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How Far is Local When it Comes to Your Food?

What are the standards for how far food can travel to be considered local food? How far is too far?

Mobile map considering local

The definition of local food can mean different distances that depend on various factors. It is not as simple as the number of miles from your plate to where the item is grown or raised. Factors such as geographical distance, timeframe or seasonal availability, regulatory definitions, consumer perspectives, environmental and economic impact.

Did you know that the USDA (US Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for overseeing farming, ranching and forestry industries as well as regulating aspects of food quality, safety and nutrition labeling) defines local food as food that is transported less than 400 miles from its origin or within the same state (California is 1040 miles from north to south, in case you were wondering).

A couple of popular consumer perspectives define local as being produced within a 100-mile radius or, even more strictly, from within the same community. Many consumers consider local to mean purchasing food from a local farmer, through a CSA or a farmer's market.

local produce from a local market

Many farmer's markets have geographical (and other) parameters for what they will allow to be sold. The famed greenmarkets in New York City have defined regional parameters for their producers. NYC Grow, the greenmarkets' governing body, defines local as a circle around the city, extending 120 miles to the south, 170 miles east and west, and 250 miles north.

When you are considering the environmental impact of a product beyond how it is produced, less is more. The closer the product is grown or raised to its final destination the better as far as the environment is concerned. Fuel and refrigeration used in transporting farm goods contribute significantly to their carbon footprint.

Seasonality can play a big part in defining local or local-er. You can buy local strawberries in your community in June, most likely. But if you want fresh strawberries in colder months, local may be farther away. Seasonality can also override local in that more devoted locavores might consider skipping items that are not available locally in the winter.

The economic impact of shopping local is also more impactful the closer it is to the customer. When you buy goods from within your own community -- like from a CSA or a farm stand -- those dollars circulate seven times or more before leaving the community.

The best way to define local is personally. Sometimes eating local is doing better than you have done previously. Maybe you have been buying carrots from across the country when they are available easily from a farmer near you.

Here are two ways to reexamine your own "localness." First, pick a meal you love to make at home. This past Feburary I picked a beef stew. I was all excited to do this exercise with some beautiful stew beef I got from a farmer less than 40 miles from my house. Plus I had canned some of the tomatoes from the previous summer's garden. I was feeling pretty cocky. Boy, was I surprised to find out that my stew ingredients traveled over 17,000 miles! It was a real eye-opener.

Here is a second way. Open your fridge and make a list of the most local and least local items. On the "not so local' list, refine it further with a final list of items that you could probably get more locally with very little effort. I developed a worksheet to help you. You can download it here as a part of the Ultimate Farmer's Market Guide (with over 40 pages of great tips like this "Grade Your Fridge" challenge). May I also suggest that if you have a young person in the house, getting them to grade you and your fridge is really fun. Add up the miles and then get to work on defining your own personal definition of local!


Dana DiPrima is the founder of the For Farmers Movement. For Farmers supports American farmers by sharing their stories, replacing myths with facts, and providing them with mini-grants and other helpful resources. Dana is the host of One Bite is Everything, the podcast that helps you have a big impact on your health, your community, and the planet, through tiny, informed choices. She authors a weekly letter in addition to this blog. You can subscribe here. And you can join the For Farmers Movement to support your farmers here. You can also follow her on Instagram and Threads.


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