What Makes A Food "Local?"

Context of Producer and Consumer

Consumers may seek out local foods to satisfy demand for product quality, to support local farmers and the local economy, or to express a preference for certain agricultural production and distribution practices.

King, Robert P., Michael S. Hand, Gigi DiGiacomo, Kate Clancy, Miguel I. Gomez, Shermain D. Hardesty, Larry Lev, and Edward W. McLaughlin. (2010). Comparing The Structure, Size, and Performance of Local and Mainstream Food Supply Chains, p. iv.

There are other factors besides geographic location that sometimes factor into a food's status as "local."

The 2010 report by Martinez, et al, Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues cites research that ties the element of spatial distance to a more flexible understanding of regional identity then mere physical distance or official state border.

This conception of local foods is dependent upon characteristics such as the population density of the surrounding area in question. This definition results in something termed flexible localism.


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Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues. Martinez, et al (2010). U.S. Department of Agriculture. Economic Research Service

"In terms of defining distance, opinions are quite varied. Distances that are perceived to constitute local may vary by region. Population density is important because what is considered local in a sparsely populated area may be quite different from what constitutes local in a more heavily populated region

This is referred to as 'flexible localism,' with the definition of 'local' changing depending on the ability to source supplies within a short distance or further away, such as within a State (Ilbery and Maye, 2006). For example, in King County, WA, a densely populated urban county, a survey of 54 producers found that 66 percent defined local market as their own or surrounding counties (Selfa and Qazi, 2005). On the other hand, in Grant County, a sparsely populated rural and agriculturally based county, only 20 percent of 61 producers surveyed considered their local market to be their own or surrounding counties." p. 3

In a 2013 USDA report Gwin, Thiboumery, and Stillman offer a nuanced conception of local meat that mixes geography, product format, market options, regulatory requirements, and farmer roles into a three-level hierarchy.

Within this structure, local meats are classified as being "Very local," "Local-independent," or "Regional aggregated":

Local Meat and Poultry Processing Cover.jpg
Local Meat and Poultry Processing: The Importance of Business Commitments for Long-Term Viability. Gwin, Lauren, Thiboumery, Arion, and Stillman, Richard (2010). U.S. Department of Agriculture. Economic Research Service. Economic Research Report No. (ERR-150)
Three Types of Local.jpg

"We describe three basic types of 'local meat'—very local, local-independent, and regional-aggregated to show how they vary not only by geographic scale but product format, market channel, regulatory requirements, and supply chain participants (fig. 1)....

In the 'very local' chain, the farmer sells a live animal directly to one or more household buyers, who buy by the whole, half, or quarter carcass. A mobile slaughterer may come to the farm, or the farmer may deliver the animal to a processing facility. For red meat, the household buyers place the cutting orders, pay the processor directly, and pick up their meat, typically frozen. For poultry in this chain, the farmer is also often the processor.

In the 'local-independent' chain, the farmer arranges and pays for processing and handles distribution and marketing through a variety of direct and local channels. In the “regional-aggregated” chain, multiple farmers sell finished animals to a central entity (e.g., brand) that arranges for processing and distribution and handles marketing, largely to wholesale accounts.

The three types may overlap. A farmer might sell freezer meat shares, processed under inspection, at his farmers’ market stand. A farmer in the 'local independent' category might sell most of her product in subprimals or whole carcasses to restaurants and also sell live animals into conventional (commodity) livestock markets. The optimal strategy for any farmer will depend on many factors, including production style, marketing skills, risk tolerance, and financial goals." pp. 1-4


Another variable that affects consumers' perceptions of locality is a more abstract conception of political and regional identity, as opposed to the tangible, physical distance that separates them from producers.

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"Just What Does Local Mean?" (2010). Hand, M. S. and Martinez, S. Choices, 25(1).

"Some consumers think of local foods as those that come from within certain political boundaries, such as their county, metropolitan area, state, or region. Studies of consumer purchases indicate that state of origin may be a natural geographic definition of local for some consumers (Darby et al., 2008), and that consumers are willing to pay a premium for in-state products (Giraud, Bond, and Bond, 2005) and products from within the consumers’ county (Schneider and Francis, 2005)."