There has been much debate over the merits of local, small-scale food systems vs. global food systems. Proponents of local and regional food systems argue that the food provided is fresher, more nutritious, grown or raised more sustainably, and has fewer chemicals.[i] On top of these perks is the added benefit of supporting local communities and their farmers. Anyone who has the financial means should make an effort to shop more locally-sourced produce and meat for these reasons.
However, organic, local food is often more expensive because it is coming from smaller farms and is more expensive to produce. This harkens back to the idea of economies of scale; the more of a product a manufacturer produces, the more the cost of production decreases, which in turns decreases the price for consumers.[ii] Local farms are limited in the amount they can produce compared to globalised farming corporations. This drives the price up – resulting in local produce or meat costing more money. This creates an issue of accessibility for people with less financial resource to spend on food, so that the more large-scale food producers can be beneficial in providing this demographic access to affordable food.
This blog will explore the benefits of local or regional farming, and attempt to provide a more comprehensive, inclusive solution to provide people of all socioeconomic levels with access to nutritious food while supporting local communities.
Local or Regional Food Production and Distribution
There are many benefits, both for one’s health and one’s community, of buying locally or regionally-sourced food. In the production of locally and regionally-sourced food, farmers cut out middlemen who can often be involved in the processing, transporting, and selling of food. Thus, there is a much more direct relationship between the grower and the consumer. In this direct-to-consumer market, there are several options for accessing the food: farmer’s markets, community supported agriculture (CSAs), or other direct-to-consumer programmes such as pick-your-own farms.
According to the USDA, farmers’ markets have increased in the US from 1,755 in 1994 to 7,175 in 2011.[iii] Farmers’ markets are one of the primary ways to access locally-grown food, as they can be utilised to increase access to food for people of all socioeconomic levels. In CSAs, members purchase a share of a regional farmer’s crop, and then receive deliveries of that crop weekly or bi-weekly from June until October or November. Payment is usually up front, which allows the farmer some security and capital to plan for the upcoming season. However, some CSAs have a wider variety of payment plans including payment in installations, acceptance of food stamps, or scholarship shares.[iv] Other direct-to-consumer options include pick-your-own farms or gleaning programmes in which consumers are invited to harvest crops that have been left in farmer’s fields.[v]
These sourcing methods are all beneficial because they provide local farmers with much needed financial support, and thus are investing money back into the community. Furthermore, the food provided can be healthier because unlike global farming corporations that focus on quantity and transportability over nutrient-content, local or regional farmers are not constricted by this need. Additionally, local food is fresher because it can be harvested closer to ripeness, which also increases its nutrient content.[vi] One study conducted by Monclair State University found that the Vitamin C content of broccoli was cut in half when it was shipped across the country compared to when it was sourced locally.[vii] There is also less opportunity for contamination that can occur in the large food processing plants due to the sheer volume of food they process.[viii]
There are, however, several barriers for farmers who wish to engage in this direct-to-consumer production. There are high start-up costs and a regulatory environment, at least in the US, geared towards corporate farming. Furthermore, local systems experience a gap in infrastructure such as processing plants or transportation. Brian Williams, a local food planner based in Columbus, Ohio, argues that without enough infrastructure, a community could never rely solely on local or regionally-sourced food.[ix] One solution to the lack of infrastructure has been the creation of “food hubs.” The USDA’s working definition of a food hub is, “a business or organisation that actively manages the aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified food products, primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.”[x] Food hubs are a promising development to address this lack of infrastructure and increase farmer’s retail options.
Using Local or Regional Food to Increase Access to Food
As previously mentioned, food sourced locally is more nutritious than food bought from a larger corporation due to the method of growing and shorter transportation times. Furthermore, locally-sourced food is a good way to invest in the local community and the wellbeing of its members. However, this food, while healthier, is often more expensive, which limits its accessibility to people of varying socioeconomic levels.
Here we will explore one method that has been implemented to increase access to locally-sourced food. One study done by researchers at Washington State University looked at the potential for farmers’ markets to address gaps in food justice. The state of Washington has two Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs aimed at increasing the accessibility of healthy food to low-income households. One programme targets families eligible for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) programme and provides them ten $2 checks that are redeemable at participating farmers’ markets, and also teaches them about the benefits of healthy eating. In 2009, that programme provided local farmers with $794,938 in sales through the WIC vouchers. The second programme targets low-income seniors and provides them up to $40 per season for use at farmers’ markets or direct purchase from farmers with delivery to senior homes. In 2009, that programme provided $700,312 to farmers through the vouchers. Additionally, some farmers’ markets accept SNAP benefits (previously known as food stamps).[xi]
[Related: Food bank use is on the rise]
This study ultimately found that farmers’ markets in both rural and urban areas can help alleviate food deserts with the caveat that the rural farmers’ markets are less likely to accept the vouchers and SNAP benefits. They also concluded that of the markets in urban food deserts that collected WIC and Senior Vouchers, several would be hurt financially if this payment option was not available to the lower-income population.[xii] While this study only looked at farmers’ markets in the state of Washington, it provides an important case for exploring the use of government benefits to increase access to healthier food in food deserts and provide a form of increased financial stability for local farmers. This solution may not be sustainable for all communities or for all times of the year, but it demonstrates that locally-sourced, nutritious food need not be reserved exclusively for those who can afford to pay the elevated prices, but rather can be an inclusive tool for ensuring that all members of a community have access to healthy food.