Why Should We Keep Food Dollars Local?

In recent years, a movement for “buying local” has resurfaced in the food industry. Farmers markets and farm-to-table restaurants, for instance, have often been heralded as ideal choices over massive supermarkets and chain restaurants, suggesting positive outcomes with local food consumption. Because of this rhetoric, many people have adopted a sense of moral righteousness about participating in locally-rooted aspects of the food system. However, most people are unaware of how keeping their dollars local actually affects the region around them and of the extent to which their participation is necessary.

A call for a return to “local” reveals the current globalized nature of the food system. A new system has developed as a result of the consolidation of agricultural and livestock corporations at the expense of smaller producers, which is reinforced by new, “conventional” methods of production as well as laws aimed at maximizing the profits of these corporations. The globalization of the food system has significantly impacted our relationship to food and local producers. Nowadays, food found in chain grocery stores has more likely than not been transported hundreds of miles and has undergone various levels of processing in order to maintain the freshness that is undermined during transportation. All sorts of produce can be found, regardless of the season, and there is typically little transparency over who produced the food or how it was cultivated. 

Globalization has witnessed benefits to producers and consumers, simultaneously lowering consumer prices for certain goods through trade while increasing corporate profits. However, this system is at odds with overall environmental and socioeconomic wellbeing. As reported by the FAO  and a large growing body of peer-reviewed agroecological studies, the globalization of a high input, productionist and extractive model of agriculture is rendering our world’s food systems ever more vulnerable to the multiple, converging threats of climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, desertification, nutrient loss, and other exceedances of planetary boundaries. Smaller producers face the burden of these consequences, and yet, they are still coerced into adopting these practices in order to grow certain patented seeds and livestock and participate in the global food economy. They are often unable to compete with larger producers, who produce on “economies of scale,” producing more at a lower price. Nationwide, this has supported trends in the consolidation of large farms, and at the same time, a low farm business survival rate. 

While industrial agriculture, or “conventional,” agriculture is championed as the most suitable system to “feed the world,” due to its high yields achieved from high external input use and high intensity practices, it is ultimately not sustainable. The high yields eventually decrease as the growing environment becomes less resilient and nutrient dense, and the conventional food system in general does not sufficiently tackle its many externalities, including soil degradation and water pollution, to name only a few. Despite these effects, farmers are still incentivized by federal subsidies to continue cultivating commodity crops like corn and soybeans on a high scale, even when faced with lower prices.

In fact, this system is quite nonsensical at times when it is examined from anything other than a profit-centered lens. For example, free trade agreements sometimes facilitate the shipment of the same good between two countries, just for a lower price, which creates an unnecessarily high carbon footprint. The United States and Mexico, for instance, despite both being major growers of corn (albeit different kinds), trade large amounts of the crop between each other. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has especially exposed the issues with the globalized nature of the food system. This global threat has tested the adaptive capacity of our societal institutions, including those that sustain global supply chains and essential services needed to support basic human needs for much of the world’s population, including the universal human need for consistent, year-round access to nourishing food. Too heavily globalized food supply chains create more risks for local populations in the face of safety and national security issues. Robust local food systems, on the other hand, can circumvent such issues all while also bolstering their communities.

The movement for increasing our consumption of local food is strengthening. Local food has many different definitions; the USDA officially defines it as food transported less than 400 miles, which is quite generous when considering who qualifies as local producers (e.g. farmers markets). However, local food is generally best described as food that has been produced in a short supply chain. Short food supply chains are characterized by little to no intermediaries between producers and consumers. They are known for having more transparency compared to traditional supply chains, where there is often less information regarding labor practices and sourcing. Local food sales can be placed into two broad categories: direct-to-consumer (DTC) and intermediated sales. DTC operations take many forms, including farmers markets, on-farm sales, and community supported agriculture (CSA) schemes, where consumers take share of the farm’s profit. The sale of local food through such operations have become increasingly popular in recent years. Intermediated markets are channels in which food for human consumption is sold to regional institutions and distributors, including food hubs and direct sales to restaurants. Hillcrest Foodservice in Northeast Ohio is an example of this, acting as one of the largest independent distributors in the area. It aims to deliver quality, tasty ingredients to consumers and institutions and to ensure that the traditions of the community can remain in the food system during this process.

Photo by mk. s on Unsplash

Why is local food appealing, though? Local food has many unique values attributed to it, ranging from physical to economic values. Many people cite local food as fresher, having a great taste and quality that chain stores cannot quite match. It often embodies and preserves local traditions and cultures too. Furthermore, local food can entail a stronger, more reflexive relationship between producers and consumers. CSA programs and other measures, like participatory guarantee systems (PGS) that ensure that quality standards determined by both producers and consumers are met. Based on locality and context, these standards can be utilized in order to ensure food system sustainability and other goals, like increased access to nutritious foods, that may not otherwise be met. 

Despite the benefits of local food, it is sometimes difficult for DTC and other local operations to reach local and regional populations. Because of this, food hubs are increasingly becoming major players in overcoming this barrier in order to strengthen the local food economy. They empower and assist smaller farmers in scaling up their operations while also maintaining premium prices by connecting them to markets that value their products. Food hubs are a tool to entrench certain values, like environmental friendliness and fair practices, in the food system. Despite their impact, food hubs alone facilitate a shift toward local food if the benefits to consumers and their communities are not realized.

Moreover, local food is often associated with better environmental outcomes, linking short supply chains with less transportation, packaging, and processing as well as better farming practices. However, it is important to acknowledge that just because food is locally produced, it does not mean that it is definitively indicative of better environmental outcomes. The environmental sustainability of local food depends largely on farming practices, and sometimes, the reasons cited for its superiority, like less miles, actually prove the opposite to be true (local farms can transport smaller loads but over the same distance as large, conventional producers, indicating less energy efficiency). That being said, purchasing fresh, locally produced fruits and vegetables through a DTC model can have a lower carbon footprint by bypassing transportation and/or packaging needs. Additionally, DTC operations have been more extensively linked to a decreased use of environmentally degrading chemical fertilizers. Similarly, purchasing livestock from local rearers is linked with more positive environmental impacts, as better practices are more often adopted.

However, like in the case of local livestock, some alternative food operations often have higher prices compared to competing retailers. Part of this is due to the greater demand for local food than what is supplied. Another reason for a higher price is that there are other desirable non-commodity (market) values that are attached to local food, like cultural tradition, morality, and art, to name a few. However, some DTC operations like farmers markets have been cited to generally have lower prices than supermarkets for the quality—all while growers also retain more of the revenue from their sales than in the conventional supply chains. So while local food can sometimes be pricer, for many the premium price is worth it. Plus, with the expansion of the local food movement, prices could start to change as it adapts to this new demand.

In recent years, DTCs have become a competitive aspect of food markets, with e-commerce becoming an increasingly popular choice for grocery-shopping. Not all DTCs are face-to-face or locally-based, though, like in the case of Bear Naked, a Kellogg’s subsidiary. Online meat and seafood retailer Butcher Box, despite being a nationwide operation, maintains some of the values associated with local food by sourcing from farmers who comply with humane practices at a price that reflects it. Its beef is grass-fed, pasture-raised, and antibiotic free, its chickens are free-range, and its fish are wild-caught and sustainably sourced. Notably, they also seek to limit their packaging use by using eco-friendly materials. While Butcher Box is not a local operation, it understands the significance of providing access to meat, poultry, and fish that is produced under conditions different than productivist norms. It also shows that online retailers are capable of stimulating local food supply chains, providing a great reference for desirable characteristics in local food.

Choosing to keep food dollars local can have a surprisingly large impact beyond environmental outcomes, with many studies citing the link between local food and positive regional outcomes. Bolstering local food systems is seen as a key tactic for economic revitalization, in both rural and urban areas. Dollars spent on local food have a multiplier effect, as more of the price is returned to local producers than in conventional markets. The money is then spent on improving human, financial, physical, and social, and natural capital. More jobs become available, and money can be spent on local businesses and providers. Because of this, the local tax base also increases. DTCs can even act as agrotourism opportunities, which is becoming an increasingly popular activity, that strengthen farm viabilities and producer-consumer relationships. Agrotourism also provides a great example of how keeping food dollars local does not necessarily just mean consuming locally produced food it can also mean patronizing parts of local supply chains, from growers to distributors.

One example of local food in action is Green City Growers. In 2013, Evergreen Corporation, a Cleveland-based company, started the hydroponic greenhouse, which grew leafy greens for local grocers, community residents, and restaurants. By substituting their goods for typical imports like lettuce (which is known as import substitution), not only were they able to reduce the carbon footprint of their produce, but they were also able to create more jobs and a more resilient supply chain.  
The success of local food and short-supply operations depends a surprisingly high amount on consumers, though. Consumer satisfaction and social support are both necessary to sustain smaller farms and businesses. There is evidence demonstrating that smaller farms engaging in DTC operations have been shown to be more likely to remain in business, but in order for such DTC operations to even flourish, a shift that helps consumers recognize the values of a direct relationship with their food must occur. Plus, the existing dominant food system is still a major barrier to this shift. However, you can play your part in this by continuing to educate yourself on the food system and what it takes to strengthen regional and local economies. The more knowledge and transparency within and about the food system, the more change can occur. Signing up for the CFIO newsletter is a great way to find resources and informative blog posts about food systems at large and in the Northeast Ohio region.

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