In my newsletter column last month, I began to explore what local food systems and purchasing locally does for rural economies. This complex topic opens up a number of questions, and they start with the simplest one: why local foods?

If we were to remain short-sighted and not look at the long-term impacts, it would seem to make sense that in our global economy, corporate models of food systems would fill the needs of our population. Mechanized and industrial food systems have resulted in low prices, sometimes referred to as “cheap food.” With cheap food, the true cost of production can be masked by government subsidies, price supports, and tax breaks. So, why would we want to return to local food systems?

E.F. Schumacher, a noted economist, pioneered much of the work in dealing with local economic development. In his book, Small is Beautiful, Schumacher asks why we would allow outside forces to dictate what only we understand and know in our local climate. His argument against mechanized and global economic growth is that it does not hold accountability. Distance, whether measured in miles or relationships, disables accountability.

Local food systems incorporate community gardens, food coops, community-supported agriculture (CSA), farmers markets, and other seed savers groups. Local foods are not necessarily measured in distance, although it can be one measure for some. Local foods take into account ecology, distance, economy, stewardship, and relationships.

Another way that local foods can be defined is the unity of place, people, nature, and society. Local foods involve more than just producing food in a local region. They involve a complex interaction of social, economic, and environmental forces.

“Local food systems” can be a flexible term depending on the person defining the term. Many times the term “local” has little to do with distance but rather where the food production and consumption come together. For example, an ecoregion that can grow food can be referred to as a foodshed. This unifies the concept that nature and availability of food define what should be considered local.

Some may argue that local foods are often available in grocery stores where we purchase our food. The dynamics of wholesale distribution muddy the picture by taking local production and sending it hundreds of miles through an industrial system before it returns to the local market. Is the food still considered local at this point?

Next month, I will explore what it means to be a locavore.

Contact: Michael L. Holton, 402.687.2103 x 1020 or