There is one consistent response to questions about the research behind the benefits of local food systems: it depends. This is due, in part, to the fact that there is no single definition for “local” food. Therefore, none of the benefits of local food systems is guaranteed; it depends on how exactly local food is grown or raised, distributed, and consumed. However, if service providers understand what community members in their area expect from local food systems, and are knowledgeable about the research related to their benefits, we can work toward building local food projects and programs that create the outcomes that community members desire.
How do various organizations and individuals define local food?
- The 2008 Farm Bill, which guides the US Department of Agriculture, defined local food 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 (NCCE) use state boundaries to define local food.
- Consumer definitions vary widely; for some, local food has to do with assumptions about how food was grown (for example, pesticide-free). For others, it depends on who grew it (for example, small-scale, family farmers). Still others say it depends on how far the food has traveled (for example, The 100-Mile Diet) (Smith and MacKinnon 2007). Alternately, some consumers say it depends on how the food was marketed (for example, directly to the consumer at a farmers market or roadside stand).
- Researchers often use “direct marketing” as the definition for selling food locally, because these short supply chains exemplify the close connections between farmer and consumer. In addition, there is a lack of robust data about extended supply chains—those with more intermediaries between farmer and consumer (Low et al. 2015). Direct marketing includes farmers who sell directly to consumers at farmers markets, roadside stands, you-pick operations, agritourism activities, and community supported agriculture (CSA).
Despite these different definitions, research has shown that consumers have fairly consistent expectations of local food, such as freshness, healthfulness, safety, high quality, and economic benefits to their community (Onozaka, Nurse, and McFadden 2010). In this document, we summarize the research about the environmental, economic, health, and community benefits of local food systems in order to provide practitioners, community members, and interested consumers with the knowledge 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 mainstream media to suggest that environmental benefits occur when food is transported locally from farmer to consumer, compared with the distance involved in the global food system. 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. There are two reasons for this. First, transportation only accounts for approximately 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture (Low et al. 2015). Most of the emissions and energy use in food systems occurs during the production, processing, packaging, or selling of food. Second, when it comes to transportation, research shows that efficiency is often more important than distance. Larger quantities trigger “economies of scale,” meaning that the costs for producing, processing, distributing, and marketing a product are typically lower when you deal with larger volumes. Also, the methods of transportation that characterize regional, national, and global food systems (for example, by ship, rail, or tractor trailer) can translate to fewer emissions than transportation in local food systems, which often includes several small trips by both producers and consumers (Edwards-Jones et al. 2008; Heller and Keoleian 2003; Canning 2011; Mariola 2008; Weber and Matthews 2008).
In addition, many consumers expect that local food producers use more environmentally sustainable agricultural practices than nonlocal farmers do.
The USDA defines sustainable agriculture as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:
As mentioned earlier, the use of specific agricultural practices is not guaranteed in local food systems. All farmers, no matter where they are, choose from a wide variety of production methods depending on multiple factors, including what crop they grow, the climate, market demands, and other factors that are specific to their individual farm operation. Consumers concerned about agricultural practices can look for certain certifications that indicate what practices have been used (for example, organic, fair trade) or they can build a relationship with a local farmer and communicate directly with him or her about their production practices. Some research suggests that, overall, 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 are (Low et al. 2015). However, other findings suggest 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 (ibid.).
Local food systems are often promoted because of their contribution to the local economy. The “multiplier effect” is the concept that money spent on local food is more likely to be re-spent within the local economy. This occurs when farmers and other local businesses buy inputs locally, employ local people, and otherwise work with other local businesses (Jablonski and Schmit 2016; Hardesty, Christensen, McGuire et al. 2016). The economic analyses estimating the multiplier effect are complicated and depend on a variety of contextual factors. Studies estimate multiplier effects for spending on locally produced foods to be between $1.32 and $1.90, meaning that for every dollar spent on local products, between $.32 and $.90 worth of additional local economic activity takes place (Meter 2010; Jablonski, Schmit, and Kay 2015; Martinez et al. 2010). Local farmers’ markets also generate spillover effects when consumers attend the market and then go on to shop at other nearby businesses (Lev, Brewer, and Stephenson 2003). In addition, local food systems and direct markets can serve as incubators that help to support new food and farming businesses, thus fostering entrepreneurship and small business development (Hinrichs, Gulespie, and Feenstra 2004; Gwin and Thiboumery 2014; Flora, Bregendahl, and Renting 2012). However, it is possible that some studies may 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 of these purchases are simply diverted from other local markets, such as supermarkets (Boys 2016).
Local food systems are also assumed to benefit farmers by cutting out the middleman, allowing farmers to keep a greater share of the food dollar. While research shows that this is true for direct marketing, the benefits need to be balanced against the higher costs that direct marketing creates for farmers due to factors such as marketing, labor, and time (King 2010; Pinchot 2014; Bonanno et al. 2013). At the same time, cutting out 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 locally owned distributors and retailers. Research also suggests that farm businesses that participate in direct markets have higher survival rates, meaning that they are more likely to show a profit year after year; this may make direct markets an especially good option for beginning farmers (Low et al. 2015).
Finally, there is a perception that local food is more expensive than nonlocal food. Prices of local food can be higher in some places due to place-based issues (for example, land valuation, property tax rates, and cost of labor). However, research has shown that, on average, local fresh fruits and vegetables that are sold in direct markets are less expensive than fresh fruits and vegetables sold in grocery stores, regardless of the season (Ibid.; McGuirt et al. 2011; Valpiani et al. 2015).
Local food system components, including farmers markets, community gardens, and other direct market opportunities, are the focus of a growing body of work seeking to enhance community health. It is important to understand that local food is not necessarily healthier than nonlocal food. Many of the health benefits associated with local food have to do with access to and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. 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 (BMI) (Salois 2012; Berning 2012; Bimbo, Viscecchia, and Nardone 2012). It is important to note that 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 (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 themselves, and report that their children eat more fresh fruits and vegetables (De Marco et al. 2014; Ban et al. 2013; Brown and Miller 2008; Alaimo et al. 2008; Litt et al. 2011).
Local food is also often assumed to be healthier due to freshness based on the idea that transportation from farm to consumer takes less time in direct-to-consumer supply chains. This is sometimes accurate because the nutritional quality of fruits and vegetables is often highest right after harvest and then declines with time (Favell 1998; Lee and Kader 2000). However, the freshness and nutritional value of a local food product have a lot to do with how a product is handled between harvest and consumption. 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). While farmers may have varying capacity to maintain a cold chain, local produce often has the advantage of being picked at the peak of ripeness, and local farmers can choose varieties based on taste rather than on their ability to withstand transportation (Estabrook 2012).
There are also documented health benefits to engaging children in gardening. Research shows that 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; Hermann et al. 2006; Langellotto and Gupta 2012; Lineberger and Zajicek 2000). In addition, student participation in school gardens has the added benefit of improving performance on science exams (Klemmer, Waliczek, and Zajicek 2005).
Finally, 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. As previously stated, there are no guarantees that particular agricultural practices are more likely to be associated with a local grower compared to a nonlocal grower.
Some of the strongest evidence-based benefits of local food systems occur at the community level. Community organizing around local food system development, including community gardens, increases an overall sense of community togetherness. Working collectively creates stronger social ties and networks, and can lead to more civic engagement (Sturtevant 2006; Teig et al. 2009). Local food systems and relationships that form in direct markets can also help to bridge ties between producers and consumers, and between rural and urban areas. While communities may begin by organizing around local food issues, this civic engagement and network building can lead to communities addressing and impacting other community-wide issues, such as food insecurity (Lyson 2005; Teig et al. 2009; Stickel and Deller 2014).
Community organizing around local food can raise awareness about food insecurity in a community. The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” This definition is often adapted to include “culturally appropriate food.”
However, local food markets and projects sometimes exclude consumers who have lower-incomes, are people of color, or who come from ethnic backgrounds less common 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. However, many communities are increasingly working to include and empower low-income consumers. For example, many community gardens donate produce to food pantries, and home gardening can be an important strategy for some food insecure families. 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, giving low-income consumers additional purchasing power at this local market. Research has shown that matching SNAP dollars at farmers markets has a positive impact on fruit and vegetable consumption (SNAP Healthy Food Incentives Cluster Evaluation 2013 Final Report).
Through this publication about the research behind the benefits of local food systems, we hope to provide practitioners, community members, and interested consumers with the knowledge to make informed decisions. While there are still some gaps in the research due to inconsistencies in the definition of “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 thing that we want to stress 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 as local food projects are designed, and be transparent about the qualities and characteristics of local food that the community values. In this way, you are more likely to create successful local food systems that meet a community’s goals.
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Publication date: Oct. 21, 2016
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