There is one consistent response to questions about the research behind the benefits of local food systems: it depends. This is due, in part, to the fact that there is no single definition for “local” food. Therefore, none of the benefits of local food systems is guaranteed; it depends on how exactly local food is grown or raised, distributed, and consumed. However, if service providers understand what community members in their area expect from local food systems, and are knowledgeable about the research related to their benefits, we can work toward building local food projects and programs that create the outcomes that community members desire.

How do various organizations and individuals define local food?

  • The 2008 Farm Bill, which guides the US Department of Agriculture, defined local food as food that is grown and transported less than 400 miles, or within the same state.
  • State organizations like the NC Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) and North Carolina Cooperative Extension (NCCE) use state boundaries to define local food.
  • Consumer definitions vary widely; for some, local food has to do with assumptions about how food was grown (for example, pesticide-free). For others, it depends on who grew it (for example, small-scale, family farmers). Still others say it depends on how far the food has traveled (for example, The 100-Mile Diet; Smith and MacKinnon, 2007). The distance used to define "local" may also vary according to one's area of residence, as rural residents identify "local food" with a smaller area than urban residents do (Sneed and Fairhurst, 2017). Alternately, some consumers say it depends on how the food was marketed (for example, directly to the consumer at a farmers market or roadside stand).
  • Researchers often use “direct marketing” as the definition for selling food locally, because these short supply chains exemplify the close connections between farmer and consumer. Direct marketing includes farmers who sell directly to consumers at farmers markets, roadside stands, you-pick operations, agritourism activities, and community supported agriculture (CSA). Historically, there are less data available about extended supply chains—those with more intermediaries between farmer and consumer (Low et al., 2015). However, researchers are increasingly studying these intermediated supply chains, as analyses indicate that they have the potential to increase farmer profitability (Bauman, McFadden, and Jablonski, 2018; Dunning, 2016; Hardesty et al., 2014).

Despite these different definitions, research has shown that consumers have fairly consistent expectations of local food, such as freshness, healthfulness, safety, high quality, and economic benefits to their community (Onozaka, Nurse, and McFadden, 2010).

In this document, NC State researchers summarize the research about the environmental, economic, health, and community benefits of local food systems in order to provide practitioners, community members, and interested consumers with the knowledge to make informed decisions.