What Does It Mean for Food to Be ‘Local’?

The term means different things in different places—and some retailers may be using it misleadingly.

(Photo: Tim Santimore/Getty Images)

Jan 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

If potatoes are grown in Colorado, shipped to Texas for distribution, then shipped back to Denver, should they be marketed as local? Should a store hang a sign lauding its support of local farmers if it only carries one product grown within the state? Is it “local meat” if the animal was born and raised far away but slaughtered closer to market?

As we wrestle with the pervasiveness of industrial food, the realities of climate change, and the countermovement of consumers seeking something different, many Americans find themselves trying to determine what, exactly, constitutes “local food”—for good reason. Savvy marketers are already capitalizing on what has become a buzzword and using varying standards for what it means.

This “localwashing,” as it has become known, has persisted at farmers markets, farm stands, and supermarkets in the absence of a clear-cut definition for the term, which author Douglas Gayeton says differs from place to place. Gayeton spent five years traversing the country, meeting with local food producers and activists for his new book, Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America. He found that in Iowa, for example, local refers to anything that comes from the state, while many in Petaluma, Calif., may not consider a product local if it came from outside the city limits.

“It depends on the lens, levels of access to food, and ultimately geography,” says Gayeton, whose book attempts to establish a lexicon for words like local to demystify hundreds of commonly used food terms.

Make no mistake: There is little consensus on how to define local. For example, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, whose Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System allows colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance, defines local food as anything sourced from within 250 miles. The Real Food Challenge sets no mileage standard for food sourced by the institutions it works with, emphasizing the importance of products that can be traced to nearby locally owned farms and businesses instead.

Whole Foods Market allows individual stores to define local, but the chain generally uses state lines as outer boundaries—although even that definition is muddied when the retailer sends food grown someplace several states away for labeling and distribution before returning to the state of origin to be sold as local.

Consumers, on the other hand, have no good, immediate way to know why there’s a difference between one local and another—and likely attach a much lower mileage radius on the term than these institutions and retailers. In polling consumers on their local and organic food-purchasing habits, researchers with the Agriculture and Applied Economics Association found that more than two-thirds of respondents considered food produced within 50 miles to be local, while a majority consider food produced “within my state” to be “regional.”

Many contend localwashing—either with definitions that are too loose or by misleading consumers outright—has a negative impact on truly local producers by watering down the term and ultimately cutting into their business. Rebecca Thistlethwaite, farm and food policy analyst with The Cornucopia Institute, says that in Portland, Ore., where she lives, a “slew” of farm-to-table restaurants put “local pork” on their menus that come from a nearby large-scale slaughterhouse called Carlton Farms. Most of Carlton Farms’ hogs are born and raised in Canada and only killed and butchered in Oregon.

“In the meantime, many Oregon pork producers I know can’t manage to sell their pork to any Portland restaurants because that market is dominated by the Carlton meat-packing plant,” she adds. “It really stifles the growth of real local agriculture.”

Tanya Tolchin, who farms and operates a small community-supported agriculture program in Maryland, says she’s observed another threat to her business: the rise of regional food delivery services that act similarly to CSAs but sometimes source from several states away. She says she’d like to see a number attached to the word local to give consumers context about the number of miles away it was produced: local100 or local10, for instance.

“The word local is not the same as knowing your farmer,” she says.

But is it possible we’re too hung up on our food being local? Maybe, according to Liz Carlisle, who recently opined in The New York Times that focusing on buying products that are grown responsibly—regardless of where they are grown—may have more positive outcomes in combating climate change than pure locavorism. Gayeton echoes this sentiment by adding that “food miles” may be useful as a gateway term, but that may not describe the complexity of the food chain.

“It is sometimes more economical to get something from farther away when it is grown more responsibly, or in season, or has benefited from consolidated shipping costs,” he says.​ “Local isn’t always better, but it is a place to start.​”