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Local food systems matter for food security. “Buy local”

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In the context of food security and sustainable food supply, particularly in developing countries, where food poverty is more important, strengthening local food systems is the subject of many discussions. Many studies have shown the significant benefits of thriving local food systems in rural Africa, Asia, and parts of Europe in the presence of food poverty.  Let us see, why is it important to have local food systems?

What is a food system?  According to literature “A food system is an interconnected web of human activities that links food production, processing, distribution, and consumption with human health and the environment. Organizing frameworks operate at multiple, interdependent scales from household to agroecosystem, community, regional, state, national, and global levels. All aspects of food systems are shaped by their cultural, socioeconomic, political, and environmental contexts”. Thus, the system involves different elements as shows in figure 1.

Figure 1. Food system elements

What is a local food system and how it differs from a general food system?  Although there is no consensus on a definition for a local food system (specially the distance between the producer and the consumer that constitutes “local”), it is basically a collaborative network that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management in order to enhance the environmental, economic, and social health of a particular area. 

Generally, a local food system focuses primarily on food security through local food production and consumption. The system works by selling directly to consumers (e.g., farmers’ markets, on-farm stores, community-based agriculture (CSA), food centers, grocery stores, restaurants, schools, etc.). Thus, the local food is food that is produced within a short distance of where it is consumed, often accompanied by a social structure and supply chain different from the large-scale supermarket system.

Local food systems provide greater benefits for society as a whole. It is socially, economically, and environmentally sound. Local food systems enhance local farmers and producers, directly creating new jobs, livelihoods, and economic development. Over the long term, this will mean a larger local market, which will increase the supply of local producers.  Importantly, people have increased access to healthy, fresh produce. Local food doesn’t have to travel that far to get on the plate. It benefits the local economy by supporting local farmers and others. Besides the advantage of freshness, producers who meet the needs of local customers are not limited by problems of harvesting, packaging, transport, and conservation quality. Instead, they are free to select, grow and harvest their products. Thus, they can guarantee the highest qualities of freshness, nutrition, and taste. Thus, they can ensure the highest qualities of freshness, nutrition, and taste.

“Michigan State University- Extension sums up the benefit a customer would get from buying locally grown food as follows”. The summary makes you rethink your food purchasing habits. Moreover, it shows the importance of being “buy local” and being so local.

  • Locally grown food is full of flavor. When grown locally, crops are picked at the peak of maturity rather than early to be shipped to your local retail store for distribution. Many times, local market products have been collected within 24 hours of your purchase.
  • Eating local food is eating seasonally. The best time to eat them is when they can be bought straight from a local producer. They are full of flavor and taste better than those available in off season which traveled thousands of miles and picked before they were ripe.
  • Local food has more nutrients. Local food has less time between harvest and your table, and it’s less likely that the nutritional value has gone down. Food imported from far-away states and countries is often older, has traveled and sits in distribution centers before it gets to your store.
  • Local food supports the local economy. The money that is spent with local farmers and growers all stays close to home and is reinvested with businesses and services in your community.
  • Local food benefits the environment. By purchasing locally grown foods you help maintain farmland and green and/or open space in your community.
  • Local foods promote a safer food supply. The more steps there are between you and your food’s source the more chances there are for contamination. Food grown in distant locations has the potential for food safety issues at harvesting, washing, shipping and distribution.
  • Local growers can tell you how the food was grown. You can ask what practices they use to raise and harvest the crops. When you know where your food comes from and who grew it, you know a lot more about that food.”

The most interesting thing is, how can we improve the local food systems in order to get these benefits?  Studies show the potential ways of improving local food systems that leads to sustainable food supply and food security.  According to Williams (2007), some of them are as follows.

  1. Get local-purchasing commitments from schools, hospitals, colleges, and other institutions…Institutional markets are critical to the development of the infrastructure needed to ensure the strength of the local food sector. These institutions are empowered to integrate farmers, processors and distributors into a supply chain network. They have large enough contracts to support local producers. Their use of local produce will expose a wider range of the population to local food – not only foodies visiting a hip restaurant.
  1. Enlist the support of existing food processing and distribution businesses. … Williams points out that many smaller-scale food processors, such a family-run dairy, slaughterhouse, or produce distributor, are likely feeling the squeeze from the “our merger-happy, get-big-or-get-out business world.” There’s a good chance they would be willing to partner with farmers in the region and to seek out a niche. Communicate and discuss the possibility of serving local institutions.
  1. Build a network of local farmers who will collaborate. …While individual farmers may not be able to service the needs of a large institution, if their efforts – meat, dairy, vegetables – are pooled with those of other farmers, it could very well become a reality. There is power in numbers, as they say.
  1. Build local food economic development infrastructure… Find out what food processing services are available in the community, such as washing, packaging, hashing and shredding, and see how these businesses can get involved in the supply chain. If not, figure out which additional services are needed and present them to the community; you never know where and how jobs can be created. Financial productivity is essential to a local food system, and it must benefit everyone along the way if it is to be sustainable.

Improving the local food system is more important for developing nations in the context of sustainable food supply and food security. It helps to improve productivity and consecutively produce food. It also improves nutrition counselling through home economics programs and improves rural quality of life through community development. The local food system improves incomes, jobs and business opportunities for the poor, improving gender equality and reducing the negative impacts of climate change and environmental degradation apart from its main objective of enhancing food security. A country needs to understand its potential of local food systems and improve people’s long-term food security. Local governments and the local population need to identify potential local food varieties, local producers and local producers with other applications of agricultural policy in the area to ensure food security.

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Saman Janaranjana Herath
Saman Janaranjana Herath
PhD (NRE). MBA (Fin). Associate Professor, University of Mount Olive, North Carolina, USA. Writer,

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