The American Local Food Movement

In what ways is the growing drive for local food in the United States useful?

Background

Between 2002 and 2007, 76,000 new American farms came into being, according to USDA census data. In the previous five years, 87,000 farms were lost.

Though small-scale farming may never be lucrative, markets for its products are increasing dramatically in the United States. Chefs, restaurateurs, distributors, and processors are catching onto the trend and creating new local-food oriented businesses or business facets. There are growing numbers of farmers' market buyers, backyard gardeners, community gardeners, and food activists. These are people interested in connecting to the place the food they eat grows. 

The answers to why are more complicated, and lead to marked criticism and disagreement. Supporters have espoused local food for reasons, including food safety, as local food is free of the impurities of the industrial food system; health, since local food encourages a diet focused on fresh fruits and vegetables; energy sustainability, as local food causes fewer carbon dioxide emissions; community, food which is grown by the community for its people, and therefore, builds a sense community; local economy, as buying local food supports one’s immediate economy rather than a global economy; and historic/aesthetic value, since local food revives the lost art of small-scale sustainable agriculture.

Why is the American Local Food Movement Relevant?

The American local food movement plays a part in some of the most significant issues facing the US today: obesity, global trade, race equality, and climate change.

According to the CDC, over a third of US adults and over a sixth of US children are obese. Causing problems such as stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, US obesity charged $147 billion in medical costs in 2008. Though causation is complicated, local food activists blame the accessibility of corn-saturated junk foods and the inaccessibility of fresh healthy produce, most accentuated in lower income, minority neighborhoods.

Opposite sides of the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) debate continue to dispute whether genetically modified products (generally grown by large-scale farms rather than small-scale) are safe or unsafe, whether they can help battle global hunger, and whether they should be labeled or not — a debate that continues to bar a free trade agreement between the US and Europe.

Both farmers and economists are discussing the relative energy costs and environmental degradation of small-scale local food operations versus large-scale monoculture industrial operations.

Significant too is that the American local food movement demonstrates a vast citizen response to a perceived problem: large-scale, industrialized, monocultured, globally traded, unsustainable agriculture. This movement reflects significant interest in a smaller, more immediate, community-oriented systems of trade and commerce. The citizen response is slowly but surely changing the way food is grown and distributed in the US.

For most Americans, the choice of where to buy food derives not from a statistic, but from a feeling. What food tastes the best and feels the most nourishing? What did my parents feed or not feed me? Where do my friends and neighbors shop? What foods will satisfy my children?

More and more Americans are starting to answer those questions with fresh local produce. But when we start to look at who is being left out and why, important questions arise about segregation, health care, government subsidies, and climate change; that need better answers.

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