Local Food Systems

C Clare Hinrichs. Encyclopedia of Rural America: The Land and People. Editor: Gary A Goreham. 2nd edition, Volume 1, Grey House Publishing, 2008.

The networks of social and economic relationships that link food producers and food consumers within a common place or geographic region. Emphasizing the benefits of proximity and taking a holistic perspective, local food systems potentially include a variety of market and non-market institutions and practices that influence how people within a specific community obtain food produced or gathered within that community’s boundaries.

Direct agricultural marketing is often seen as the hallmark of local food systems. Farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, roadside farm stands, and U-pick operations offer examples of direct marketing arrangements where farmers sell their products to end-consumers rather than to an intermediary. Through direct marketing, farmers usually receive better prices and consumers learn firsthand about the source of their food. However, local food systems encompass more than local farms. Small local enterprises such as bakeries, breweries, wineries or independent specialty food processors may also sell their goods directly to local residents or indirectly through local retail outlets. Local food systems may further include “whole-sale direct” marketing, where local farmers or food producers supply farm-to-school or -college initiatives, restaurants, hospitals, congregate meal programs or specially organized events that feed local residents. Local food systems encourage a broader perspective that considers links to “upstream” suppliers of inputs for local farmers or food producers, connections to processors and distributors, the ways that locally produced and gathered food contributes to gleaning projects, food banks and other emergency food assistance programs, as well as links to critical “downstream” activities, such as managing food and agricultural wastes and residues. Finally, local food systems also include activities such as backyard or community gardening, hunting, fishing or gathering that may occur outside formal markets, but play a role in providing foods for local individuals and households.

In the U.S., interest in local food systems crystallized in the 1990s, combining existing interests in sustainable agriculture and community food security. Building (or rebuilding) local food systems represents one response to growing public uneasiness about intensifying processes of industrialization, consolidation and globalization in the food and agricultural sector. Environmental degradation associated with modern, conventional farming practices and food transport; corporate consolidation and control of a food supply increasingly dominated by processed foods of questionable nutritional quality; growing concerns about food safety; reports about the disappearing American family farmer and the loss of farmland; and consumers’ anxieties about diet and health have all created a ripe context for interest in more localized food systems.

The more conventional, industrialized food system promotes durable, standardized foods that can travel long distances to supermarket shelves everywhere. In contrast, local food systems look to substitute such fare, as much as possible, with fresh, seasonal and regionally distinctive foods from the more immediate area. Advocates anticipate sustainability benefits in local food systems, which “are rooted in particular places, aim to be economically viable for farmers and consumers, use ecologically sound production and distribution practices and enhance social equity and democracy for all members of the community” (Feenstra, 1997).

Despite current enthusiasm for local food systems, debate continues about appropriate definitions of “local” food. In survey research conducted in Washington State, both farmers and consumers offered spatial definitions that tended to see “local” food as coming from their own county or possibly also neighboring counties (Ostrom, 2006). The same study found that people also tend to associate various positive attributes such as product freshness, quality and family farming with “local” food. Although the term “local” has public salience, some academics caution about the “local trap” where a certain scale of activity is seen as inherently good, when actual outcomes depend, not so much on the scale of activity, but rather on the intentions and agendas of the people involved (Born and Purcell, 2006).

A further definitional and action issue is whether an exclusively local food system can or should be recognized. The very term “system” raises questions about where to place the system’s boundaries. Although many people think of local food systems in terms of jurisdictional units, such as counties, a recent “locavore” movement has popularized consumer pledges, especially during the peak growing season, to eat only food produced within, for example, a 100-mile radius of where one resides. Drawing on European traditions of “terroir,” which emphasize the distinctive food characteristics and tastes that arise due to the natural endowments and human practices in particular geographic places, others may see “local” food systems in more bio-regional, rather than jurisdictional or mileage terms.

Boundary issues for local food systems are also evident when local food system institutions and initiatives need connection to the non-local food system to succeed. Local-oriented enterprises may seek interaction with non-local entities to obtain crucial inputs (e.g., seeds, breeding stock) or preferred services (e.g., specialized veterinary skills, business advice) that are unavailable in the local area. Further, some producers of local foods seek to diversify beyond local direct market sales to additional non-local markets (e.g., Internet or mail order) in order to build their businesses. Strict stand-alone “local” food systems may be more of an ideal than a reality, given some degree of entwining with resources and opportunities in the conventional and/or non-local food and agricultural system.

Focusing on direct marketing and small food and agricultural enterprises, what is the significance of rural context for local food systems? In principle, local food systems can develop in any geographic setting, as long as there are farmers interested in producing for local markets and consumers willing to patronize those farmers. In practice, however, key local food system institutions such as farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) enterprises appear less prevalent and possibly more fragile in rural, as opposed to more suburban and urban fringe areas (Hinrichs et al., 2004; Schnell, 2007).

As periodic, seasonal markets in public spaces, farmers’ markets make local food visible. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they have increased from 2,410 in 1996 to 4,385 in 2006, an increase of 82 percent. With relatively low barriers to entry, farmers’ markets help to link the informal and formal economies by offering a space where producers can trial new products and build their customer bases (Hinrichs et al., 2004). Recent federal policies, such as the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children and for Seniors, have increased farmers’ market access by certain disadvantaged consumer groups, and helped boost revenues for participating farmers’ market vendors. In some rural areas now without fullservice groceries, farmers’ markets may be the only place to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. However, many rural farmers’ markets remain precarious, served by small groups of mostly elderly vendors and serving customer bases too small to attract needed additional vendors (Hinrichs et al., 2004).

Since first launched in the U.S. in 1985, community-supported agriculture (CSA) has also increased rapidly in number and popularity, with an estimated 1,700 CSAs operating in 2004 (Schnell, 2007). In CSA, each member pays an annual fee to the local farmer in exchange for a share of the harvest through the growing season. Members usually receive their weekly food box or bag at a scheduled drop-off or distribution and they are often encouraged or expected to volunteer some time assisting the CSA. Although the U.S. federal government does not currently collect data on CSA, private organizations have assembled national databases on such farms. As of 2004, CSA tended to be concentrated along the two coasts and across the upper Midwest (Schnell, 2007). CSAs were also more likely to be located in more heavily suburbanized or urban-fringe counties (Schnell, 2007). While CSA can be found in conventional farming regions, such rural CSAs sometimes operate more as auxiliary enterprises undertaken by wives of conventional crop or livestock farmers, rather than as the primary farm focus (Wells et al., 2000).

The situation with farmers’ markets and CSA underscores the importance of rural context for local food systems. Occupational and cultural characteristics may be less unique (or uniform) across rural places than in the past, but low population density remains a common feature, especially in the most rural places. In local areas with small population bases, farmers and other local food producers simply have fewer potential customers. However, the implications of population for rural local food systems may vary, given other differences across U.S. rural regions, in terms of agricultural and natural resource endowments, existing socioeconomic structures, and cultural history and traditions.

The many different circumstances across rural America cannot be addressed in this short article, but two common scenarios help illustrate the mix of constraints and opportunities facing rural local food systems. On the one hand are rural regions which have been dependent on conventional agricultural or natural resource sectors, face dwindling and aging populations and have weakened economies. On the other hand are rural regions that may or may not be remotely located, but have some attraction as rural amenity areas, and thus draw in new migrants, second-home owners or tourists, some perhaps on a seasonal basis. Declining resource-dependent regions, such as parts of the High Plains, may have natural endowments and remembered farming traditions conducive to local food production and consumption, but also lack sufficient population to support diverse local production for local consumption. Flourishing rural amenity areas, such as the upper Hudson Valley in New York, experience vigorous demand from affluent permanent residents and visitors for local and specialty foods, but also face mounting pressures for farmland conversion to other uses.

Because rural regions differ, similar population changes may have different implications for rural local food systems. When most local consumers are aging former farmers on fixed incomes, current farmers may find selling large quantities of expensive heirloom tomatoes a challenge. When many local consumers are wealthy vacationing retirees, farmers may sell much of their production at good prices to such customers, but contribute less to addressing food needs of year ’round residents. Migration represents another changing opportunity, as when Latinos/as come to work in conventional food and agricultural industries in the Corn Belt and create a new niche market for those willing to raise fruits and vegetables prized by the cuisines of such new resident ethnic groups.

Rural socioeconomic structures suggest further implications for local food system development. When conventional agricultural, natural resources or manufacturing industries have declined, livelihoods for many rural residents may become more precarious. For some rural consumers, local foods may be less a luxury or lifestyle option than a food security and health necessity. For many current farmers in traditional agricultural commodity regions, shifting to the consumer orientation of local food systems requires new marketing skills more than longstanding production expertise, and also technical and social support. In some rural areas, local food producers now include urban and suburban inmigrants or former rural residents returning to their roots. With their outside knowledge and resources, such “new” farmers challenge traditional agriculture and farming and pioneer new approaches, though not necessarily without friction within the local community.

Given these opportunities and constraints imposed by rural context, what can local food systems in rural America accomplish? Academics and practitioners now seek to assess and monitor the development and impacts of local food systems. Only initial observations about the impacts of rural local food systems for diets, the economy, community and the environment can be offered. Based on their histories of strong local food provisioning and self-reliance, many rural areas could recreate once viable local food systems. However, new knowledge about what constitutes healthy and adequate diets, as well as contemporary consumer preferences for variety and convenience, pose fresh challenges. Relying on strictly local food systems, whether rural or urban, would require shifting to more bio-regionally and seasonally determined diets, which by definition would vary geographically. Following a strict central Alaska local diet throughout the year represents a more stringent, and perhaps less easy regimen than following a strict central California local diet. Healthfulness and adequacy of rural local diets would further depend on the status of infrastructure for processing and storing local foods and the final cost of local foods for consumers of different means.

A second concern is whether local food systems can revitalize struggling rural economies. While individual local farms and food businesses may become very successful, many such businesses remain small, sideline ventures (Hinrichs et al., 2004; Schnell, 2007). Organizing and sustaining a farmers’ market or a community kitchen may launch micro-enterprises that help diversify and possibly increase income for some local households. Rural local food systems can invigorate traditional community identities, as where traditional foodways are recovered and celebrated. Developing local food initiatives and links among them gives communities valuable experience in assessing and optimizing assets and working together to achieve goals. For many rural communities, spillover benefits of local food systems development as a proving ground for community capacity-building may ultimately be as important as circulating local dollars.

Finally, can rural local food systems contribute to environmental sustainability? While advocates claim that local food systems reduce negative environmental impacts, local or small scale does not always equate to preferred environmental outcomes (Born and Purcell, 2006). The evidence that local farms and food processors engage in more sustainable practices and have better environmental outcomes is mixed. Finding that Ohio farmers who sold locally through U-pick arrangements and roadside stands grew more heirloom apple varieties, Goland and Bauer (2004) conclude that local markets encourage and reward agro-biodiversity. However, it is not so clear that local food systems always represent reduced energy inputs or impacts, as is frequently asserted. Emphasis on “food miles” overlooks the relative efficiency of different modes of transport (types of trucks vs. rail vs. barge vs. air) per serving of food (Mariola, 2008). Furthermore, the local food systems emphasis on face-to-face relationships between producers and consumers sanctions and even encourages environmentally wasteful driving to various local farms by consumers (Mariola, 2008).

As networks of social and economic relationships that link producers and food consumers within a common place or geographic region, local food systems represent an effort to return to past models of rural self-reliance. The low population base and weakened socioeconomic base of many rural areas pose challenges for developing rural local food systems. At the same time, the diversity of rural regions and changing circumstances can offer opportunities for developing and sustaining viable rural local food systems.