Taking a Closer Look at the Local Food Supply Chain

The rapidly growing local food movement promises a range of public health benefits, such as lower carbon emissions and stronger local economies—but can local food supply chains actually generate these benefits?


| February 2015



Farmers market

One prominent image of the local food movement is the farmer's markets that appear in spring with fresh vegetables and fruits.

Photo by Fotolia/william87

Growing Local (University of Nebraska Press, 2015), edited by Robert P. King, Michael S. Hand and Miguel I. Gómez, reports the findings from a coordinated series of case studies on how local food supply chains compare with mainstream supermarket supply chains. The editors posit that a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how local food products reach consumers is required to determine how—and if—the benefits of “relocalization” of our food system can be achieved. The following excerpt is from chapter 1, “From Farms to Consumers.”

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The term local foods conjures vivid and specific images among consumers, food connoisseurs, and scholars. Many people think of the fresh young vegetables and the first ripe strawberries that appear in farmers markets in the spring and the apples and winter squash that herald fall’s arrival at the end of the market season. For others, what comes to mind is a roadside farm stand, discovered by accident during a Saturday drive out of town and packed with a variety of straight-from-the-field produce. More and more, the picture of local foods also includes signs in supermarkets identifying certain products as local, and stories from farmers about how their food was produced.

These images are a growing part of how people think about their food when they fill their grocery cart (or canvas bag or farm share box). Yet these images tell only a part of the story. Where we purchase food and where it comes from (in particular, its geographic origin) does not always reveal how local food gets to the point of sale or why it is sold touting some characteristics and not others. The promotional flyer we might read at the supermarket meat counter about the nearby farmer of grass-fed beef likely does not describe the importance of interdependent business relationships between the farm, slaughterhouse, and retailer. Neither does the bin full of the season’s first apples at the farmers market tell you about the grower’s significant investment in transportation and marketing activities that allow him to sell in multiple markets each week.

The stories behind the images describe the people, processes, and relationships—that is, all the segments of the supply chain—that put local foods into consumers’ hands. The supply chains for local foods, like those of more mainstream products that account for the vast majority of food consumed in the United States, remain largely hidden from consumer view. Yet it is within these supply chains that the food characteristics and the information consumers value are determined. As local foods become a more important part of the U.S. food system, our understanding of the inner workings of food supply chains deserves more attention.

A Growing Trend in Food and Agriculture

U.S. consumer interest in local foods has increased sharply in recent years. Although sales of locally grown food still account for only a small share of total domestic food sales, this is believed to be one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. food system. Interest in local foods stems from a variety of potential and perceived benefits, including economic, environmental, health, food safety, and rural development benefits. Some believe that local food supply chains provide several advantages over the mainstream supply chains that provide products to supermarkets. These might include preserving local landscapes and family farms, strengthening of local and regional economies, and providing fresher, higher quality food products. Certain consumer segments are actively seeking local foods in a variety of outlets, and there is evidence from anecdotal observations and from controlled economic experiments that some consumers are willing to pay higher prices for local foods.