Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues
by Stephen Martinez
, Michael S. Hand, Michelle Da Pra, Susan Pollack, Katherine Ralston
, Travis Smith, Stephen Vogel
, Shellye Clark, Luanne Lohr, Sarah A. Low
, and Constance Newman
Economic Research Report No. (ERR-97) 87 pp, May 2010
Consumer demand for food that is locally produced, marketed, and
consumed is generating increased interest in local food throughout
the United States. As interest grows, so do questions about what
constitutes local food and what characterizes local food
What Is the Issue?
This study provides a comprehensive literature-review-based
overview of the current understanding of local food systems,
including: alternative definitions; estimates of market size and
reach; descriptions of the characteristics of local food consumers
and producers; and an examination of early evidence on the economic
and health impacts of such systems.
What Did the Study Find?
There is no generally accepted definition of "local"
Though "local" has a geographic connotation, there is no consensus
on a definition in terms of the distance between production and
consumption. Definitions related to geographic distance between
production and sales vary by regions, companies, consumers, and
local food markets. According to the definition adopted by the U.S.
Congress in the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act, the total
distance that a product can be transported and still be considered
a "locally or regionally produced agricultural food product" is
less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which
it is produced. Definitions based on market arrangements, including
direct-to-consumer arrangements such as regional farmers' markets,
or direct-to-retail/foodservice arrangements such as farm sales to
schools, are well-recognized categories and are used in this report
to provide statistics on the market development of local foods.
Local food markets account for a small but growing
share of total U.S. agricultural sales.
• Direct-to-consumer marketing amounted to $1.2 billion in current
dollar sales in 2007, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture,
compared with $551 million in 1997.
• Direct-to-consumer sales accounted for 0.4 percent of total
agricultural sales in 2007, up from 0.3 percent in 1997. If
nonedible products are excluded from total agricultural sales,
direct-to consumer sales accounted for 0.8 percent of agricultural
sales in 2007.
• The number of farmers' markets rose to 5,274 in 2009, up from
2,756 in 1998 and 1,755 in 1994, according to USDA's Agricultural
• In 2005, there were 1,144 community-supported agriculture
organizations, up from 400 in 2001 and 2 in 1986, according to a
study by the National Center for Appropriate Technology. In early
2010, estimates exceeded 1,400, but the number could be much
• The number of farm to school programs, which use local farms as
food suppliers for school meals programs and promote relationships
between schools and farms, increased to 2,095 in 2009, up from 400
in 2004 and 2 in the 1996-97 school year, according to the National
Farm to School Network. Data from the 2005 School Nutrition and
Dietary Assessment Survey, sponsored by USDA's Food and Nutrition
Service, showed that 14 percent of school districts participated in
Farm to School programs, and 16 percent reported having guidelines
for purchasing locally grown produce.
Production of locally marketed food is more likely
to occur on small farms located in or near metropolitan
Local food markets typically involve small farmers, heterogeneous
products, and short supply chains in which farmers also perform
marketing functions, including storage, packaging, transportation,
distribution, and advertising. According to the 2007 U.S. Census of
Agriculture, most farms that sell directly to consumers are small
farms with less than $50,000 in total farm sales, located in urban
corridors of the Northeast and the West Coast.
In 2007, direct-to-consumer sales accounted for a larger share
of sales for small farms, as defined above, than for medium-sized
farms (total farm sales of $50,000 to $499,999) and large farms
(total farm sales of $500,000 or more). Produce farms engaged in
local marketing made 56 percent of total agricultural direct sales
to consumers, while accounting for 26 percent of all farms engaged
in direct-to-consumer marketing. Direct-to-consumer sales are
higher for the farms engaged in other entrepreneurial activities,
such as organic production, tourism, and customwork (planting,
plowing, harvesting, etc. for others), than for other farms. In
2007, direct sales by all U.S. farms surpassed customwork to become
the leading on-farm entrepreneurial activity in terms of farm
household participation. Barriers to local food-market entry and
expansion include: capacity constraints for small farms and lack of
distribution systems for moving local food into mainstream markets;
limited research, education, and training for marketing local food;
and uncertainties related to regulations that may affect local food
production, such as food safety requirements.
Consumers who value high-quality foods produced with
low environmental impact are willing to pay more for locally
Several studies have explored consumer preferences for locally
produced food. Motives for "buying local" include perceived quality
and freshness of local food and support for the local economy.
Consumers who are willing to pay higher prices for locally produced
foods place importance on product quality, nutritional value,
methods of raising a product and those methods' effects on the
environment, and support for local farmers.
Federal, State, and local government programs
increasingly support local food systems.
Many existing government programs and policies support local food
initiatives, and the number of such programs is growing. Federal
policies have grown over time to include the Community Food Project
Grants Program, the WIC Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, Senior
Farmers' Market Nutrition Program, Federal State Marketing
Improvement Program, National Farmers' Market Promotion Program,
Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, and the Community
Facilities Program. State and local policies include those related
to farm-to-institution procurement, promotion of local food
markets, incentives for low-income consumers to shop at farmers'
markets, and creation of State Food Policy Councils to discuss
opportunities and potential impact of government intervention. (WIC
is the acronym for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for
Women, Infants, and Children).
As of early 2010, there were few studies on the
impact of local food markets on economic development, health, or
• Empirical research has found that expanding local food systems
in a community can increase employment and income in that
• Empirical evidence is insufficient to determine whether local
food availability improves diet quality or food security.
• Life-cycle assessments-analyses of energy use at all stages of
the food system including consumption and disposal- suggest that
localization can but does not necessarily reduce energy use or
greenhouse gas emissions.
How Was the Study Conducted?
Existing analyses of local food markets by universities,
government agencies, national nonprofit organizations, and others
of local food markets were synthesized to evaluate the definition
of local foods and the effects of local food systems on economic
development, health and nutrition, food security, and energy use
and greenhouse gas emissions. The report's content relies on data
collected through the 2007 Census of Agriculture, as well as other
surveys by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, the National Farm
to School Network, university extension departments, and others, to
provide a comprehensive picture of types of local food markets,
their characteristics, and their importance over time.