Exactly WHAT Is Local Food?

Obviously, it wasn’t imported from China or Brazil, but your idea of ‘locally’ grown, and the label’s translation are likely world’s apart. Don’t believe everything you see in large print on the packaging or shelf signs. Look for the fine print that tells you where that food was grown because food that has only traveled 400 miles or less is local in some people’s eyes.

Think Walmart Defines LOCAL Like You Do?Would you call that local? I sure wouldn’t. Regional perhaps, but definitely not local. That’s like a day’s drive away. At 65 miles an hour on the interstate with no traffic lights, stop signs, pit stops or lunch breaks, that food was on the road for over 6 hours. Big retailers wouldn’t have the same definition though, because according to regulations put into place in a 2008 bill passed by the US Congress, locally grown means:

  • Produced within the state where it’s consumed
  • Transported 400 miles or less from source to consumer

Here’s a thought to ponder… Why do we need Congress to identify what ‘local’ means? Does anyone even consider this to include sources 400 miles away? Wikipedia certainly doesn’t; they define it as being nearby – in the immediate area. Is a 6-hour drive nearby? The government is somewhat confused here. I guess they forgot to consult a dictionary, which is where everyone else goes to get the definition of a word. If they had only looked it up, they would have known this concept was in error.

The True Definition of Local Is…

  • pertaining to a city, town, or small district rather than an entire state or country ~ ~ Dictionary.com
  • relating to or occurring in a particular area, city, or town ~ ~ Mirriam-Webster.com
  • Of or relating to a city, town, or district rather than a larger area ~ ~ thefreedictionary.com

Only With Food Is Local, NOT Local

When the evening news anchorman announces that police arrested a local man in connection with a crime in the community, would anyone think this included neighborhoods hundreds of miles away? No. Should this newly incarcerated person live in a nearby town the guy on the news would say something like, “Mr. Jones of Next-Town-Over,” rather than leading the viewer to get the idea he was from the city the station is broadcasting from?

When you use a hard-wired telephone to call a number outside your local area, you have to dial a 1 for long distance. Even the phone company realizes that 400 miles away are far away, not local.

Which Side of Local Are You On?

It’s pretty safe to assume that most people would not agree with this 400-mile transport distance as being local. In fact, most truly local produce might not have fancy packaging at all. I’ve yet to see “My State Corn”  on a wrapper. The season for picked-that-morning fresh sweet corn is only a few weeks long, so it’s pretty reasonable that the ‘labeling’ is a handwritten sign taped above

Definitely Locally Grown

Definitely Locally Grown

or below the pile. The same is true of locally grown strawberries, tomatoes, zucchini, and a host of other fresh produce. Fancy wrappers usually translate to well-traveled food. Read the packaging, and at least 90% of the time you’ll find that it’s source is a long way beyond local.


What if it’s loose produce, like peppers, apples, etc? If it’s in a chain grocery store, it’s not as local as they’d like you to believe. Their ‘local’ sources come from a multistate area, not farms from your area. On the left below is really fresh sweet corn that was probably picked the same morning. On the right? Corn crated for shipment, so it traveled quite a ways, and while it might meet the vision of

Not So Fresh - Shipped Long Distance

Packed For Shipping

Congress’ bill, it doesn’t match the criteria of your idea of locally grown. Read the labels on loose produce at the store!

Since we’ve always known that local meant ‘nearby or in the immediate area’ – when a consumer sees ‘local’ on the signs at the grocery store, they immediately assume it was grown where they live. In town. In the county. Not far away. Maybe up to 100 miles from farm to grocery shelves, depending on how urban the surrounding area is.

Really makes you wonder who wanted Congress to rewrite the dictionary, which everyone knows is where you find the true meaning of a word. To find truly local food, you’ll have to read the entire label – not just take the prominently placed catchy signage as truth, and toss it in your shopping cart. Someone wants you to think that long distance food was locally grown. Perhaps it’s because…

  • 35% of shoppers will buy locally grown ingredients instead of well-traveled organic
  • consumers will pay higher prices for locally grown food
  • producers view locally grown as competition for organic
  • retail chains that initiate local programs usually purchase local products from a multistate region

That report linked above actually states that consumers “have the misconception that locally grown food is more environmentally responsible,” along with a few other rather interesting tidbits on perception according to the USDA, and ultimately, the powers that be.

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.