Eat Local. What’s the big deal?

December 01, 2014 Print Friendly and PDF

Farmers Market

Heading into the season of holiday feasting, consumers can’t escape the message: “Eat local.”

  • Regional grocery chains and specialty markets advertise turkeys, hams, grass-fed beef, cheeses, and free-range eggs from nearby farms.
  • Winter farmers’ markets and CSAs offer local onions, potatoes, winter squash, cabbage, apples, honey, and maple syrup—even fresh salad greens and herbs from local greenhouse operations.
  • Local brewers, meaderies, distillers, and vintners promote their craft beers, meads, sparkling ciders, and wines produced from locally grown ingredients.

Local is big. Robust buy/eat-local campaigns have sprung up in all 50 states, nearly every county, and many municipalities across the nation.

On the surface, the burgeoning eat-local movement sometimes presents as a simple concept: shorten the distance between food producers and consumers as much as possible.

Yet dig a little deeper, and you’ll find a multi-faceted phenomenon that’s complex, nuanced, and dynamic.

What’s ‘local’?

U.S. Department of Agriculture research has determined there’s no generally accepted definition of “local” food. “Everybody’s got a different definition,” says Ohio State Extension community development educator Brian Raison. “People in a [given] community define it.”

“The 1980s watchword for farming was ‘Get big or get out,’” says Raison. “It was an era of increasing consolidation, monocropping, and fossil-fuel inputs.”

Local-food proponents are pushing back against the dominant model of large-scale, commodity agriculture, which Raison and other local-food advocates say masks hidden health, social, environmental, and economic costs.

Among them: losses of community, farmland and small-to-midsized farmers, food diversity and choice, along with increases in environmental degradation, food deserts, hunger, and childhood obesity

‘It springs from many wells’

The local-foods movement has brought us a raft of new terms, among them:




Food (kitchen/culinary) incubator

Food commons

Food entrepreneur  

Food hub

Food justice

Food miles

Food sovereignty

Food system


Slow food

Slow money (nurture capital)

Local food’s diverse advocates include small and mid-scale farmers and their suppliers, food processors and distributors; food retailers; institutional food services, food entrepreneurs, public health advocates; federal, municipal and county governments; tourism officials; farmland conservationists; environmentalists; community economic development agencies; schools, nursing homes and hospitals; social-justice and faith communities, to name a few.

“There are so many side stories to this movement,” says Lorraine Stuart Merrill, New Hampshire’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Markets & Food, and also a lifelong dairy farmer. “It springs from many wells, and it’s gone well beyond a trend or a fad.”

“Food consumers are driving the movement,” says Merrill. “They want the superior freshness, quality, and taste of traditional, locally produced foods. Local food protects diversity of choice for consumers and reflects the living heritage of their region. Plus, they believe it’s healthier for their families.”

Merrill continues, “Consumers are starting to understand that eating local benefits the local economy, as more of their food dollars stay in the local economy. 

“As long as they remain profitable, farms--our ‘working landscapes’--provide ‘ecosystem services’ in the forms of ground and surface-water protection, aquifer recharge, flood prevention, wildlife habitat.

“And they support tourism. Tourists don’t come to view housing developments and industrial parks, but they do come for the natural vistas, for birding and wildlife viewing, hiking, fishing, hunting, and outdoor sports. Loss of farms even predicts higher property taxes, because farmland requires fewer public services than residential or commercial areas.”

By 2007, USDA estimated local food production at $4.8 billion, or slightly less than two percent of overall agricultural production.

That includes the farm-to-school programs currently operating in almost half the nation’s schools, serving 23,500 million children, and spending nearly $386 million on locally produced food.

Local food has developed so much cachet in his region, Raison says, that “some of the larger farms are carving off a few acres to plant for local consumption. For example, one farmer has planted a few acres of heirloom corn varieties to make polenta for distribution to local markets.”

Direct-to-consumer marketing takes root

“The [back-to-the-land] movement that flowered in the 60s and 70s was more about a lifestyle of self-reliance and environmental stewardship,” Merrill says.

The ideas of fresher, healthier, and environmentally sound food, along with the community economic development that local farming could provide caught on as a marketing strategy for small farming operations.

Many survived by expanding beyond the traditional roadside stand, organizing cooperatives and developing direct-to-consumer marketing strategies such as farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture.

In 1970 the nation had about 340 farmers' markets. By 1994, that number had risen to 1,755, and in 2013 to 8,144. (Source.)

In 1986, two New England farms founded the nation’s first of what have come to be known as “community-supported agriculture” enterprises (CSAs), in which consumers pay up front for a weekly share of the farm’s products, and the concept caught on.

A CSA increases the bonds between food producers and consumers. It allows farmers to schedule their marketing activities during their off season, and eases a farm’s early-season cash flow. Importantly, consumers share the risks of the operation with producers. When a crop does well, CSA shareholders share the bounty; when it struggles, they get less or none.

By 2007, the community-support concept had spread to fisheries, with the founding of the first community-supported fishery in Port Clyde, Maine. By 2013, a network had grown to 60 community-supported fisheries.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) moved to boost promotion of local food with its multi-pronged Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative. 

Direct marketing has also gone digital through social media, smartphone apps, mobile marketing, and online farmers' markets.

Internet giant has recently added a Farmers' Market section to its website, which CEO Patrick Byrne says will expand nationwide to “integrate small farms, community-supported agriculture (CSA), and co-ops into our technology so as to allow consumers in their area to buy and arrange delivery through Overstock.”

Reclaiming the middle: The rise of food hubs

For the past several decades, small to mid-sized farms that were too small to sell into the nationwide and international commodity markets and too large for direct marketing had become effectively squeezed from the food marketplace. The loss continues. The Census of Agriculture reported a loss of 80,000 mid-sized farms between 2002 AND 2007; from 2007 through 2012, the nation lost another 56,000 middle-sized farms. 

A conversation began to emerge around ways to encourage the survival of these vulnerable mid-sized farms, “the agriculture of the middle.” Research showed that consumers would pay more for the quality and flavor of differentiated or “place-based” products.” such as heirloom fruits and vegetables or heritage breeds of livestock that may be unique to a region or culture, and unsuitable for shipping long distances.

Correspondingly, as the local food movement gathered strength, it created increasing demand for local food in volumes that small growers couldn't meet individually: regional grocery chains and specialty markets, schools, college dining halls, hospitals, and nursing homes. 

“The challenge was how to help small-to-mid sized farmers scale up to enter higher-volume markets,” says Rich Pirog, senior associate director of the Michigan State University Center For Regional Food Systems, and primary author of The Local Food Movement: Setting the Stage for Good Food, a seminal document on the history and components of the modern local-food movement.

One answer: food hubs, intermediary infrastructures that aggregate, market, and distribute products from a number of (usually) small-to-mid-sized farms to wholesale buyers such as regional grocery chains and institutions.

Pirog says many food hubs are organized around a new business model he calls the “values-based food supply chain” that honors the values implicit in both the food products and the relationships all along the supply chain, especially regarding farmers getting fair prices for the products.

“Relationships within conventional food chains are typically characterized as win-lose, and can be adversarial, with each partner seeking to minimize its risk. Farmers are treated as interchangeable, exploitable units, and operations take place on a national or international scale,” says Pirog, adding that such value chains breed inequity and mistrust.

“The partners within a values-based chain see each other as strategic partners who have an interest in the performance and wellbeing of the others throughout the chain. One of the critical values is the desire that nobody in the chain will be exploited, and that the risks and rewards of doing business will be shared across the chain.

“Trust and transparency aren't an afterthought. They’re part of the rules of engagement,” he says. 

Since the first food hubs focused on sourcing local foods were organized about 10 years ago, Pirog says the number has grown to about 300 nationwide. (For a look at five of these enterprises, check out Food Hubs: Solving Local.) 

One indicator of both the success of the concept, and the need to provide professionals able to meet the challenge of organizing and managing the enterprise: Beginning in January 2015, the University of Vermont will offer the nation’s first food-hub management certification program.

From local food to good food: Values-based food-supply chains

“It’s no longer enough to think of local food in terms of geographic proximity,” says Pirog. “The narrative has broadened from a focus on helping farmers retain more of the food dollar to embrace the values of what we call good food, food that’s healthy, green, fair, and affordable by all.”

For example,  “It’s common for nonprofit food hubs to use the money made in high-end markets to make healthy food available in low-income communities at a very reasonable price." 

Pirog points to strategies that have emerged to amplify these efforts such as Wholesome Wave and its expanding Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program, and Double Bucks, the innovative public-private partnership that will allow SNAP (formerly food-stamp) recipients to double their benefits if they shop for local fruits and vegetables.

“The movement has evolved beyond agriculture. Food intersects with all our systems,” says
Sharon Lezberg, a community, natural resources, and economic development educator with the University of Wisconsin Extension, who curates the Community Food Systems! page. 

Lezberg sees the local-food movement as an evolution of food awareness.

“Our conventional system is driven by productivity and profitability,” she says.  “And while there’s room for all scales of agriculture, we need to look at a broader range of values. We need to be talking about who controls all aspects of the food supply chain. We need to look at the relationship between food and health. How does the food system affect economic development? Social justice? What can we do about it?

“Community-based food systems are driven by values that include sustainability, strong communities, access to land, wise use of resources, waste reduction and reuse, justice and fairness.”

Home food production is hot 

According to a 2013 American Gardening Association survey, Garden to Table: A 5-Year Look at Food Gardening in America, more than one in three American households tended a food garden in 2013. That’s 42 million household gardens, up from 36 million in 2008, an increase of 17 percent.

Households of every income level grew food in their own or their neighbors’ backyards, in community gardens, on urban rooftops, patios, and vacant lots.

Urban gardening increased 29 percent, while the number of community gardens grew from one million to three million.

Collectively, home food gardeners spent $3.5 billion in 3013 on seeds, tools, fertilizers and equipment--half of it on vegetable gardens, and much of it contributing to local economies.

Researchers credit Michelle Obama’s White House Garden initiative to help combat childhood obesity and the many (USDA) initiatives encouraging Americans to grow and eat healthy foods for much of the resurgence of interest in food gardening.

Another booming trend within the home food production movement: backyard livestock, especially laying hens and meat birds, but to a lesser degree rabbits, goats, pigs, even milk and beef cattle.  The “chicken underground” moved aboveground, as impassioned backyard poultry producers around the nation fought hard to change laws and local ordinances to permit the practice. 

No one measures the aggregate economic value of the food people produce for their own or community direct use. But along with the food itself, home production provides exercise, stress relief, and it teaches children about where their food comes from.

‘Small-to-medium-scale farmers are still struggling’

Many struggles confront the local food movement. They range from access to land, labor, and capital to rigorous benchmarking of food hubs and other business models that, in Pirog’s words, “are necessary to make them bankable with mainstream lenders.”

“Small-to-medium-scale farmers are still struggling,” says New Hampshire agricultural commissioner Merrill, adding that many farms operate in the red

“Food production is not all sunshine and roses,” says Merrill. “There’s such ignorance of the realities of coaxing food from the land.”

Yet no one involved with the movement believes it’s a hyped or romanticized fad.

“Everybody eats, usually several times each day,” says Lezberg. “If a mouthful of food can cause people to think about the impacts of what went into producing it all along the way, that can be transformative—on a personal level, but also at a societal  level.”


Learn more

The Local Food Movement: Setting the Stage for Good Food A seminal document on the history and components of the modern local-food movement.


Good Food Timeline: 1941-2014 Poster (from the document above) charts the evolution of the local food movement in the U.S.


Values-based food supply chains: Strategies for agri-food enterprises-of-the-middle Lays the groundwork for understanding the business models for businesses that aggregate and distribute local food into wholesale markets.


Why Worry About the Agriculture of the Middle?  


Direct and Intermediated Marketing of Local Foods in the United States


Food Hubs: Solving Local Case studies that show how small-farm aggregators have teamed with food retailers and distributors to bring local food into wholesale channels.


Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food  USDA's multi-pronged initiative to connect consumers with locally produced food.


Farm To Institution Initiatives


The Healthy Food Financing Initiative  Grants to improve access to healthy food for low-income communities.

Local food-system policy Learn about laws, regulations, and actions by governments and other institutions that affect food production, distribution, consumption and disposal.


Values-Based Food Supply Chains: An Evolving Classification Scheme of Local Food Business Models


Food-Hub Benchmarking Study First study to examine data from this new model for aggregating and distributing local food to wholesale channels.


Community food systems A! page of the eXtension "Community, Local and Regional Food Systems" Community of Practice and curated by Sharon Lezberg.


Local food directories (farmer’s markets, CSAs, food hubs, on-farm markets) Just plug in your zip code and distance you’re willing to travel.


Written by Peg Boyles, UNH Cooperative Extension emerita,

Photo credit: Natalie Maynor. (Farmer's Market, Jackson Mississippi) Some rights reserved.


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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.