5 Things To Know About Local Food

July 20, 2016

Eating locally is very fashionable these days, but do you know what it even means? Here are five things to know about local food.

5 Things To Know About Local Food

This post was written as part of my ongoing sponsored partnership with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. All opinions expressed are my own.

“Farm-to-table restaurants.” “Farm-fresh fruits and vegetables.” “Eat local.” These are some of the popular buzzwords and phrases around food and dining that you hear a lot today. I, for one, love going to farm-to-table restaurants that change their menu based on what’s in season and may even have freshly picked local produce on their menu the night I’m there. And if you’re a regular visitor here at Nutritioulicious, you know I focus on seasonal produce with my posts like 7 Fruits and Vegetables to Enjoy this Spring and 36 Nutritioulicious Fall Recipes to Feast On. Seasonal Eating is even it’s own category to search under!

My weekly menu plans also tend to revolve around the fruits and vegetables that are in season since they are the most flavorful and cost-effective ones to purchase at the supermarket. When it’s available, I also enjoy buying local produce like the New Jersey blueberries and corn that I’ve been finding lately, or the bag of farm-fresh produce I received last week that included items from the Hudson Valley and Upstate NY.

With all the emphasis these days on buying local food and supporting small farmers, do you know what it all really means? Working with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance I’ve learned a thing or two (or five) about what local really means and whether you should limit your purchases only to the farmers market down the street. So here I share five things you should (and may not) know about local food.

  1. There’s no agreed-upon definition of local food.

When I hear local food I assume it’s coming from a farmer a few miles away, but living 30 minutes outside of New York City the probability of having a just-picked tomato is slim unless I’m growing it in my backyard (or it’s coming from the rooftop of a NYC building). And the fact is, there is no consensus on what “local” even means.

According to the USDA Economic Research Department report “Local Food Systems,” the 2008 Farm Act defines local as “less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, on the other hand, defines a “locavore” as a local resident who tries to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius. In the bag of produce I received last week there were some items from farms over 200 miles away from my home. I would still consider them local compared to produce from, say California, but some people would not.

Spring peas
Spring peas, whether local or not, are nutritious and delicious!
Photo Credit: Kaleigh McMordie
  1. Local does not necessarily mean organic.

Many people seem to equate the two, but local and organic aren’t the same, nor are they mutually exclusive. Some local food is organic and some is not. Some organic food is local and some is not. If you’re worried about purchasing non-organic food (which you shouldn’t be) and are buying local food directly from a farmers market or the farm itself, ask the farmers first-hand about how their food is grown. If you’re buying produce in the supermarket look at the label on the container or produce sticker.

  1. Local farms vary in size.

One of the reasons people give for purchasing local food is to support the local economy and small, family-owned farms. This is a great reason to want to buy locally, especially if you get to know the farm-family directly, but it’s important to realize that the majority of farms across the country, not just your local farms, are family-owned and operated.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2012 Census of Agriculture, 97 percent of farms are family farms. And if you think family farms are small, you may be surprised to learn what I did in The Atlantic: for farms with one million dollars or more in gross revenues, 88 percent are family farms. Now I don’t know a lot about farming, but that doesn’t seem so small to me!

  1. Local food is not necessarily better for the environment.

Proponents of the local food movement argue that production and consumption of locally grown food reduces the production of greenhouse gases, as transportation miles are reduced. However, researchers have found that the transportation savings from local foods versus other sources does not substantiate benefits to society. Research shared in the USDA “Local Food Systems” report also found that some foods transported from further distances were more energy-efficient than more closely transported foods due to the mode of transportation (e.g., boat vs. plane).

Grilled Stone Fruit with Honey Lemon Yogurt Sauce | Sweet and juicy stone fruits get caramelized on the grill, making for a naturally delicious, low-calorie, and gluten-free end to your summer BBQ. Serve with a creamy sweet and tangy Greek yogurt sauce. @jlevinsonrd
Grilled Stone Fruit with Honey Lemon Yogurt Sauce made with peaches, plums, and nectarines from California, South Carolina, and Georgia.
  1. Relying solely on local food could be limiting.

If I relied only on local produce, I would rarely get to eat fresh strawberries, grapes, oranges and an abundance of other nutritious and delicious fruit and vegetables. You will rarely, if ever, find me buying fresh berries, cherries, nectarines and other spring and summer produce during the fall and winter months because they are not in season and I’d rather buy apples, pears and citrus fruits since they are more flavorful at that time of year.

However, I do often buy berries and stone fruit from Georgia, Florida and California even during the spring and summer because the growing season for these fruits is longer in those states than it is in New York. Why would I want to deny my family and myself these nutrient-rich and flavorful foods? My colleague and fellow Digital Voices Council member Regan, over at Healthy Aperture, wrote about this just the other day in her post about why she doesn’t always buy local produce.

The bottom line for me, and what I hope you take away from this post, is that it’s great to support local farmers and buy local foods if and when it’s available to you, but local food should (1) not be put on a pedestal and (2) not prevent you from purchasing foods you enjoy that come from further away.

What are your thoughts about local food?

Eating local, farm-to-table food is very fashionable these days, but do you know what it even means? Learn five things about local food that you may not already know @jlevinsonrd.
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  1. I totally agree with this! I love supporting local farmers and businesses… so I try to buy from them when possible… but I also love year-round fruit to much to exclusively buy it. I also keep an eye out for organic and ask the farmer about their practices if possible! But once again, I’d rather eat a variety of nutrient dense food all year.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more Jess. When I was the RD for UCSD, local was defined as both 200 and 500 miles depending on what “agency” we were looking at. It was confusing for me, yet alone the students! My goal was to show them what was more important was eating a balanced, flavor packed diet! This partnership is very needed you have, I am so happy for these posts!

    1. Thanks Liz! It’s so confusing and adds to people’s fear of foods. Your goal was spot on and i have no doubt you succeeded at it!

  3. Great post, I will definitely be using this to refer to in the future! We get so many questions about local food and I think it’s easy for people to give it the “health halo” effect. Thanks for clearing the air on some of the most common questions!

    1. Thanks so much Cara. I’m so glad you found it helpful and appreciate you sharing it to those who are asking you about it! The health halo effect is way too rampant right now on too many things.

  4. I’ve actually been a little frustrated with the “local” farmers markets in my area. Most of the vendors come in from a couple hours away, their prices are exorbitant, and none are organic. I get it, small farm, certifications are expensive, but none even claim “no spray” and they all seem to talk around pesticides. We’ve stopped going as it seems like we can get the same produce from the same farms for less at the grocery store. It seems like “local” isn’t what it used to be!

    1. Thanks for sharing that Alisa – it’s really interesting. I find that the prices at the farmers market are also quite high. As for organic, not sure if you saw my post about that, but you may be interested to read that here.

  5. I love this post because it brings us back to sensibility. No one can eat locally all the time, or else I bet they would be pretty sad!! Being more educated about of food is a good thing, but being too strict is not. Thanks for this great resource to help clear up some confusion!

    1. Thanks so much Emily! I totally agree – it would be impossible to eat locally 100% of the time for most people. I find these days people really go to extremes with food because of what they read or hear on tv. There needs to be more middle ground.

  6. as i was doing research on my post on ‘organic food’ i found out about local food…im not very picky when it comes to these days but i would fall for buzz words like farm to table, assuming that im supporting my local community in some way. i live in Texas, where strawberries or avocado isnt local but that doesnt mean i will stop eating them. im so glad you wrote more on this topic because people need more education. also, lately in ft worth, i am finding that restaurants are using the term..we source of ingredients locally when possible which is better than a blanket statement like we are local farm to table…

    1. I too fall for buzz words like farm to table, but the truth is I never actually look up what farm the food is coming from at the restaurant. To me it’s more an indication that they will have seasonal items on the menu, which is what I want to be eating because I enjoy it. I’m glad to hear that the restaurants near you are being more specific in how they speak about the issue.

  7. I love that we have a long growing season here in Georgia. I take advantage of what I grow in my backyard and the fresh peaches, blueberries, okra, sweet corn, greens and more available at markets this time of year. However I take an inclusive approach to meeting my fruit and vegetable needs. I buy frozen berries, cherries and peaches in the winter. Throughout the year, I include produce from a number of sources for variety, affordability and flavor.

    I encourage my clients to do the same. No need to exclude perfectly good produce. Plus if I stuck to foods grown within 50 or even 100 miles of Atlanta, I’d never get almonds, avocado, mango, bananas, cherries… and that can’t happen!

    1. It’s so great that you’re able to grow so much in your own backyard. I hope to do that one day! I love your approach and totally agree with it. Thanks so much for sharing!

      1. Just noticed that the way I wrote that it looks like I live on a farm! This year I’m only growing tomatoes, okra, 3 different peppers and lettuce. I do have a blueberry bush but all of the other stuff I get from supermarkets or farmers markets 🙂

        1. Haha. Even if it’s not a farm, it certainly sounds like a great variety of fruits and veggies you have available to you!

  8. I love shopping my local farmers markets, but it’s certainly not my only source of food. Healthy produce beats processed packaged foods no matter where they come from!

  9. AWESOME article Jessica!! I will definitely be sharing this information. I discuss this all the time at work. There is such a confusion about this. “Spring peas, whether local or not, are nutritious and delicious!” Love this quote. My biggest thing is to just get people to eat more fruits and veggies, local or not!

    1. Thanks so much Julie! Appreciate you sharing it and so glad you find it helpful to share with customers. I totally agree about getting people to eat more fruits and veggies!

    1. So true Lindsay! That’s the beauty of eating in season and supporting local but also being able to get food from other parts of the world too!

    1. That’s too bad GiGi. It’s hard to make it to the farmers market, but you can find local produce at supermarkets sometimes too!

  10. What a great article. My husband and I were just talking about this the other night. I had to explain to him why I didn’t like purchasing from a local farmer that was at a market. I told him that I had asked him in the past what he sprayed on his vegetables and he had given me this long list of chemicals – he said organic was ridiculous. It’s a must to be aware of things like this.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience Mikki. It’s really important to ask questions and get answers so you can make decisions you feel comfortable with for you and your family. This is a great example that local does not mean organic and the same is true the other way around too!

  11. great post! love that you mention that local food doesn’t necessarily mean organic – which i think many people assume. i do need to get to our farmer’s market and support more people locally!

  12. I love local food and farm-to-table restaurants. I live in the suburbs, with many farms within a 20 mile radius, so I’m always sure that when they say “locally grown” they mean it. There was just a festival in my area that was celebrating buying fresh and local food from local farmers and other farm-to-table restaurants.

    1. That’s great that so many farms are close to you so it’s easy to get locally grown food. Sounds like a fun festival! I love stuff like that too!

    1. Thanks Chrissa! Definitely have to be mindful, which is true about buying all food! Labels can be very misleading!

  13. Organic is always my first choice and local close behind it. Thanks for clarifying that local does not mean organic. But supporting local farmers is definitely a great thing.

    1. You’re most welcome – glad it was a helpful post. Great to support local farmers, but don’t forget about all the farmers!

  14. Great points! It’s all in marketing, sometimes. When I buy “local,” I make sure I actually know that it’s local and sustainable. Case in point, my colleague has a honey farm, less than 20 miles from our office (and of course in her backyard). Now THAT is local! I bought a 5-gallon jar immediately.

  15. Interesting post! When I lived in Vermont, buying local food was important to us. Not only because it truly tasted better and fresher, but I truly believe in supporting local, small businesses, which in that area are almost always family farmers. Here in South Carolina though, “local food” isn’t really something that is readily found. Unless you consider seafood (which I don’t, I’m a vegetarian, haha).

    1. Thanks for sharing. I agree it’s great to support local farmers and small businesses. We try to do that too. It’s important to recognize that food that comes from further away is also good and safe to eat and you’ll be supporting those farmers too!

  16. We buy some stuff local like microgreens and honey, but a lot of our produce we get from a co-op.

    Also that grilled stone fruit looks AMAZING!!