A local diet is comprised of food produced as close as possible to a consumer's locale. The food may come from community-supported agriculture (CSA), also called family vegetable shares, community farms, or buying clubs; from individual or community gardens; or from local farms, either directly or via farmers' markets. People who follow a local diet are called locavores. First Lady Michelle Obama planted the White House Kitchen Garden in the spring of 2009, sparking a resurgence in vegetable gardening throughout the United States.
In the past most diets were primarily local. During World War II, urban gardens produced 40% of Britain's food supply, and Americans across the country planted “victory gardens.” However, the second half of the twentieth century was marked by the industrialization of agriculture, which replaced family farms. Each food item in a typical American meal now travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to table.
The current local diet phenomenon has several sources. The community garden movement originated in European cities and spread to the United States. In 1976, the Farmer-to-Consumer Direct Marketing Act led to a resurgence of farmers' markets—from about 350 to 8,268 in 2014—making it easier for consumers to buy locally grown food.
Robyn Van En introduced CSAs to North America in 1985. As of 2018, there were an estimated 12,617 CSAs operating in North America. In 1986, Slow Food International was founded in Italy “to protect the pleasures of the table from the homogenization of modern fast food and life.” As of 2018, the organization had more than 100,000 members across the world devoted to promoting agricultural biodiversity and local, seasonal, and traditional foods.
Many restaurateurs and cookbook authors, such as Alice Waters, Rick Bayless, and Deborah Madson, promote the use of local, seasonal foods. Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard brought organic gardening to innercity schools, and similar programs appeared nationwide. In 2004, an amendment to the National School Lunch Act established the Farm-to-Cafeteria program to provide local meat and produce for school cafeterias and fund school garden projects. In 2008, the National Cooperative Grocers Association launched their “Eat Local America” campaign, urging people to consume 80% local food during the summer months.
“Local” generally refers to food that has been grown, raised, and processed within 50–100 miles. In non-food-producing regions, however, such as the Southwest desert of the United States, “local” may mean within a 250-mile radius. A local diet can involve:
In community gardens, neighbors work small plots and may share water, tools, and seeds. Some garden plots are rented and others are free. Some community gardens exist to supply local schools or specific at-need populations.
Local foods are often—but not always—from small and medium-sized farms. Some local farmers use cold frames and other devices to extend seasons, or heated greenhouses to provide fresh local produce year-round. Many small farmers maintain self-sufficiency by trading with other local farmers who grow or raise different foods.
The local food movement has led to the resurgence of smaller local processors, such as grain mills, slaughterhouses (including mobile units that travel to farms), smokehouses, dairies and creameries, and bakeries. Pastas, cereals, beer, wine, and bottled water are increasingly produced locally. Although locally grown coffee is impossible in the continental United States, local coffee roasting is a fast-growing business.
Farmers' market rules usually guarantee that products are both fresh and local. Some farmers' markets are producer-only, meaning that the vendors must grow their own wares, whereas others permit vendors who buy from wholesale distributors. Most farmers' market products are from small farms and connect consumers directly with farmers. Produce is likely to be organically grown, regardless of whether it is labeled as such. Some farmers sell directly to the public before and after market seasons.
Former first Lady Michelle Obama was a strong advocate of nutrition and home gardening. Hers was the first vegetable garden on the White House grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt's World War II victory garden. Local fifth-graders helped Obama plant and harvest annual and perennial herbs, a variety of vegetables, and raspberries and strawberries. The 1,100-squarefoot (102.19 sq meter) year-round garden features heirloom varieties, honey bees for pollination, organic fertilizers, and biological insect control. In its first year, the garden yielded hundreds of pounds of vegetables for the White House kitchen and for Miriam's Kitchen, which serves Washington's homeless. The cost of seeds and soil amendments was about $200.
In developing nations, gardening and farming is an essential part of life, but home gardens are increasing in developed countries. Shanghai, China, has over 600,000 acres of gardens. More than 80% of the produce in Havana, Cuba, comes from urban gardens. Even in the United States, it is estimated that 25% of households grow some of their own produce and that number is on the rise. More people are growing winter gardens, and as of 2018 there were more than 18,000 community gardens in the United States, many of them in impoverished urban areas. An estimated 30,000-plus American farmers sell about $1 billion worth of food at farmers' markets to at least three million customers annually. Between 50% and 70% of Americans live within easy reach of a farmers' market, some of which are open all year. Diversified farming on the outskirts of cities is the fastest-growing sector of American agriculture, and many states have farm-to-school programs, with farm-to-college programs proliferating.
Many natural-food chain stores, food cooperatives (co-ops), and specialized markets promote local food. As a result of consumer demand, conventional grocery stores—especially locally owned stores—are carrying more local products. Even some chain supermarkets and box stores are beginning to specify the state or country of origin for their produce and are highlighting local produce. Some food processors, distributors, and cooperatives specialize in marketing locally produced food to supermarkets, and even some caterers, restaurants, and food-service corporations emphasize a local diet.
Local diets appeal to people across the socioeconomic spectrum. The nutritional assistance program coupons for women with infants and children (WIC) are redeemable at farmers' markets, and the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) helps low-income seniors buy fresh local produce. An increasing number of farmers' markets accept electronic benefits transfers (EBTs) from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). Programs throughout the country link local farm produce with school cafeterias and food banks for the poor and homeless. Many communities have programs for diverting unsold produce from CSAs, farmers' markets, and even home gardeners to food banks.
In addition to providing fresher, healthier foods, the local food movement encompasses broader issues, including environmental concerns, agricultural sustainability, and fair wages for labor. Smaller farms tend to be more sustainable over time because they use fewer chemicals, cause less soil erosion, and maintain more wildlife habitats. By limiting transportation, local diets may reduce oil consumption; per capita, a conventional American diet consumes almost as much oil as Americans' automobiles. About 17% of America's energy usage is agricultural, with 80% of that going to processing, packaging, warehousing, refrigeration, and transport.
Local diets support family farms. These are more profitable per acre than corporate farms. Sometimes conventional farmers convert just a few of their acres to “high-value crops”—vegetables for the local market. A local diet provides small farmers with markets and allows them to keep more of their profits by selling directly to consumers.
Prominent benefits of a local diet include the quality, nutritional value, and flavor of foods. Local foods are usually fresher and more flavorful. Small farms also tend to grow varieties of fruits and vegetables that are otherwise unavailable. Over their history, humans have consumed some 80,000 plant species, but over the past century—and especially since World War II—93% of North American crop varieties have disappeared from cultivation. Today, 75% of all human food is derived from just eight species—primarily genetically modified (GM) corn, soy, and canola. Local foods are more likely to include less common varieties that have not been selected for characteristics such as ease of transport.
Local foods are more likely to be organically grown, making them free of residues from petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. They are also less likely to be genetically modified. Local meat, eggs, and dairy products are more likely to come from humanely raised animals that have not been fed antibiotics and growth hormones. Pasture-raised meat has less saturated fat and more “good” cholesterol than meat from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). CSA members or consumers who buy directly from farmers can observe exactly how their food is produced.
Financially, a local diet returns more food money to the farmer, keeping it within the local economy. In contrast, 80–85 cents of every industrial food dollar goes not to the farmer but to processors, packagers, transporters, distributors, marketers, slotting fees for product placement, and waste management. The local diet movement has been a boon for economically depressed regions and for rural farmers who previously grew tobacco.
A local diet may be difficult for some people to follow. Food grown locally on small farms tends to be more expensive than mass-produced supermarket produce. It may force people to become more creative in their shopping and cooking, planning meals around seasonal foods and learning new ways to prepare vegetables. For many people, this requires a major change in dietary habits and a commitment of time and energy. It may also require restraint and sacrificing some favorite foods and treats made from non-local ingredients.
There can be certain risks to a local diet:
Local diets are becoming increasingly popular in the United States and other parts of the world; however, relatively few people are able to follow a completely local diet, at least for long periods of time. Several popular accounts written by locavores have contributed to the increased interest in eating local foods.
Cotler, Amy. The Locavore Way: Discover and Enjoy the Pleasures of Locally Grown Food. North Adams, MA: Storey, 2009.
Henderson, Elizabeth, with Robyn Van En. Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen's Guide to Community Supported Agriculture. Rev. ed. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007.
Kingsolver, Barbara, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
Smith, Alisa, and J. B. Mackinnon. Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally. New York: Harmony, 2007.
Roberts, Paul. “Spoiled: Organic and Local Is So 2008.” Mother Jones 34, no. 2 (March/April 2009): 28.
Walsh, Bryan. “America's Food Crisis and How to Fix It.” Time 174, no. 8 (August 31, 2009): 30–37.
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. “Community Supported Agriculture: An Introduction to CSA.” http://www.biodynamics.com/csa.html (accessed April 9, 2018).
Brandon, Katherine. “A Healthy Harvest.” The White House Blog, June 17, 2009. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/A-Healthy-Harvest (accessed April 9, 2018).
Larsen, Steph. “It Takes a Community to Sustain a Small Farm.” Grist, January 6, 2010. http://www.grist.org/article/2010-01-05-it-takes-a-community-to-sustain-a-small-farm (accessed April 9, 2018).
McFadden, Steven. “Community Farms in the 21st Century: Poised for Another Wave of Growth?” The History of Community Supported Agriculture, Part I, Rodale Institute. http://newfarm.rodaleinstitute.org/features/0104/csa-history/part1.shtml (accessed April 10, 2018).
Rodale Institute. “Farm.” http://rodaleinstitute.org/farm/ (accessed April 10, 2018).
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service. “Local Food Research & Development.” http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/farmersmarkets (accessed April 10, 2018).
U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library. “Community Supported Agriculture.” Alternative Farming Systems Information Center. http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/csa/csa.shtml (accessed April 10, 2018).
American Community Garden Association, 1777 East Broad St., Columbus, OH, 43203-2040, email@example.com, http://www.communitygarden.org .
Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, 25844 Butler Rd., Junction City, OR, 97448, (888) 516-7797, Fax: (541) 998-0106, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.biodynamics.com .
City Farmer—Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture, Box 74567, Kitsilano RPO, Vancouver, BC, Canada, V6K 4P4, (604) 685-5832, email@example.com, http://www.cityfarmer.org .
Community Food Security Coalition, 3830 SE Division St., Portland, OR, 97202, (503) 954-2970, Fax: (503) 954-2959, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.foodsecurity.org .
Farmers Market Coalition, PO Box 504, Charlottesville, VA, 22902, http://farmersmarketcoalition.org .
LocalHarvest, 220 21st Ave., Santa Cruz, CA, 95062, (831) 515-5602, Fax: (831) 401-2418, http://www.localharvest.org .
National Family Farm Coalition, 110 Maryland Ave. NE, Ste. 307, Washington, DC, 20002, (202) 543–5675, Fax: (202) 543-0978, email@example.com, http://www.nffc.net .
Robyn Van En Center, Fulton Center for Sustainable Living, Wilson College, 1015 Philadelphia Ave., Chambersburg, PA, 17201–9979, (717) 264–4141, ext. 3352, Fax: (717) 264-1578, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.wilson.edu/wilson/asp/content.asp?id=804 .
Slow Food International, Piazza XX Settembre, 5, 12042 Bra (Cuneo), Italy, +39 0172 419611, Fax: +39 0172 421293, email@example.com, http://www.slowfood.com .
U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC, 20250, (202) 720-2791, http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usdahome .
Margaret Alic, PhD