USDA releases comprehensive Local Food Systems Report

From The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) has released a comprehensive report on Local Food Systems drawing together findings from the existing academic literature and ERS analysis.  The report is divided into five main sections:

  • local food definitions
  • characteristics of local food suppliers
  • demand for local food from consumers and institutions
  • government programs and policies affecting local food systems
  • and existing research on the benefits of local food systems.

As acknowledged in the first section of the report, “local” is difficult to define; because of this, the report tends to uses direct-to-consumer and direct-to-institution markets as a proxy for measuring and evaluating the market for local food. Much of the report covers well-trodden ground;  it outlines the growth of direct markets for local food citing evidence like the  growth in farmers markets and CSA programs;  it describes the typical suppliers of local food: small, located in metro areas, generally selling produce, and often engaged in other entrepreneurial activities such as agritourism, value-added products, or alternative energy production. The section on “Barriers to Market Entry and Expansion” begins to move the conversation beyond the traditional focus on direct markets to the challenges to scaling up local food.  The report highlights farmer capacity for marketing activities and quality assurance, supply chain infrastructure like storage facilities or processing plants, recordkeeping, and regulatory uncertainties as some of the major barriers to increasing supply to match market demand. The section on programs and policy outlines some federal, state and local level policies that might impact markets for local food, but does not include a deep analysis of these policies to-date and does not include analysis of policies that might hinder the development of local food systems. The final section of the report reviews existing research on the benefits of local food systems in the four main areas of economic development, health and nutrition benefits, food security, and effects on energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.  It also mentions that local food systems have the potential to generate a number of public benefits beyond the four areas identified, including in the area of food safety. In general, ERS concludes, there are a number of gaps in the research on the effects of local food systems;  for example, research on the economic benefits of local food often doesn’t take into account the cost of substituting local products for the alternative.  The effects of local food systems could also be “difficult to discern” because of their proportionally small share of the national food market. The report ends with a call for further investigation: more research on these topics will “help to determine situations when supporting local foods can support policy goals.” NSAC continues to work on policy to support the development of local and regional food systems.  Click here to access our Guide to USDA funding for Local and Regional Food Systems.

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