Local Food Movement: Everything You Need to Know

Farmers sell locally grown produce at the Legion Park Farmers Market in Miami, Florida
Farmers sell locally grown produce at the Legion Park Farmers Market in Miami, Florida on April 17, 2021. Jeff Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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What Is the Local Food Movement? 

The local food movement is the push to eat food that is grown and harvested nearby to where it is purchased. It is often contrasted with the contemporary mainstream food system, in which avocados from Mexico are purchased in January from a big-box grocery store in New England. It champions a more direct relationship between growers and consumers, so that community members can get produce directly from a local farmer instead of a supermarket. 

The local food movement is also commonly associated with a desire to eat healthier foods that are not grown with large amounts of pesticides or other chemicals. It is further considered more environmentally sustainable because the food does not have to travel as far and is often grown using less intensive methods. Finally, it is seen as a way to generate a sense of community around food and direct money towards the local economy rather than large corporations or agribusiness operations.

Locally grown produce at a farmers market in Purcellville, Virginia. Jeffrey Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

How Did the Local Food Movement Start?

The local food movement grew out of a reaction to changes in the U.S. food system during the 20th century. One crucial change was the rise of subsidies and price supports for agricultural commodities like corn, rice, wheat and soy. These supports started during the Great Depression to provide relief for family farms, but the end result was that large companies were incentivized to buy these ingredients in bulk to make pre-packaged foods. Increasingly cheap commodities also made it more affordable to raise large amounts of animals, and livestock farms grew in size substantially during the 1970s and 1980s. By that decade, factory farms had become the norm for animal agriculture in the U.S.

These developments had two profound impacts on U.S. consumers and farmers. Consumers became increasingly disconnected from the food they purchased at large supermarkets. By 2004, the U.S. imported more food by volume than it exported. Small-to medium-sized farms, meanwhile, had a hard time staying afloat. The number of these types of farms fell dramatically between the 1950s and 1970s. Those who clung on had to innovate in order to survive, and some of their survival strategies caught on. These included selling their produce directly to consumers or joining together in organizations like food co-ops. Many consumers, ever more disconnected from the food they ate, found this more direct approach attractive. 

A customer pays for produce at a farmers market in Baltimore, Maryland. Edwin Remsberg / VWPics / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As a sign of the movement’s growing popularity, the number of farmers markets in the U.S. expanded from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,669 in 2016. The New Oxford American Dictionary chose “locavore” as its word of the year in 2007.  The word was coined in 2005 by four women in San Francisco who proposed the idea that people should only eat food grown within 100 miles from where they lived. 

“The ‘locavore’ movement encourages consumers to buy from farmers’ markets or even to grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better,” the dictionary explained in its blog. “Locavores also shun supermarket offerings as an environmentally friendly measure, since shipping food over long distances often requires more fuel for transportation.”

Unlike other social movements, the local food movement is mostly driven by consumers and farmers and the relationship between the two groups, rather than traditional advocacy organizations. In addition to buying directly from local farmers, proponents of the local food movement might work to connect restaurants, foods or hospitals to local producers through the food-to-table movement or start a community garden. 

Farm to Table Movement

A related movement to the local foods movement is the farm to table or farm to fork movement. This movement is associated most closely with restaurants that serve local ingredients that are also often organic or sustainably grown. 

One of the movement’s unofficial founders was Alice Waters, who opened her restaurant Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California in 1971. At first, Waters was not trying to start a movement. She was simply trying to recreate the kind of food she’d eaten in Paris. But to do that, she ended up reaching out to local farmers. “I depended on them, became friends with them, celebrated them. I realized that the people who take care of the land are precious and need to be paid for the hard work they do,” she told Harvard Business Review. Waters did end up becoming an intentional advocate for local, sustainable food, founding the Edible Schoolyard Project in 1995 to use gardening and cooking as tools to teach children about the food system.

Chef Alice Waters with another chef in the kitchen of her restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California in 1982. Roger Ressmeyer / CORBIS / VCG via Getty Images

Another early leader was Carlo Petrini of Italy, who founded his Slow Food movement in 1986 as a response to the opening of the first McDonald’s in Rome. The movement originally started to protect regional food traditions and a slower pace of life centered on pleasure rather than convenience. The movement went international and drafted a manifesto in Paris in 1989, adopting the snail as its mascot. 

“Homo sapiens must regain wisdom and liberate itself from the ‘velocity’ that is propelling it on the road to extinction. Let us defend ourselves against the universal madness of ‘the fast life’ with tranquil material pleasure,” the manifesto read in part.

Since then, the movement has expanded to consider food’s relationship to both politics and the environment. In 2004, it launched the Terra Madre network connecting small food producers all over the world. That network brought the Slow Food movement into Africa, Latin America and Asia. It is now present in 150 countries

Urban Gardening 

Another aspect of the local food movement is the push to begin growing food in community or abandoned spaces in cities themselves. Urban agriculture addresses another problem with the mainstream food system: food deserts. Food deserts are areas in the U.S. where it is very difficult to access food that is both healthy and affordable. They were formed as smaller farms and grocery stores closed and agribusiness and larger supermarkets took over, leaving residents in under-served areas to rely on fast food outlets or convenience stores. Food deserts are a major environmental justice issue: A John Hopkins University study published in 2014 found that low-income urban neighborhoods were less likely to have major supermarkets than high-income ones and, among low-income neighborhoods, Black neighborhoods had the fewest supermarkets. This has health consequences as well, as low-income people of color living in urban areas are more likely to have health problems related to a lack of access to healthy food. 

Urban agriculture is one way that communities have worked to fill this gap and provide each other with fresh fruits and vegetables. Advocates propose using abandoned or vacant lots in cities to grow food. One example is Ron Finley, the so-called Gangsta Gardener. Finley lives in a food desert (what he calls a food prison) in South Central Los Angeles where he would have to drive 45 minutes in order to buy a fresh tomato. In 2010, Finley tried to solve two problems at once by planting vegetables in unused neighborhood parkways. At first, he was sued by the City of Los Angeles for gardening without a permit, but he launched a petition to be allowed to garden in his neighborhood and won. He has since become an advocate for urban gardening around the world.

Ron Finley hosts an open house in South LA in 2016. Todd Williamson / Getty Images for Airbnb

Local Doesn’t Always Mean Organic: What’s the Difference? 

The local food movement is often associated with the push to eat more organic foods, but local foods and organic foods are not necessarily the same. Local food refers to food grown within a certain radius of where it’s consumed. There is no clear definition for what constitutes “local.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will use the standard of food grown, produced or distributed within 400 miles of its origin point or within the same state for some programs, and different states and non-profits have their own criteria. For example, Real Food Challenge considers food local if it is grown within 250 miles for produce and 500 miles for meat, seafood and poultry. However, 85 percent of farmers market vendors grow their food around 50 miles from where they sell it, according to USDA figures. 

Organic food, on the other hand, is food grown as naturally as possible, i.e. without artificial chemicals, added hormones or antibiotics or the use of genetic modification. The USDA does have strict criteria for what types of food it will certify as organic. For produce, the food must be grown on soil that has been free of banned substances like artificial fertilizers and pesticides for three years. For meat, the animals must be given the freedom to behave naturally by, for example, grazing; they must not be given antibiotics or hormones and they must only be fed organic food themselves. For processed foods, they must be made largely from organic ingredients without any artificial colorings or preservatives added. 

Local and organic foods can overlap but don’t always. In fact, while almost 50 percent of USDA-certified organic farms do sell their products locally, less than five percent of local food vendors are actually certified organic. That said, the process of being certified is both expensive and time-consuming, so some small-scale local farmers may choose not to bother and simply talk to their customers directly about how they grow their food. “We didn’t need the certification for our customers to feel confident that we were giving them quality produce,” local New Jersey farmer Jennifer LaMonica told Bloomberg News of her decision to stop seeking certification. “People know us, we sell directly to them.”

What Are the Benefits of Eating Local? 

There are benefits to eating both local and organic foods. Choosing local foods has health, environmental and social value. Healthwise, while local foods might not be organic, they are fresher. The average food item at a supermarket has traveled 1,200 miles to get there. If you buy more locally, the food is less likely to have lost its vitamins and nutrients in transit. This is especially the case for broccoli, green beans, kale, red peppers, tomatoes, apricots and peaches. Foods like carrots, apples, oranges and grapefruits are more likely to hold on to their essential nutrients. 

From an environmental perspective, there is an argument that eating locally reduces your carbon footprint, since the food does not have to travel as far to reach you.  This has led to the concept of “food miles” — the distance a food has traveled before you purchase it. In recent years there has been some pushback against the idea that “food miles” are the most effective way to assess a food item’s carbon footprint. That’s because how a food is produced can matter as much or more than how it is transported, and animal agriculture is overall much more carbon intensive than fruits and vegetables. Beef is the highest-emitting agricultural product, and only one percent of its emissions come from transporting it to your barbecue. The bulk is from methane farts and land-use for growing feed. For this reason, some experts recommend that people who want to eat a low-carbon diet focus on eliminating meat and dairy products first. 

Another factor is that some forms of transportation are more emissions heavy than others, namely air travel. So, for example, food flown across the U.S. has a higher carbon footprint than food shipped across the Pacific Ocean. That said, a new study published in Nature Communications this June has somewhat restored the concept of “food miles” to scientific grace. The research found that, when you factor in transporting other elements in the agricultural supply chain including feed and fertilizers, transportation accounts for nearly 20 percent of the emissions from the global food system, which is 3.5 to 7.5 times higher than previous estimates. Transit also significantly upped the carbon footprint of fruits and vegetables — moving them around takes up 36 percent of all food-related transport emissions. The researchers also found that emissions from “food miles” were driven up by demand in wealthier countries. That means that eating local can make a difference from a climate perspective, depending on your diet and where you live. “For consumers, in addition to shifting towards a plant-based diet, eating local seasonal alternatives is ideal, especially among affluent countries,” study lead author Dr. Mengyu Li from the University of Sydney told Carbon Brief. 

A produce truck outside a distribution warehouse in London, England. Image Source / Getty Images

There are other environmental benefits to local food as well. Land that is being farmed at a smaller scale isn’t being used for development or industry and can provide a habitat for some wildlife. Local farmers, even if they don’t use the official organic label, are more likely to try out environmentally friendly practices like reducing pesticide use and leaving wildlife borders. Further, local agriculture maintains a local nutrient cycle, which can help avoid problems like the nutrient pollution from excess phosphorus that causes algal blooms. 

Finally, the local food movement has social and economic benefits for communities by keeping money in the area. Studies show that fruits and vegetables generate more economic activity in a region when they are produced and consumed locally than when they are imported from afar. Local producers also retain more of the profits from their labor. Furthermore, the local food movement can bolster community in non-economic ways. People tend to visit farmers markets with friends and family instead of shopping alone, and community gardens can be a way to encourage interactions between people of different racial, ethnic and age groups. 

What Are the Benefits of Eating Organic?

Eating organic foods also has important health and environmental benefits, the biggest of which is perhaps the lack of pesticides. While government health agencies in both the U.S. and Europe maintain that the amount of pesticides sprayed on conventional agriculture is safe for consumers, this judgment is based on testing one pesticide at a time on animals. Studies have shown that children whose mothers were exposed to pesticides when pregnant are more likely to face neurological development problems. However, children who eat organic foods have fewer pesticides in their bodies. Pesticide exposure is also a major problem for agricultural workers and surrounding communities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) pesticide limits do not apply to agricultural workers, 83 percent of whom are Hispanic. This is part of the reason why low income communities of color are more likely to be exposed to pesticides than other U.S. groups. 

The fact that organic farms do not use antibiotics is also a public health benefit, since it means they do not contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Animals who are given room to roam are also less likely to get sick. A recent study found that organic meats in the U.S. were 56 percent less likely to be infected with bacteria that is resistant to multiple drugs. There is also some evidence that certain organic foods are more nutritious and have more vitamins and antioxidants than conventionally grown foods. 

Organic vegetables at a farmers market in Boca Raton, Florida. Jeffrey Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Environmentally, the lack of pesticides sprayed on organic produce is also a big deal. Pesticides are a major factor in the so-called “insect apocalypse” — the precipitous decline in insect populations in the last half-century. Agricultural pesticides also threaten insects and other invertebrates that live in the soil and maintain its health, while neonicotinoids have been shown to be extremely toxic to bees. Organic farming regulations require that farmers keep their soil healthy and productive in natural ways and also stipulate that they boost the health of ecosystems like rivers and wetlands on their property. Finally, organically-grown meat is better treated from an animal-welfare perspective because the animals are allowed to move around outdoors and cows are not given hormones to force excess milk production. 

What if You Can’t Eat Organic?

One of the downsides to organic food is that your store might not carry it or it might be too expensive. Organic foods still cost 20 percent more than the alternative, on average. In that case, the Environmental Working Group‘s annual Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen guides can help. These guides outline the non-organic produce with the most and least pesticides. This year, strawberries, spinach and kale, collard and mustard greens had the most pesticides while avocados, sweet corn and pineapple had the least. The EWG tested the produce after washing and peeling and recommended people buy organic versions of the Dirty Dozen items if possible. However, around 70 percent of the items on the Clean Fifteen list did not have any pesticides lingering on them, so people who need to buy conventional produce should shop from that list. More generally, Harvard T.H. Chan School adjunct professor of environmental health Philippe Grandjean advised people who cannot buy organic to choose foods that have to be peeled and refrain from purchasing leafy greens. 

How to Join the Local Foods Movement 

There are many ways to participate in the local food movement. Perhaps the simplest, depending on where you live, is to shop at a farmers market. The USDA defines a farmers market as “two or more farm vendors selling agricultural products directly to customers at a common, recurrent physical location.” You can find a farmers market near you by searching the USDA’s Local Food Directories page. One benefit to shopping at farmers markets is that organic produce can be cheaper there than at the supermarket. 

If you want to make a bigger commitment, you can join a CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The idea behind a CSA is that members of a community are sharing the risks and rewards of growing food. In practice, this looks like paying a certain amount to a farm or farmer at the beginning of the growing season in exchange for a regular delivery of produce. You can find local CSAs by browsing the USDA’s Local Food Directories page or on the website Local Harvest.

To go even further, try growing your own food either in a personal or community garden. The Old Farmer’s Almanac provides a beginner’s guide to growing your own vegetables, while the USDA offers tips for starting an organic garden. Community gardening nonprofit Urban Harvest offers a jumping off point for starting a community garden of your own with like-minded individuals. 

Famous Farmers Markets 

Fruit and vegetables at Pike Place Market in Seattle. Kevin Schafer / Moment Mobile / Getty Images

While farmers markets may bring to mind a few tents in a meadow that pop up as ephemerally as a fairy ring, there are in fact many long-standing, well-known farmers markets in the U.S. Here are some of the most famous.

  1. Pike Place Market, Seattle: Founded in 1907, the Pike Place Market bills itself as “Seattle’s original farmers market.” It is located under a red sign and at the end of a cobblestone street near Seattle’s waterfront and hosts more than 80 Washington farmers. Its Pike Place Fish Market is famous for the vendors’ practice of throwing fish to each other for all to see. 
  2. Lancaster Central Market, Lancaster, PA: Established in 1730, the Lancaster Central Market is considered the oldest, still-running public farmers market in the U.S. More than 60 vendors enter its 1889 Market House three days a week. 
  3. Union Square Greenmarket, New York: An oasis in the heart of New York City’s Union Square, the market was founded by just a few farmers in 1976 and now boasts 140 farmers, bakers and fishers from around the region during its peak season. 
  4. St. Paul Farmers’ Market, St. Paul, MN: The St. Paul Farmers’ Market is notable from a local foods perspective because it will only sell food grown within 50 miles of the market. It is also historic, opening in 1852. 
  5. Portland Farmers Market, Portland, OR: Fodor’s Travel names the Portland Farmers Market the best in the U.S. Founded in 1992, it draws more than 150 local farmers and producers and offers breakfast burritos Saturday mornings. 

What to Take Home

The local foods movement has emerged as an alternative to an agricultural system that is destructive to communities, human and animal health and the planet. While choosing to shop local as an individual won’t resolve the systemic problems with our global food system, it will allow you to support your community, think more about the food you eat and begin to envision how agriculture could be done differently. It will also introduce you to some truly tasty and beautiful food. 

A road sign at SpringDell Farm in Littleton, Massachusetts in 2020. Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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