Promoting Local Food Systems for Community and Economic Development

About the Author

Rick Morse

Rick Morse is an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government.

Rick Morse is a School of Government faculty member.

By now most people have at least heard of the “local foods” movement. Thanks to Michael Pollan and his compatriots, terms like “locavore” and “foodshed” have made their way into our lexicon. The idea here is to create “more locally based, self-reliant food economies.” The argument is part of a larger one about sustainability, that “sustainable local food systems” are better for public health, the environment, and the local economy.  Thus developing local foods systems can be seen as a strategy for sustainable community and economic development. This post discusses why this may be the case and offers several examples of how local governments and other community institutions can play an active role in developing local food systems.

First of all, the why. There are many arguments in favor of local food systems. First, local foods are fresher and less processed, and therefore thought to be more healthy.  A major research effort at MIT recommends a reorientation toward local food systems as a key strategy in addressing an epidemic of childhood obesity. Local foods are also seen as better for the environment as less fossil fuels are consumed in transporting them. Furthermore, local food systems emphasize smaller-scale farms that employ more sustainable farming methods. The local food movement is also viewed as a way to strengthen local economies by supporting family farms and keeping money circulating in the community. Furthermore, the components of a strong local food economy such as farmer’s markets, community gardens, and grocery stores and restaurants that feature local foods can be seen as amenities attractive to the creative class.

Dr. Alice Ammerman, a professor at UNC’s Gillings School of Public Health, is currently leading a sustainable agriculture project that will, in part, empirically examine these assumptions about local food systems. Specifically, her team, according to the Daily Tar Heel, is examining “whether eating locally improves health and if local ‘food systems’ can address health, environmental and economic issues.” A blog has been set up for the project and includes many links to additional information and resources.

If community leaders, including community and economic development practitioners, want to take steps to promote local food systems, what kinds of things can they do? The following are few strategies to consider:

  • Farmer’s Markets are perhaps the first and most obvious strategy. The USDA is making a big push to promote farmer’s markets and provides a lot of information about them on their website. NC State Cooperative Extension also provides resources on its “Market Ready” website.

There are many other strategies worth mentioning here, such as assisting the development of local food cooperatives, community-supporting agriculture operations (CSAs), agriculture conservation easements, and utilizing economic development marketing to promote local foods. The bottom-line is that there are numerous strategies that to some extent all require some degree of public-private partnerships. Local governments clearly can play a critical role, but those efforts need be in concert with other groups and organizations in the community (hence the importance of establishing a local food policy council). Like most successful community development efforts, developing sustainable local food systems requires partnership synergy.

What experience have you had with the development of sustainable local food systems? What works? What doesn’t? Do you see it as an effective component of an overall set of community and economic development strategies?


8 Responses to “Promoting Local Food Systems for Community and Economic Development”

  1. Lisa Stifler

    The NY Times published a story on March 26 on some of the problems associated with local food movements. The article focuses on problems in Vermont around the shortage of slaughterhouses for the local meat market, but there are similar problems related to processing and distribution facilities for produce. There are a variety of projects around NC that have either already or are looking at developing food processing and distribution centers and slaughterhouses, including the Orange County example highlighted in this post.

    The article can be found at:

  2. It seems that there’s a new trend in ‘green restaurants’ these days. Up-scale restaurants featuring only ‘locally-grown’ products and meals which rotate around the fruits + vegetables recently harvested. From “The Farm” in athens, GA to about a dozen others in cities like boulder, co and pasadena, ca, this trend seems to be catching on as far as the number of restaurants converting their menu over to more ‘localized’ food offerings.

    Hopefully the trend will continue down to more reasonably priced venues.

  3. The problem with local and green produce and meats is that it seems to be an excuse for local business to overcharge, it is true that they do not have the benefits of economies of scale and immense buying power but the mark up must significantly higher.

    Part of the problem is may lie in the fact that the restaurants that sell locally produced food mainly cater towards the higher scoio-economic groups. I am sure that the trend will spread and eventually reach more reasonably priced venues. In Sweden for instance organic and locally produced milk is outselling the standard milks in many cities at the moment.

  4. Community gardens are a pillar of some of the efforts here in Miami Dade county. The problem is that city ordinances are still behind the times. We tired to sell some of the produce left over at subsidized prices only to have the city shut our efforts down,,,And we were doing this in one of the poorest neighborhoods where people do not have access to fresh local produce.

    Thnks for the post rick.

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