A recent report from the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture explores the local food movement through a comprehensive literature review. This 87-page report (includes 16 pages of references) titled, “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues,” contains numerous analyses with tables and charts illustrating current opportunities and barriers to the local food system, and how consumers, institutions, retailers and the government play a part. Read the Report Summary here if you’re time-crunched. The full report is expansive, so I’ll touch upon a few statistics and issues that resonated with me.
Direct-to-consumer sales, such as farmers markets, road-side stands, and pick-your-owns, are up from 0.3 percent in 1997 to 0.4 percent in 2007. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but it equates to $660 million in sales — pretty impressive. Small farms, or those with less than $50,000 in total sales, benefit from these selling channels more than larger farms, making a case for supporting efforts to sustain and grow these channels to keep small, family farms flourishing.
Yet the report states that the time required to participate in these direct-to-consumer venues may negatively impact a farm’s ability to ‘scale-up’ with less time available to increase production and grow other marketing initiatives. Additionally, price competition from multiple sellers, rejection based on quality requirements and supply chain logistics remain challenges for farmers.
Despite certain barriers, there is evidence that local food systems can increase employment and income in a community. The report suggests that more conclusive evidence is needed to determine whether local food availability improves diet quality and food security, and asserts that local food’s impact on energy reduction and greenhouse gas emissions requires further research, as well. Local food advocates cite a notable decrease in CO2 emissions, fossil fuels and energy use to help support the environment and climate change when working within local and regional food systems.
But with all of these findings and conclusions, the fundamental question looms — what constitutes “local food?”
The answer is still up for debate. The USDA report acknowledges the 2008 Farm Act’s definition of less than 400 miles of transport classifies a “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product.” As a consumer, I find this very generous in light of the 100 Mile Diet effort to encourage others to eat local within a 100-mile radius. However, less than 400 miles appears realistic for many attempting to incorporate more local foods; particularly when institutions and retail outlets enter the equation and a growing population continues to change the landscape of our country.
Using my purchases at the Piazza Farmers Market this past weekend, I decided to see exactly how many “food miles” commanded my plate. Using MapQuest, I plugged in the city of the producer and used my zip code as a destination (complicated, I know). Here are my findings:
- Strawberries and Fuji apples from Three Springs Fruit Farm in Wenksville, PA – 144.59 miles
- Mixed greens from Savoie Farms from Savoie Farms in Williamstown, NJ – 23.48 miles
- Tomatoes and red potatoes from Highland Orchard Farms in Wilmington, DE – 31.84 miles
- Asparagus and baby turnips from Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op in Leola, PA – 74.92 miles
- Chicken Leg and Thigh from Natural Meadows Farm in Mount Pleasant Mills, PA – 148.26 miles
- Italian Sweet Sausage and Provolone cheese from M&B Farview Farms in Hamburg, PA – 80.02 miles
Even with three states under my belt, I was able to meet the roomy definition provided by the Farm Act. In most cases, I even met the 100-Mile Diet requirement. It’s clear that these farmers spend valuable time and resources to make the trip to Philadelphia on the weekends; tangible proof that direct-to-consumer venues are important to farmers. June 5 marks my first Summer CSA pick-up with Landisdale Farms in Jonestown, PA, which is approximately 96.05 miles from Philadelphia. 100-Mile Diet folks would be proud.
While the USDA report is nothing earth-shattering, it appears that the pure principle of supply and demand is helping to grow small farm business, and the local food movement certainly has its staunch followers. Advocacy can only help research in this area grow, a necessity to capture widespread support from private and public sectors. As consumers, local food is just another choice we can make. I choose to support local farms, keep the local economy healthy, and know where my food comes from and how it is produced. And while the definition of local remains tentative depending on if you’re a Wal-Mart, a restaurant, or even the USDA, the desire for healthier communities everywhere is clear.