What Is Local Food, and How Should You Shop for It?
Here's the lowdown on what this buzzy term actually means.
Head north along Route 1 from downtown Mystic, Connecticut's popular summertime destination, and you'll arrive at Stone Acres Farm, a 63-acre farm serves three of area's popular and award-winning restaurants: Engine Room, Oyster Club, and Grass & Bone. In addition to supplying produce to those restaurants, its products are sold to many of the area's other restaurants and the farm operates a community supported agriculture (CSA). It's a story that has been playing out around the country in recent years as restaurants either buy their own farms or create partnerships with nearby farms. It's a practice that's happening often: The Anchorage Restaurant in Greenville, South Carolina, and the mini chain Sweetgreen, among many others, both do so in an effort to feed the appetite for local food.
Across the country, demand for local food has grown rapidly over the past couple of decades. Direct to consumer food sales (defined by the USDA as sales of "edible farm products for human consumption") increased three fold from 1992 to 2007, from $404 million to $1.2 billion. Those numbers are only expected to increase when a new USDA report on local food is released in 2021. Walk through a farmers' market, into a favorite restaurant, or even your closest supermarket and you'll likely see signs or menu notes describing a food or dish as local.
What Is Local Food?
Ask 10 different people to define local food and you'll likely get 10 different answers. In 2005, chef and author Jessica Prentice began using the term locavore to refer to someone who eats locally grown food normally produced within a roughly 100-mile radius. But using a mile range to define local food creates all sorts of problems. For instance, if someone lives 10 miles from a large, industrial chicken farm, is that chicken local food? "It's a really complex problem," says Nick Carter, co-founder and CEO of Market Wagon, an online farmers' market that delivers food from farmers to customers in the Midwest. When he was starting his business many people asked him to define local food. "For example, I could sip a coffee from a local artisan coffee roaster while having a conversation with friends about the evils of trucking produce from out-of-state. Meanwhile, the coffee beans came from another continent." Carter ended up defining local food based on a three-tier system: proximity to geography, proximity to source (meaning the ability to ask questions and get responses from someone directly involved in the food's production), and proximity to nature (the product differs from alternatives found in supermarkets by a nearer-to-nature process).
While shopping at a farmers' market—whether online or in person—does seem to get you closer to the people who produce your food, there are plenty of supermarkets that advertise food as "local." Kelly Landrieu, who leads Whole Foods Market's team of local foragers defines local food this way: "Local is about bringing the taste of place to our customers. When our team of local foragers are looking for local producers, they look for businesses local to an area that grow, raise, process, craft, catch, or otherwise manufacture their products in that same area. Most of the time, that's referring to the same state or even city. In some areas of the country, like in our Northeast region, customers might find local tomatoes from the next state over during season, because of the close proximity of the farm to the store."
We like to define things in absolutes, but that's just not possible when it comes to local food—though that chicken from the industrial farm 10 miles from someone's home is technically local, arguably the best definition of local food is more of a philosophy: food that is generally considered to be good for the local economy, community, and the environment. That chicken wouldn't meet those criteria.
What Are the Benefits of Buying Local Food?
This is where we get to the many benefits of local food, not just for you, but for your community and even the world at large. According to Darlene Wolnik, Senior Advisor at the National Farmers Market Coalition buying local helps you, your family, and your community. When you're buying directly from neighbors, you're able to learn more about the products you choose to consume. You may even be able to meet those who grow the food and talk to them (about changing farming practices or add new varieties). When you're buying local food for your family, your choices will really depend on seasonality. The seasonality of items allow you and your family to have a wide range of tastes and nutrients. Last but not least, it's important to remember that your local food purchase supports neighboring farms and producers, strengthening the local economy and adding resilience to the region.
While there hasn't been a lot of research to find out if local food is actually better for health, it's generally thought that the shorter time it takes food to get from the farm to your table, the less likely it is that nutrients are lost. Researchers at Montclair State University in New Jersey recently found that locally harvested broccoli had twice the amount of vitamin C as broccoli obtained out of season and shipped from hundreds of miles away.
How to Shop for Local Food
The easiest way to shop for local food is right from the farm, whether it be a farm stand or farmers' markets. And ask questions. Wolnik suggests asking farmers: Where is the farm? How long have you been farming? Do you take part in any certification programs (like USDA organic or Certified Naturally Grown)? Do you ever have events for people learn about your farm? Another option would be to seek out the farmers' market manager or, if you're shopping at a supermarket, the store manager and ask how they vet local products and producers and how they define local.