Buy local! We have seen this slogan everywhere and ‘locally-grown’ slapped as a label on many products. When we go to a farmer’s market, we feel a sense of pride that we are supporting our local food economy. When we grow our own food, we know it’s local. In fact it is hyper local! We have to ask, though, what does local mean, really? Does it relate completely to distance from our community or is there something more to it? Who defines what amount of distance constitutes local and how it applies to products with multiple ingredients from different regions? Does a local restaurant that sells food grown a thousand miles away still count as local food? Should local food have to be organic or sustainably produced to earn the label or is local more important, regardless? Let’s explore some of these issues below.

A Disagreement on Distance

Depending on whom you ask or which standard you defer to, you will get a different answer concerning how far is too far to be considered local. According to a 2008 national survey, half of U.S. consumers see local food as coming from within a 100-mile radius around their location. More than a third of U.S. consumers see the local designation as food coming from within their state. Wal-Mart sees local in the same way as this latter group The USDA has no standard in place for putting a distance on what is considered local. AASHE, or the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, in its standards for college food and beverage purchasing defines local as a 250 mile radius around their point of purchase. Whole Foods says that each store’s local selection comes from within 200 miles of the particular store.

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Grown, Processed, or Produced?

Here is where things get a bit tricky. Some retailers and organizations define local as food grown within a certain distance from your location. Some count foods that are produced and/ or processed within a certain distance from your location as local. AASHE is a member of the latter group. This allows colleges to count locally produced hummus as a local purchase even if the chick peas were grown more than 250 miles away because the college would be supporting a local business. This is great, but the college could theoretically also count soda or junk food processed within the 250 miles. This amounts to another conflict that will be explored below.

Local Business vs. Local Food

Let’s roll with the hummus example above. If a food producer down the street from you buys chick peas from 500 miles away, tahini from 1500 miles away, sun dried tomatoes from 2500 miles away, and picks some fresh basil from a garden bed they maintain 100 feet away, is the resulting product from a local business, is it local food, is it both or is it neither? Don’t let me stop you from buying this tasty hummus. I’m just encouraging you to be conscious about what and who you are really supporting so you can make your own trade-offs.

Local, Organic, Time to Panic?

Speaking of trade-offs … now that you are equipped with this information, you are going to have to make some tough choices. Is it more important to support a one-of-a kind restaurant that serves this non-locally grown, non-organic hummus (thus supporting the producer and the restaurant) or a chain like Whole Foods that carries a similar hummus with these add-ons? What if the hummus if organic, but non-local or vice versa? Ultimately your choice comes down to your willingness to pay and your knowledge going into these scenarios. I always say that you should strive to minimize the harm associated with your purchases as much as you can with your given time and budget.

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