Local Food Systems: An Overview



The term “food system” refers to the overlapping 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 (ortransforming or changing), packaging, transporting, marketing, consuming, and disposing of food and food packages. The United States’ food system is predominantly characterized as a complex and globally integrated system in which products are routinely produced, processed, and transported up to thousands of miles to the point of consumption.

“Local Food Systems,” as used here, refers to several interrelated pieces that connect to make “local food” a component of the US agricultural food system. The term “community food system” is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “local food system.” Generally speaking, local food is food that travels the entire supply chain (from production to consumption) in the same locality. What is considered local is highly dependent on geography. In cities like New York, food may be considered local only if it is grown and sold within a certain neighborhood, whereas Alaskans may consider food local if it was grown within a couple hundred-mile radius.  Because there is no federally established definition, the meaning of “local food” can vary substantially between state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector.

Local and community food systems have risen in popularity during the 21st century. As evidence of this growth, USDA points to the growth of farmers’ markets, which have nearly tripled, and the initiation of numerous farm-to-school programs. Although there is a recent growth trend in local foods, many of the farming techniques used by local farms, such as regenerative agriculture and direct-to-consumer market models, such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) are not new. In fact, many hallmarks of the local food system have ties to historic Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities. Many BIPOC individuals helped build the foundation of the local food system we see today. One notable figure is Professor Booker T. Whately who studied and wrote many articles on regenerative agriculture and created an early form of CSA. To learn more Prof. Whately, click here.

Elements of a Local Food System

Although local food is sold at restaurants and retail locations, local food sales are most often conducted directly between the producer and the consumer which is 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 CSAs.

The 2012 Census of Agriculture was the first year that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provided detailed data on direct-to-consumer sales, which totaled $1.3 billion in sales revenue. The next and most recent Census of Agriculture, conducted in 2017, indicates that direct-to-consumer sales have more than doubled to $2.8 billion. These two Census data points demonstrate a dramatic rise in local food sales over the last decade. Having access to these market trends is particularly valuable for farmers to understand long-term market trends so they can continue to make sound business decisions.

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 2019, the National Restaurant Association named locally sourced food as a top culinary trend. Many retail grocery stores (including large, international chains) feature locally grown products. Many institutional purchasers such as local, state, or federal government entities, hospitals, and schools also seek out locally sourced food. A classic example of institutional purchasing is farm-to-school programs, which allow farmers to sell directly to public school systems.

There are many benefits associated with local food systems. Local food systems can keep money circulating within local economies, which is especially beneficial for rural communities. An increasing demand for local products can spark job creation in producing, processing, and distributing food locally. Food produced locally is often fresher, resulting in a higher nutritional value. Additionally, in the event of a foodborne illness outbreak, contaminated food is easier to trace and contain when the food is sourced locally.

While local food systems result in many community benefits, they also come with some significant limitations. The growth trend and lack of a uniform definition for local food systems have allowed the term “local” to become a commonplace advertising term. Therefore, a consumer may purchase one product believing it to be local when it may have traveled the same distance or even more than a competing product. Buying food at direct-to-consumer outlets or doing research on the product before purchasing it are the best ways for consumers to ensure that their food is local.

Additionally, although local food cuts out the middleman it isn’t always cheaper than traditionally grown food. Often, local food is either the same price or more expensive than non-local foods in a grocery store. Small-scale producers, who predominantly sell to local markets, often use specialized methods of food production such as organic or regenerative agriculture. Such methods may require a higher cost of production, which translates to a more expensive product for consumers.

State Laws and Regulations

Many federal laws and regulations are directly applicable to local food systems. There are also several 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, relevant zoning laws may limit a farmer’s ability to farm or operate a farm stand. Additionally, public health and safety, food sampling restrictions, and a sales tax application are all regulated at local or state levels. Producers and others involved with sales of local food should be aware that laws may vary from state to state or even among counties within a particular state. Furthermore, a vast majority of states have farmers’ market associations that assist and facilitate the regulation of local food marketing.

Land Use/Zoning Regulations– many local farms fall under what is known as urban agriculture. EPA explains that urban agriculture “takes the form of backyard, roof-top and balcony gardening, community gardening in vacant lots and parks, roadside urban fringe agriculture, and livestock grazing in open space.” Almost all U.S. cities and towns have land use regulations that prescribe what activities can be done on certain land. Some local land use ordinances prohibit gardening or farming on the strip of grass along roads and on vacant lots. Meanwhile, other cities and towns encourage urban agriculture.  Scholars have postulated that urban agriculture can help mitigate food insecurity in urban areas, which disproportionately affects BIPOC communities. For information on Land Use/Zoning Regulations, visit the Urban Encroachment Reading Room.

General Liability Concerns- Growers and retailers of food may be held liable under common law, which is state-specific, 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 Grade “A” Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (Grade “A” PMO). The Grade “A” PMO offers model language to assist states and municipalities in initiating and maintaining programs to prevent milk-borne illness. The Grade “A” PMO sets sanitation standards for the processing, handling, labeling of Grade “A” milk, and for the inspection of dairy farms and milk plants. States are encouraged to adopt the Grade “A” 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 not selling raw milk, but the states have regulatory authority over raw milk. For more information regarding sale of milk and milk products, visit the Food Safety Reading Room.

Cottage Food Laws – cottage foods are foods made in home kitchens usually only by one person or family. Although prior to 2021 most states had cottage food laws, most states amended their cottage foods laws in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021, and the surge of online sales of cottage food products. When they are put in place by state legislatures, these laws enable state regulators to oversee intrastate cottage food sales. The goal of most cottage food laws is to ensure cottage food is safe and properly labeled. For more information regarding cottage food laws, visit the Cottage Food Laws State Compilation.

False Advertising & Fraud– Because there is not a set definition of “local food”, litigants can potentially bring false advertisement or fraud claims against food producers claiming their products are “locally grown”. 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.

Food waste – In addition to the transactions between producers and consumers, the food system also includes policies regulating what happens to unsold or uneaten food and food byproducts. Some local municipalities and counties have organic waste and composting ordinances which both producers and consumers should be aware of. Some regulations offer benefits to those who opt to compost, while other require citizens to compost. For more information regarding food waste, visit the Environmental Law 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 are 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 USDA under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) or the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA). 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 FMIA and the PPIA, visit the Food Safety Reading Room.

Agricultural Labor- There are several federal laws that apply to agricultural labor. These laws may be relevant to farmers whether they hire farm employees 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

Over the past few decades, as the trend in local food as grown, there has also been a trend in the creation of Food Policy Councils (FPCs). John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s Food Policy Networks project defines FPCs “as networks that represent multiple stakeholders and that are either sanctioned by a government body or exist independently of government, and address food-related issues and needs within a city, county, state, tribal, multi-county or other designated region.”

FPCs can take various forms and depend largely upon the needs of the community they intend to serve as well as the mission of the FPC. Many FPCs address concerns about hunger, accessibility of food to urban residents, availability of local food, marketing of local food, farmland preservation, food security, and nutrition. FPCs are comprised of individuals who represent a cross-section of interests relating to the food system. This can include farmers, consumer groups, retailers, restaurants, faith groups, anti-hunger organizations, academia, food processors, and state governmental entities.

Other Issue Areas

Additional information on topics related to local food systems can be found in the following Reading Rooms: Agritourism, Food Safety, National Organic Program, Nutrition Programs, and Sustainable Agriculture.