USDA Wants You to Buy Local Food

A new USDA initiative aims to promote and assist shoppers who want to buy local food, but it's not entirely clear how it will work.

September 16, 2009

The government wants to give you field-fresh food.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—On Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is going local. In an effort to get both consumers as well as schools, hospitals, and other institutions to purchase locally grown food, the agency launched a "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program, which will provide $65 million in funding to farmers and small-grower coops for things like direct marketing and grants that will help them cut costs on processing and shipping.


THE DETAILS: In a press release about the new program, Vilsack was quoted as saying, "Reconnecting consumers and institutions with local producers will stimulate economies in rural communities, improve access to healthy, nutritious food for our families, and decrease the amount of resources to transport our food." Merrigan also noted that the program will help farmers develop strong local and regional food systems, and promote sustainable agricultural practices. How the agency plans to do that is still unclear. The secretaries announced four specific initiatives aimed at promoting the use of local food in schools, hospitals, and health care facilities; creating a cooperative program that will provide opportunities for small meat producers to sell their products across state lines; establishing new farmer and business cooperatives; and creating a grant for food processors in the Pacific Northwest that will help them reduce energy consumption. Aside from those, they said that efforts will be made to "use existing USDA programs to break down structural barriers that have inhibited local food systems from thriving."

WHAT IT MEANS: This is welcome news for anyone who wants easier access to healthy, fresh, locally-grown food. "On the face of it, it looks great," says Jessica Prentice, the local food advocate who coined the term "locavore" in 2004 and who wrote a book on the benefits of eating local called Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection.

"This is what we want our USDA to be doing, connecting people to their food source." And it also means healthier food for the planet. "When you start to go local and get to know your farmer, it inevitably pushes things to a more humane, sustainable approach," Prentice says. When you're asking a farmer what he sprays on his crops or whether another allows her chickens to run free, "the farmer becomes accountable to you," she says.

At the same time, big agribusinesses could take advantage of this and start pushing "local" as the new "all-natural"—and many already have. Frito-Lay has already started marketing its use of potatoes grown near potato-chip factories as local, and Heinz is doing the same thing with canned tomatoes. In some areas of the country, animals raised in polluting concentrated animal-feeding operations could be considered "local," "but that doesn't mean that people should eat them," Prentice notes.

Going local with your food is all about asking questions. If you really want to know your farmer and your food, here are three questions you should ask:

• Where was it grown? Shopping at farmer's markets offers easy access to fresh, local food—provided it wasn't shipped cross-country. Some markets simply resell produce from other vendors, so if you see someone selling watermelons in April at your local market, ask where they were grown. At the grocery store, "local" produce can get mixed in with stuff from the other side of the planet. Scrutinize the little sticker; the most recent farm bill made country-of-origin labeling mandatory on produce, and some stickers even specify which state your apples were grown in.

• What do you consider local? Potatoes grown near a potato-chip plant that then ships the chips cross-country are only local to the potato chip factory—not you. Not everyone agrees on what "local" really means, and grocery stores are particularly vague when it comes to "local" labels, applying them to coffee beans shipped across the globe to a nearby roasting plant or simply hanging a "local" sign over an entire produce section that includes peaches from Costa Rica and cherries from Canada, and, oh by the way, a box of blueberries from one local farmer. When you see a vague sign, ask the store manager which produce or products are truly local.

• Should you always go local? Buying local does boost regional economies and allows farmers to benefit directly from your purchase. A study from London's New Economics Foundation found that a dollar spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy. However, research at the Rodale Institute has found that organic farming methods are capable of sequestering as much as 25 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S. And studies suggest that most of a food's carbon footprint comes from how it's produced and packaged, not from its transportation to the point of sale. So in terms of reducing emissions that contribute to global warming, organic trumps local, and locally grown organic is the gold standard. Shopping at farmer's markets allows you to ask questions directly of growers who may not be USDA organic–certified but do use organic methods. But when origin is in doubt, opt for organic.