What Exactly Is “Local Food”? Ten Answers for North Carolina and Beyond

We all need to eat. Each of us deserves access to affordable, healthy, and culturally appropriate nourishment. But food influences more than just individual health.The way in which food is grown (such as the use of pesticides, how animal waste is managed, and the type of crops grown) affect soil, air, and water quality, which in turn affect the health of the environment and people living nearby. Agricultural policy influences whether a farming community prospers, and whether farmworkers earn enough money to afford food and shelter for their families. Despite hearing about farmers’ markets and seeing promotions for local food in grocery stores, many people are still unsure about what it is or why it matters. Here are ten ideas to get you started.

1. Why do we call it a food “system”?

A food system is made up of all of the inputs—like seeds, fertilizer, land, machinery, trucks, and fuel—and work that contribute to growing, processing, packaging, transporting, selling, consuming, composting, and managing waste that is associated with food. (The American Planners Association’s definition is more or less the same.) Some conceptions of the food system also include the economic, social, and political influences on those processes. You can visualize the food system with this great graphic from Nourish.

2. What is a local food system?

A local or regional food system is, you guessed it, a food system that is contained within a defined geography – this could be anything from a region like “the Northeast portion of the United States” to state, county, or city boundaries – and it is up to the person saying “local” to define the region. Anything more specific, and even the USDA throws up its hands. “Local” does not have any legal or regulatory definition. Defining local and regional food systems is contentious because the phrase “local food” is used to shape what people want food systems to look like, and because it is a powerful marketing label. This is just the first in a series of debates about the definition of local food. Some people expect that foods that are marketed as “local” have other characteristics, such as being organic, grown at a small farm, sold through a farmers market, non-GMO, or certified as humanely treated livestock. None of these expectations are actually implied by the phrase “local food.”

Cattle grazing in Alamance County, North Carolina. Source: Sophie Kelmenson

3. Which branding claims matter?

Sometimes food manufacturers advertise products with characteristics that do not have any particular legal meaning, like “natural.” This practice is known as “greenwashing,” or making claims that make a product sound environmentally friendly but do not actually mean anything. Greenwashing can increase prices and change purchasing patterns, and it is a huge challenge for local food. It’s hard not only to know what all the different “local food” labels mean, and even harder to confirm that food products are actually compliant with those labels that have a specific meaning. Food companies know that, and many want to keep it that way. Luckily, there are online resources that tell you which claims are real, which are not, and what they actually mean.

4. Is local food actually better?

It depends on what you mean by “better”. There is no doubt that eating more vegetables is healthier. When it comes to health and environmental benefits of organic or local, you’ll have to do your own research! Agricultural production practices and the definition of local food vary from place to place, so the environmental and health effects of local food also vary from place to place. The research literature about the impacts of local food is still emerging, but early reports indicate benefits from increasing local business activity, increased cultural and community connectivity, and improved environmental stewardship.1

5. Our food system has been controversial for generations. Why the focus on local food now?

The United States industrial food system consolidated immensely in the past fifty years, concentrating land ownership and sales into the hands of a few. Our current food system functions like a factory because it maximizes returns instead of quality. Recent spotlights on all kinds of problems within our food system, from food safety concerns about e. coli, to outrage about pink sludge in our chicken nuggets, to competing claims about nutrition, to campaigns against large farm industries distorting our political process, to abusive workplace environments for farm laborers, have all made people question where food comes from. One of the best ways to know whether your food is safe, healthy, and otherwise unproblematic, is to buy it directly from a farmer who you know and trust.

Mountainside farm in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Credit: Sophie Kelmenson

6. Are farmers markets the only way to support local food systems?

Farmers’ markets are rather spectacular places – you can meet farmers who grew the food that you will eat! The food you buy might taste better, too, because growers can harvest farmers market produce later, allowing it to mature more and gain flavor. You can also learn about new foods and enjoy the company of others in your community. However, markets are not open during all of the times people want to shop (farmers have to farm, too!). You might have noticed that there are more white and wealthy customers at farmers markets than at the typical grocery store, and farmers markets do not offer all of the products we need to cook at home. Some of us don’t have time or the know-how to cook at home. Farmers markets are great, but there are lots of reasons to make sure that there are other ways to buy and consume local foods.

7. What are my other options?

Fortunately, grocery stores, institutions like our home university, UNC, and K-12 schools have all started to purchase local food. Some state and local governments mandate that a certain percentage of food procurement must be from local sources. These institutions provide critical support to local food systems, as they provide large-scale demand, price stabilization, and access to wider markets. You can also join a Community Supported Agriculture program to purchase local food without visiting a market, or purchase food from a local food hub or cooperative.

8. Can local food improve food access and justice?

We have a long way to go in order to make safe and healthy food affordable and accessible to everyone. There are many challenges to changing the built environment so that people may purchase food nearby, shifting food policy so that vegetables are more affordable than Twinkies, altering migrant farmworker policy to prevent health problems, or requiring animal waste be managed in a way that doesn’t put people at risk of exposure. Some local food initiatives address these challenges, but food access and justice are not necessarily central to the concept of local food.

9. What about food systems policy?

The Federal Farm Bill is the ultimate source for learning about American food policy. Additionally, local, state, and federal government policies support an array of programs that increase access to local food. For example, now low-income individuals may use SNAP/EBT benefits at farmers markets. The federal government also provides support for infrastructure for warehousing, packing, processing, and distribution, all of which are also necessary to sell more local food in more places.

10. What does local food look like in North Carolina?

The state has a long farming history, plenty of farmers markets, and an innovative local food program for public schools. The state ranks eighth in agricultural production, primarily through livestock and poultry. Food produced and sold locally represents a small but growing portion of agricultural sales. A number of celebrity chefs who promote local food call North Carolina home, such as Aaron Vandemark of Panciuto and Andrea Reusing of Lantern. The New York Times recently wrote about the “food sisterhood of North Carolina,” describing the passion and creativity of women developing an innovative local food economy.

Small-scale farming in Alamance County, North Carolina. Source: Sophie Kelmenson

Local, regional, and national food production systems are complicated and interconnected, which makes interventions challenging. Solutions, like the systems themselves, will vary in size, goals, and format. Understanding community needs and opportunities is a great place to start, as well as collaborating with existing efforts to support food systems. Organizations such as the Center for Environmental Farming Systems already communicate with community partners to research and support local food in North Carolina. Impactful planning initiatives could include: protecting farmland and fisheries; increasing access to infrastructure for processing, storage, and distribution; and creating lending opportunities to upgrade technology and production size.

To me, good food is more than delicious. Good food is produced in ways that enable ecologically, financially, and socially positive outcomes for producers (all of the people who handle the food along the way to my plate) and consumers. As consumers, we should be aware of the food we eat. As planners, we must think critically about how to how to support good food systems. Go forth, eat good food! Please.

Dunning, Rebecca. Research-Based Support and Extension Outreach for Local Food Systems. Center for Environmental Farming Systems, August 2013.

About the Author: Sophie Kelmenson is a  master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. Her studies focus on economic development and food systems.