Local Food Systems: An Overview



The term “food system” refers to the interconnected processes that connect the complex spectrum of food production to food processing, consumption, and ultimately disposal. It is sometimes described as including all processes involved in keeping us fed: growing, harvesting, processing (or transforming or changing), packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming and disposing of food and food packages.  The food system in the United States is predominantly characterized as a complex and globally integrated system in which products are routinely produced, processed, and transported hundreds and thousands of miles from the point of consumption.

“Local Food Systems,” as used here, is meant to refer to a number of interrelated pieces that connect to make “local food” a component of the U.S. agricultural food system. The term “community food system” is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “local food system.”

There is no single definition of the term “local food.” It is generally accepted that local food is food that has traveled less than 1,500 miles from its place of origin to the final consumer, though the term can also be defined by referencing a particular geographic region, either by county or state. Because there is no federally-established definition, it is often left to state and local governments or nonprofit organizations to establish a particular definition.

Elements of a Local Food System

Local food sales are often conducted directly between the producer and the consumer, generally referred to as direct marketing. The most common venues for direct marketing of local food are farmers’ markets, farm stands, pick your own operations and community supported agriculture (CSAs).

The most recent USDA-published Census of Agriculture contained data from 2012. This was also the first year that the Census provided detailed data regarding how local food systems have grown. Direct-to-consumer sales through farmers markets and roadside stands brought in sales revenue of $1.3 billion. The number of farms that sell direct to consumer also increased by eight percent. Census data is important for farmers to understand the available market information and to continue to make sound business decisions. The National Agriculture Statistics Service predicts that the 2017 Census should be available in February 2019.

In addition to direct marketing, there are a few other venues through which locally produced food is sold. Some farmers sell their products directly to restaurants. In 2016, the National Restaurant Association named locally-sourced food as the culinary trend that has grown the most over the past ten years and predicts that the locally sourced trend will continue to grow in the next ten years as well. There are also a growing number of retail grocery stores that carry locally grown products, including large international chains. Lastly, local food is sold to institutional purchasers such as local, state or federal government entities, hospitals and schools. A classic example of institutional purchasing is farm to school programs that allow farmers to sell to public school systems.

There are tremendous benefits and challenges to local food systems. Local food systems can keep money circulating within local economies. The creation of jobs from processing food and distributing locally is also a great benefit. Even though local does not necessarily go hand in hand with “organic,” food produced locally is often fresher and in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak, it is more easily traceable and containable when the food comes from somewhere local.

However, the term “local” has become a commonplace advertising term. The best way for a consumer to ensure that they are actually buying local food is really to be at a direct-to-consumer outlet or do research before purchase at a store. Another challenge is the “sticker-shock” realization when consumers realize that locally produced food can often cost more. Small-scale producers who take care to use environmentally-friendly methods of food production have to pass the price of these benefits onto the consumer. Large chain producers can afford to externalize these costs in a way that a smaller, local producer cannot.

Legal Issues

State Laws and Regulations

There are some federal laws and regulations that are directly applicable to local food systems. The National Organic Program, discussed below, is one such example. There are also a number of federally-created programs administered at the state level, such as The Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs and the School Nutrition Programs.

However, most regulation takes place at the state or local level, or a combination thereof. For example, there may be relevant zoning laws that impact farmers’ operation of a farm stand or similar enterprise. Other areas likely to be regulated at the local or state level are public safety and health, food sampling, and application of a sales tax. Producers and others involved with sales of local food, should be aware that local and or state laws may vary from state to state or among counties within a particular state. Furthermore, the vast majority of states have farmers’ market associations to assist and facilitate the regulation of local food marketing.

General Liability Concerns- 
Growers and retailers of food and food products may be liable if a consumer were to sustain physical injuries or become ill from consuming certain food and food products. Two common causes of action are strict liability under tort law, and breach of implied warranty of merchantability under the Uniform Commercial Code (U.C.C.). Other common causes of action could include a negligence claim or breach of express warranty. For information on a closely related topic, visit the Commercial Transactions and Landowner Liability Reading Rooms. For information on limiting liability through business organizations, visit the Business Organizations Reading Room.

Premises Liability- 
Premises liability is an issue for owners, occupiers, or persons otherwise in control of premises who allow or invite customers onto their premises. This applies to farmers who have farm stands, pick your own operations, or CSAs, as well as to farmers’ markets. For more information regarding landowner liability, visit the Landowner Liability Reading Room.

Sale of Milk- 
In an effort to unify safety standards relating to milk and milk products, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a model ordinance known as the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO). The PMO sets sanitation standards for the processing, handling and labeling of Grade “A” milk, as well as for the inspection of dairy farms and milk plants. States are encouraged to adopt the PMO, in order to create a unified national system; however, there is no requirement that states do so. One area where this issue arises is the sale of raw milk. The FDA strongly recommends that raw milk not be sold, but it is left to the authority of the states to regulate this product.

False Advertising & Fraud- Because terms like “local” and “organic” have become common advertising buzzwords, there is a question as to whether the use of such terms could constitute causes of action like false advertisement or fraud if printed on a food label. While false advertising and fraud have particularly high standards and burdens of proof, states may have statutes prohibiting false or misleading advertising. For more information regarding food labeling, visit the Food Labeling Reading Room.

Federal Laws and Regulations

National Organic Program- 
Some food that is grown and sold within a local food system is produced in accordance with the National Organic Program (NOP). The purpose of the NOP is to provide national consistency in the certification process of organic foods. For more information regarding the National Organic Program, visit the National Organic Program Reading Room.

Sale of Meat and Poultry-
 Meat and poultry is sometimes sold through CSAs or through other direct marketing venues. If these products are sold or transported through interstate commerce, they must be inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act. If meat and poultry items do not enter interstate commerce, and are raised, transported and sold within a particular state, they are subject to the inspection laws of that state. For more information regarding the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Inspection Act, visit the Food Safety Reading Room.

Agricultural Labor-
 There are a number of federal laws which apply to agricultural labor. These laws may be relevant to farmers whether they hire farm employees and/or if they bring on interns or apprentices (also referred to as “trainees”). For more information regarding labor, visit the Labor Reading Room.

Food Policy Councils

Food Policy Councils (FPC) are a tool used to set food policy at the state or local level. The purpose of food policy councils is to help establish state or local food policy. The Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture defines “food policy” as “[d]ecisions made by a government or institution, which shape the type and cost of foods used or available, influence the opportunities for farmers and employees, or affect the food choices available to consumers.”

This can take various forms, depending largely upon what the goals of the FPC are, and on the needs of the community they intend to serve. The purpose of many FPCs is to address concerns such as hunger, accessibility of food to urban residents, availability of local food, marketing of local food, farmland preservation, food security, and nutrition.

Food policy councils are comprised of individuals who represent a cross-section of interests from across the food system, commonly including farm and consumer groups, retailers, restaurants, faith groups, anti-hunger organizations, academia, food processers, and state governmental entities. FPCs are generally formed by government sanction, such as through an executive order, or are established through an existing state or local agency. They can also be formed privately, such as through a non-profit organization.

Other Issue Areas

Additional information on topics related to local food systems can be found in the following Reading Rooms: AgritourismFood Safety, and Sustainable Agriculture.