In the early 1900s, nearly 40 percent of Americans lived on farms, and most food was locally grown and marketed. Food processing amounted to canning, dehydrating, salting, or smoking, and few foods traveled more than a day to market. Consumption was dictated by local seasonality. Following World War II, transportation costs dropped and improvements in refrigeration allowed perishable items such as meats and produce to be shipped across the globe affordably.

In the late 1960s, a desire to eat locally was aligned with a budding environmental movement. A more recent renewal of that aspiration has gained momentum. As interest and demand for local foods grow, so do questions about what constitutes “local” foods, what characterizes local food markets, and what the impact of local food is on economic development, health, and environ-mental quality.

Local food defined by travel, although distances vary

“Local foods” is often thought of as a geographic concept, referring to the distance from production to consumption. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines its 2007 word of the year, “locavore,” as a person who tries to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius. However, there is little consensus that 100 miles equates to local.

Several food retail companies have adopted their own local food definitions. Wal-Mart, for example, defines local food as that produced within a State’s borders. Dorothy Lane Market—a small independent supermarket with three gourmet stores in Dayton, OH—considers foods grown or raised within a 250-mile radius of Dayton as local. According to Whole Foods, a “natural” and organic food retailer, products must travel less than a day (7 or fewer hours by car or truck) from farm to store to be designated as local. However, most Whole Foods’ stores have established even shorter maximum distances.

Federal and some State policymakers also have their own definitions. According to the definition adopted by the U.S. Congress in the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act, “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” can only travel less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced. Vermont law requires that “local” items originate within 30 miles of the point of sale.

Distances perceived to constitute local may also vary by region. Population density is important because what is considered local in a sparsely populated area may be quite different in more heavily populated regions. For example, people accustomed to driving great distances for specialized services or goods may regard a day’s drive as local, whereas the same distance is unlikely to be regarded as “local” by a resident of a large city.

Local food definitions may even vary within the same region. In 2009, four farmers’ markets located in central Virginia defined “local” as goods grown or produced within a 100-mile radius and in Virginia. Two other central Virginia farmers’ markets required food to be grown within a 75-mile radius, and one required food to be grown within the county.

What do consumers look for in local foods?

In addition to geographic proximity, consumers ascribe other characteristics to local foods. Consumers in a national study by the Food Marketing Institute in 2009 cited freshness (82 percent), support for the local economy (75 percent), and knowing the source of the product (58 percent) as reasons for buying local food. Important features of local food marketing channels are that production and distribution occur in a specific region, and consumers are informed about the local nature of products, for example, through personal communication.

Several studies have identified consumer perceptions of local food, including that local produce is fresher looking and tasting, of higher quality, and a better value for the price. Some consumers associate local foods with environmentally sustainable production methods, such as limited use of chemicals, energy-based fertilizers, and pesticides. Consumers also may extend local food production methods to include fair farm labor practices and animal welfare. In some consumers’ minds, local foods are synonymous with small farms that are committed to the local community through social and economic relationships.

Surveys to elicit consumer attitudes about local foods suggest that consumers may be willing to pay a premium for in-State products, from 9 percent for a specialty food product in New England (maple syrup, salsa, cookies, etc.) and Colorado potatoes, to 50 percent for fresh Florida-grown produce. Consumers with higher willingness to pay a premium for local food also tend to place greater importance on quality, nutrition, the environment, and helping farmers in their State.