Local food, 400 miles or bust

According to Sustainable Food News, 'local' as a marketing claim has grown by 15 percent from 2009 to 2010, and it's predicted that number will increase this year. For those of us who wish, hope and pray for more locally-grown foods, we already know this to be true. "Local" is the new green, and we're glad. We want more.

But what does local food and farming really mean, and how can you tell the difference between what's really local and what's just used for marketing?

The local movement has two tines on their fork demanding clear definition by consumers: distance and ethics.

How far is local?

I live in Florida. When I'm at the grocery store and have a choice between organic produce from Mexico or organic produce from the U.S., I pick the U.S. It's local. If I have a choice between California or Georgia, I pick Georgia. It's local. If I have a choice between Georgia or Florida, I pick Florida. It's local. If I have a choice between Plant City, Fla. or Christmas, Fla., I pick Christmas because it's closer to me than Plant City. All of those choices are considered local.

In 2008, Congress passed an amendment to the Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act, which attempted to define the distance food can travel in order to be considered local:

  • the locality or region in which the final product is marketed, so that the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product; or
  • the state in which the product is produced.

So that (sort of) takes care of distance, but what about the deeper meaning of "local?"

Deep thoughts on local: the ethics standpoint

Local, for many of us, means that food was grown with care, on smaller farms, by farmers who use organic methods, harvest and sell within a few days and personally travel with their produce, meat, cheese, milk and sell it directly to you. Or perhaps in slightly larger farms, there is one degree of separation - the sales person - between you and the market (as in a co-op situation or local grocery store). But that's not always the case.

Frito Lay, for example, operates one of its plants in Central Florida where they manufacture potato chips. Some (but not all) of the potatoes used to manufacture the chips are commercially grown in Florida using conventional growing methods. According to the Consolidated Farm amendment, Frito Lay is technically using local produce in manufacturing the chips in their Florida plant. And Frito Lay uses that to their marketing advantage in the grocery stores by advertising the use of local potatoes. I don't think that's the kind of "local" we had in mind.

The "locavore" movement, coined in 2005, limits the 400-mile radius to just 100 miles. So the four-or-more hour journey your local food could legally take under the guise of the Consolidated Farm amendment is streamlined to a sensible and manageable one-hour journey.

One hour. Think about it. Could you forage for local food from farmers and vendors 100-miles or less from your home? You can, and you should for three reasons:

  1. By sourcing food grown less than 100 miles from your home and purchased from a small farm, your food will be fresher and will contain more nutrients.
  2. By sourcing food grown less than 100 miles from your home and purchased from a small farm, your dollars and support stay within your community.
  3. By sourcing food grown less than 100 miles from your home and purchased from a small farm, you feel good. And that's probably the best reason of all.

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