Published May 26, 2011

What is “Local Food?”

By Tomoko Ogawa

The discussion of “what is local food?” may sound repetitive and futile. I too, used to think we shouldn’t get stuck in the definition of what’s local. At some lectures, I’ve heard people who are doing local food work tell the audience to stop talking about definitions and start acting. I see their points. However, I’m realizing that trying to come up with a definition gives us insight into the current structure that shapes how we shop for food.

For the second year of PFI’s local foods study which starts in a week, we conducted a survey to determine the definition of local food that we are going to use in this study. We wanted to have a clear definition based on what participants thought.

In the survey, we asked to rate some food items as “definitely local” “probably local” “not sure” “probably not local” or “definitely not local.” Our examples included “Imported coffee roasted at a local coffee shop,” “Bread from a local bakery with ingredients from faraway places,” and “Meat that you can trace back to a packing plant in Iowa but not to an individual farm.” We also asked how important different stages of food system (production, processing, distribution, overall business model) are for them in determining what is local.

From our survey results, it was apparent that all the respondents cared about each stage of food system in defining local food rather than simply measuring distances. In short, the respondents tended to identify “product with a face (farmer)” as local food.

Therefore, while there are great collaborative marketing models out there, many of them will not be counted as local for this particular study as these models often have multiple participating farms and it’s difficult to trace a product back to a farm. We also realized that we had to separate the ideas of “supporting local businesses” and “supporting local producers” in this study. Moreover, local may not necessarily mean sustainable especially with regard to energy.

Currently, the lack of infrastructure (e.g. processing plant, storage, and distribution) seems to be one of the biggest challenges for a kind of local food system to exist, where people purchase food that is traceable back to a farm, while a producer can have long-term stable profits and energy-efficient business practice.


How would you define local food?