure clients (Dunning et al., 2019; 2020). Food banks can also employ gleaning, the harvesting of leftover crops by volunteers, to increase their supply of fresh produce to food-insecure clients; this practice reduces food waste and does not rely on farm labor (Lee et al., 2017). Finally, farmers markets and CSAs are more established market channels for “seconds” because they do not have the same product standards as conventional grocery stores (Gunders et al., 2017). Thus, these outlets for local food have an important role in decreasing food waste.
Industry estimates indicate that sales of local food in the United States have almost doubled in recent years, from $5 billion in 2008, $11.8 billion in 2017, and $9 billion in 2020 (Béné, 2020; CRS, 2018; USDA NASS, 2022; Vilsack, 2015). Local food systems are often promoted because they contribute to the local economy. The “multiplier effect” means that money spent on local food is more likely to be re-spent within the local economy. This effect occurs when farmers and other local businesses buy locally, employ local residents, and work with other local businesses (Hardesty et al., 2016; Jablonski & Schmit, 2016). The economic analyses that estimate the multiplier effect are complicated and depend on various contextual factors. Studies estimate multiplier effects for spending on locally produced foods to be between $1.32 and $1.90, which means that for every dollar spent on local products, there is between $.32 and $.90 worth of additional local economic activity (Jablonski et al., 2015; Martinez et al., 2010; Meter, 2010). Research shows that the localization of food supply chains (such as localizing a crop’s production) can create positive economic effects such as lowering production and transportation costs and consumer prices. Such benefits vary by region and product (Atallah et al., 2014; Nicholson et al., 2011).
Recent studies suggest that local businesses, which include small and midscale farms, are more likely than their larger-scale counterparts to buy supplies from local businesses, and that farms that sell locally spend more on labor regardless of their size (Bauman et al., 2018; Tropp & Malini, 2017). Local farmers markets also generate “spillover effects” when consumers attend the market and then shop at other nearby businesses (Lev et al., 2003). In addition, local food systems and direct markets serve as incubators that help to support new food and farming businesses, which in turn fosters entrepreneurship and small business development (Flora et al., 2012; Gwin & Thiboumery, 2014; Hinrichs et al., 2004). However, it is possible that some studies overestimate the economic impact of local food systems because they assume that local food purchases reflect an overall increase in spending, rather than recognizing that some purchases are simply diverted from other local markets, such as supermarkets (Boys, 2016; Deller, Lamie, & Stickel, 2017; Hughes & Boys, 2015; Stickel & Deller, 2020).
Local food systems are also assumed to benefit farmers by removing the “middleman,” which allows farmers to retain a greater share of the food dollar. Although research shows that this is true for direct marketing, the benefits must be balanced with the higher costs that direct marketing creates for farmers for marketing, labor, and time (Bonanno et al., 2013; King, 2010; Pinchot, 2014; Shideler et al., 2018). At the same time, removing a local middleman can diminish the local multiplier effect. This means that service providers should think not only about the economic impact of local food systems on primary producers, but also about the impact on local intermediaries such as the locally owned distributors and retailers.
Overall, research suggests that direct markets benefit new and beginning farmers, and participating farms are more likely to show a profit year after year (Low et al., 2015). However, farms that participate in direct and intermediate marketing channels reported higher profitability rates than those participating only in direct markets, which means that this marketing strategy may be more reliable for farms of any scale (Bauman et al., 2018; Shideler et al., 2018). For other forms of local food infrastructure, recent research indicates that food hubs (mission-driven aggregation and distribution centers) typically need ongoing external funding to remain economically viable (Hoey et al., 2018; Rysin & Dunning, 2016). Communities should consider this need for funding when planning to create a food hub.
There is a perception that local food is more expensive than nonlocal food. Local food prices can be higher in some places due to local issues such as land valuation, property tax rates, and cost of labor. However, research has shown that, on average, local fresh fruits and vegetables sold in direct markets are less expensive than those sold in grocery stores, regardless of the season (McGuirt et al., 2011; Valpiani et al., 2015).
Local food system components, such as farmers markets, community gardens, and other direct market opportunities, are the focus of a growing body of research focused on enhancing community health. It is important to understand that local food is not necessarily healthier than nonlocal food. Many health benefits associated with local food are related to access to and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables (Edwards-Jones, 2010). A diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer. Research has shown that the existence of direct-to-consumer local food markets is associated with individual weight loss, lower rates of diabetes, and lower body mass index (Berning, 2012; Bimbo et al., 2012; Salois, 2012). This does not mean that local food causes better health outcomes. It is possible that communities that are already healthier are those that are also more interested in local food (Deller, Canto, & Brown, 2017; Salois, 2012). Research has also shown that individuals who purchase local fresh fruits and vegetables, or grow it themselves, eat a greater variety of vegetables, consume more vegetables, and report that their children eat more fresh fruits and vegetables (Alaimo et al., 2008; Allen et al., 2017; Ban et al., 2013; Brown & Miller, 2008; De Marco et al., 2014; Litt et al., 2011; Jilcott Pitts et al., 2017; Wharton et al., 2015).
Local food is often assumed to be healthier due to freshness, based on the idea that transportation from farm to consumer requires less time in direct-to-consumer supply chains. This is sometimes accurate because the nutritional quality of fruits and vegetables is often best right after harvest and then declines with time (Favell, 1998; Lee & Kader, 2000). However, the freshness and nutritional value of a local food product are related to how a product is handled between harvest and consumption; thus, frozen and canned produce can be just as nutritious as fresh produce (Miller & Knudson, 2014). Therefore, freshness is not just a matter of time or distance to market, but also the integrity of temperature and humidity management (known as the cold chain) from harvest to table (Edwards-Jones et al., 2008; 2010). Although farmers may have varying capacity to maintain a cold chain, local produce often has the advantage of being picked at the peak of ripeness. Local farmers can then choose varieties based on taste rather than on their ability to withstand transportation (Estabrook, 2012).
Evaluation of farm-to-school programs that integrate local food into cafeterias and engage children with hands-on gardening and other educational activities have been shown to have potentially positive effects on children’s dietary behavior and health outcomes (Prescott et al., 2019). Research shows that offering local food in school cafeterias increases students’ consumption of fruits and vegetables (Kropp et al., 2018), especially when combined with hands-on activities such as cooking, gardening, and nutrition education (Bontrager Yoder et al., 2014; Koch et al., 2017). In addition, children who are involved in school gardens are more willing to try new fresh fruits and vegetables and to eat them routinely (Birch et al., 1987; Chan et al., 2022; Hermann et al., 2006; Koch et al., 2017; Langellotto & Gupta, 2012; Lineberger & Zajicek, 2000; National Farm to School Network, 2017; Thompson et al., 2018). Involvement in school gardens has also been shown to improve health outcomes (such as body mass index, blood pressure, and metabolic parameters), particularly among high-risk, low-income students (Davis et al., 2023; Hollar et al., 2010). Furthermore, student participation in school gardens has the added benefit of improving performance on science exams (Barale et al., 2014; Klemmer et al., 2005).
It is often assumed that local food is safer than nonlocal food. Food safety practices are a critical issue for farms of all sizes and markets. While many markets, such as schools and supermarkets, require Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification, small-scale farmers who participate in direct markets often choose not to seek this certification, which is expensive to administer and not required in direct markets, such as farmers markets and CSAs (Minor et al., 2019; NC State Extension, 2016). The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires farms to meet certain food safety standards, although those that participate exclusively in local direct markets (defined as within 275 miles or the same state), or farms with gross revenue below a certain inflation-adjusted amount over the past three years, are exempt (NC State Extension, 2023). Although smaller-scale farms that participate in local markets may not have food safety certification, concerned consumers can ask farmers directly about their food safety practices, because they are likely to follow standard practices although they are not certified. There are no guarantees that specific agricultural practices are more likely to be followed by a local grower than a nonlocal grower.
Some of the strongest evidence-based benefits of local food systems are found at the community level. Community organizing around developing local food systems, including community gardens, increases an overall sense of community togetherness. Collective community work creates stronger social ties and networks and can lead to more civic engagement (Diekmann et al., 2020; McDaniel et al., 2021; Sturtevant, 2006; Teig et al., 2009). Recent studies have shown that involvement in farmers markets, CSAs, or food cooperatives increases engagement in the community through a sense of pride and “civic duty” (Carolan, 2017; Rumble & Lundy, 2017; Vasi et al., 2015). Local food systems and relationships that form in direct markets can also help to strengthen ties between producers and consumers and between rural and urban areas. As communities organize around local food issues, civic engagement and network building leads to communities addressing and working on other community wide problems, such as food insecurity (Lyson, 2005; Martinez et al., 2022; Stickel & Deller, 2014; Teig et al., 2009).
Local food markets and projects sometimes exclude consumers with lower incomes, who are people of color, or who come from ethnic backgrounds that are uncommon in that geographic area. Exclusions are often due to pricing structures as well as the location, configuration, and timing of direct-to-consumer markets and other local food projects (Freedman et al., 2016; Kato, 2013; Kato & McKinney, 2015). Many communities are working to include and empower disadvantaged consumers. For example, community gardens donate produce to food pantries, and home gardening provides food for some food insecure families (Algert et al., 2016). Some farmers offer subsidized, or "cost-offset," CSA shares to low-income families (Sitaker et al., 2020). In addition, many farmers markets now accept SNAP-EBT (formerly known as food stamps) and also use grant or local sponsorship funding to match SNAP dollars, which gives low-income consumers additional purchasing power. The number of farmers markets and farm stands that accept SNAP benefits increased from 900 in 2009 to more than 4,600 in 2020; this reflected a growth in value from $4 million to over $33 million (Tropp & Malini, 2017; USDA FNS, 2021). This increased spending also benefits the producers at these markets. Research has shown that matching SNAP dollars at farmers markets positively affects fruit and vegetable consumption (Lindsay et al., 2013; SNAP Healthy Food Incentives Cluster Evaluation 2013 Final Report, 2013). The success of accepting SNAP-EBT at farmers markets, as with any local food project, will depend on community engagement to ensure that all community members’ interests, needs, and expectations are considered (Kato, 2013; Wetherill & Gray, 2015).
Impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated and exacerbated many of the inequities in our food system, such as food insecurity (Béné, 2020; Coleman-Jensen, 2019; Houghtaling et al., 2023) and diet-related health outcomes (Gereffi et al., 2009; Haynes-Maslow et al., 2020; Neff et al., 2009; Tilman & Clark, 2014). Maintaining a steady food supply during the pandemic’s disruptions to global food distribution was extremely challenging, due to the global food system’s dependence on international trade, specialization, standardization, centralization, and reliance on seasonal and low-wage labor (Glaros et al., 2021; Hendrickson, 2020). Emerging research on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including approaches for rebounding from its challenges, has emphasized the importance of developing local food systems as key to a more resilient overall food system (Hendrickson, 2020; Thilmany et al., 2021). In response to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the food system, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization emphasizes that “promoting local food production and short supply chains and a greater degree of self-sufficiency” (FAO, 2020) is a central strategy that can bolster the food system’s ability to weather future crises.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many local food businesses were nimbler than their larger counterparts. Those businesses leveraged their short supply chains as they adapted to changing conditions and demonstrated their importance in our larger food system and their capacity to be resilient. Some farmers and producers struggled at the onset of the pandemic from bottlenecks in product processing and market specialization (Grandin, 2020; Hendrickson, 2020; Richards & Vassalos, 2021), while others were able to recover and even thrive as they shifted quickly to direct and online sales in local markets (Bachman et al., 2021; Dankbar et al., 2021; Marusak et al., 2021; Thilmany et al., 2021). Many food hubs also responded quickly to the pandemic by shifting their distribution model away from wholesale market channels and toward direct-to-consumer CSA offerings, while increasing their sourcing from local farmers (Fardkhales & Lincoln, 2021).
In response to the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a series of policy and program adjustments that made food assistance and marketing programs more flexible and allowed for innovative integration with local food systems (Thilmany et al., 2021; Wallace Center, 2020). For example, the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which operated from May 2020 to May 2021, purchased, packaged, and distributed over 173 million boxes of fresh produce, milk/dairy products, and meat/seafood from producers of all sizes to families who were experiencing food insecurity (USDA AMS, 2021). Some growers were even paid to harvest and transport produce that would otherwise have been destroyed to local food banks, which were overwhelmed by demand during the early days of the pandemic (Campbell & McAvoy, 2020). Food system resilience is always changing. The experiences and lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic will inform decisions and actions in years ahead.
With this publication about the research on the benefits of local food systems, we hope to provide practitioners, community members, and interested consumers with the knowledge to make informed decisions. Despite gaps in the research from the inconsistencies in defining “local” food, new research is published every day that adds to our knowledge about the outcomes and impacts of local food system development. The most important finding is that local food projects, programs, and systems can be designed and managed to achieve the benefits that community members expect. It is important to first determine people’s expectations for local food systems in their area, prioritize these issues in the design of local food projects, and maintain transparency about the qualities and characteristics of local food that the community values. In this way, you can create successful local food systems that meet your community’s goals.
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Previous versions of this publication were also authored by Joanna Lelekacs, former NC Extension Local Foods Flagship Program Manager, and Rebecca Dunning, Director, FFAR Fellows Program.
Publication date: Aug. 11, 2023
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