What Does Local Actually Mean?

An Explanation of Local Food:
What does Local Actually Mean?

It’s indisputable that the Local food movement has grown rapidly over the past several years. The evidence of this expansion is often found right in front of us, from the colorful signs in our grocery stores to the bustling farmers’ markets downtown. Eaters have made their intentions clear to shops and producers—with sales of locally made and grown foods increasing from $5 Billion in 2008 to $12 Billion in 2014.

SalesGrowthAs a farm that grows fresh greens for our neighbors, we’re motivated by our customers’ support and their increasing demand for products like the ones that we offer. We’re proud to sell our produce within a close radius of our farm, and to call our food Local. What we’ve come to realize, however, is that “Local Food” has taken on a variety of meanings over the years. So, when you’re standing in front of the shelf and comparing options, who is to say that the greens you pick up actually match YOUR definition of what you value as Local?

To help with this, we’ll tease out common perceptions about the term Local, explore what the word means, and offer a few takeaways on what the benefits of Local foods CAN BE for you, your community, and your planet at large.

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A Common Perception of Local Food:

Although this is likely an overreach, we don’t feel that it’s unfair to say that shoppers often conflate foods that they see are “Locally Produced” with characteristics that they personally are seeking out or hold in high regard. For instance, prior to writing this, we conducted a very scientific questionnaire, and asked a few people what came to mind when they thought about Local food and Local farms.

Among the responses we received, here are some the following highlights.

Local Food:

“Good Quality”

“Carefully Grown”

“Better for the Environment”

“Recently Harvested”

Local Farms:

“Small Scale”

“Doesn’t use pesticides”

“Sells nearby”

“Can visit and meet your farmer”

We weren’t surprised by these answers, but we did find them to be quite interesting. The statements support the observation that Local Food and Farms have some sort of ideological meaning to consumers, which goes beyond their proximity to a grocery store. We then arrive at the question: “If Local doesn’t necessarily equal all of those things, what DOES it mean?”

The Definition of Local

As has been the case with many of the items we’ve discussed in our articles, Local does not have one clear, regulated definition in the United States. Because the word has been frequently used in an interchangeable manner, the lack of clarity is understandable. It follows, then, that it’s worth considering the literal meaning of the word. For this, we’ll turn to the Merriam Webster English Dictionary.

The three most relevant definitions for the way that we use the word Local in our food systems are:


1:  characterized by or relating to position in space :  having a definite spatial form or location

2a:  of, relating to, or characteristic of a particular place :  not general or widespread b: of, relating to, or applicable to part of a whole

3a :  primarily serving the needs of a particular limited district b: of a public conveyance: making all the stops on a route

Therefore, Local means some sort of specific area that has a relationship to a broader or larger area. Building on those points of understanding, it makes sense that Local is a relative or subjective term. The specific and broad areas in question, are dependent on whoever or whatever is making observations about them.

Basically, this means that a person buying food in Austin, Texas is going to have a completely different idea of what constitutes Local food than someone in Boston, Massachusetts. That scenario may seem obvious, but the same idea of subjectivity could also apply to different neighborhoods in Boston, or even to different individuals with unique perspectives within one shared neighborhood. This lack of consensus is why we often turn to our labels, producers, retailers, and government to guide our understanding. But, that dependence may not be such a wise idea after all.

The Legalese Behind Local

In 2008, the Farm Act stated that a product can be marketed as locally or regionally produced if the location where it was purchased is within 400 miles of its point of origin, or within state boundaries. To offer some context, that means that your Local food could be coming from the complete opposite side of your state, or even several states away! Although some states implement more stringent standards that require food labeled Local to be produced within their boundaries, this could still result in some mysteriousness on whether or not your “locally grown” veggies are coming from 400, 40, or 4 miles away from where you bought them.

Also important to note is that there are no additional constraints enforced by the government regarding the scale, growing methods, output of quality, or any other characteristics that we found are commonly attributed to Local farms. So, again, these values can be false assumptions made by consumers.

Knowing this, where do we go from here? How should we think about Local food?

What is the Value of being Local?

At this point, our suggestion is NOT to discount or reduce the importance of Local producers. Instead, we highly recommend that you learn about and engage with your farmers, and Make the Thoughtful Choice about who you’re buying food from.

In doing so, you will understand what values THEY embed within their Local label, rather than what you interpret the classification to mean. To be better equipped at recognizing what the Local label COULD mean, we find it helpful to detail what the benefits of Local food and farms CAN BE.

Local Food as a Safer, Environmentally-Friendly Alternative to a Globalized Food System

One aspect of locally grown and sold food is that it occupies a role separate from products within a so-called Globalized Food System. This means that even if food is grown 400 miles away, it’s likely still produced in a similar climate and has similar seasonality to the location in which it is being bought. Additionally, it likely isn’t being shipped overseas and being handled in as many steps as non-Local food. Those qualities result in a shorter, more intimate food-chain between producer and consumer, which reduces both the carbon emissions due to transportation and the chance of cross-contamination due to improper handling.

Local Food as a Means of Improving Food Security

By growing food for nearby communities, Local farms can help bolster the resiliency of a region in terms of its food security and ability to provide for itself. This occurs in multiple ways. One way that this is accomplished is that Local farms are able to ensure that nutritious food is available to Local populations, and lately, more and more farmers’ markets and grocers even accept SNAP benefits or similar income supplements for good, healthy Local food. A second example of how food security can be improved is that as opposed to large, industrialized farms that monocrop, Local farms TEND to be smaller, grow a diversity of produce, and foster sustainable direct-to-consumer relationships that ultimately help protect and preserve the farmer and farmland.

Local Food as a Way of Preserving Local Identity

The shortened, more intimate food chains found in Local food systems often contribute to communities developing their own customs involving farming, cooking, and eating. Such foodways become important pieces of a population’s Local identity. By fostering this regionalism surrounding food, a community enables its culture to thrive, as opposed to allowing Local culinary customs to be obscured by the imported, culturally irrelevant food coming from global, industrialized food systems.

There are many other benefits and characteristics of Local food that we simply do not have the space to explain here. That said, the above is a sample of the items that we consider when we think about our farm and how we fit into the food systems of the communities that we grow for. Much work still needs to be done, from the individual to the global level, but the progress can start with you and FreshBox Farms.

What the Future Means for Local?

For just a glimpse of what the future might hold for Local food systems, it’s useful to consider how aspects of a global, industrialized food system, which many people do enjoy, are productively being brought into the folds of Local foodways. There are a number of great examples of these changes.

One such case could be locally-sourced meal-kit businesses – like that of our sales partner, Just Add Cooking. These companies deliver easy-to-cook meals consisting of Local ingredients, while offering the convenience of saving time on grocery shopping. Another example would be an organization that operates at a national or international scale, while still supporting Local food security and cultural appropriateness. Wholesome Wave, for instance, has established a country-wide network of farmers’ markets and grocers at which the value of SNAP benefits will be doubled when buying produce. This makes fresh, Local, and culturally relevant produce more accessible to groups of people that may have previously been economically limited to buying mass-produced, unhealthy foods. For our last example, we find that the modern realm of agriculture and agtech offer enormous promise for sustainably growing Local produce, improving food security and fostering a Local identity.

FreshBox Farms Grows Local Food

FreshBox Farms grows at our hydroponic farm in Millis, MA using Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) – practices that enable us to farm year-round. We offer fresh produce to Local Boston-area consumers within 24 hours of harvest, regardless of if there’s a foot of snow on the ground or if the sun is shining bright. By placing our farm in close proximity to an urban center, we’re able to provide consistently impressive yields of nutritious, delicious leafy greens, helping to support Local food security. Additionally, we use 99% less water and land than traditional agriculture, and our produce doesn’t require thousands of food miles to be spent on its transportation to a retail location – all of our sales partners are located within 100 miles of our farm! Finally, because of our CEA technology, we’re able to grow an enormous variety of cultivars that otherwise would not be able to grow in our climate region, as well as propagate particular heirloom varieties of crops, all of which permit us to help contribute to the preservation of a Local food identity and biodiversity.

Support your Local Farmer. FreshBox Farms is The Thoughtful Choice. Find out where you can purchase our greens by visiting our Locations page.

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