Local Food Systems (NORA)

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Local Food Systems

Initial Version (January 29, 2013) by Brenna Davidson, student at Truman State University

Why do we need local food systems?

We all understand the need for food. But not all food is created equal.

For a complete and healthy community to function there must be a food source for its population. The status quo for American communities is to import food from all corners of the world for local consumption, a practice that not only wastes money and resources, but also drives up the cost of food. The food consumed is processed and manipulated to survive the trip it must make to the destination. Additives and genetic engineering have degraded the taste and nutritional quality of our food.

Why are we doing this to our communities? Why are we making conscious decisions to ignore ultimately cheaper, viable, and nutritious options? What can be done to improve the situation in which we have put ourselves?

Three steps must be taken to reach a goal of a manageable system of feeding a community: keep it local, keep it simple, and keep it sustainable.

Keep It Local

"Don't eat anything that took more energy to ship than to grow."
Carrie Cizauskas

Keeping it local means exactly that. Simply grow the food locally that can be produced in the community and serve it locally. This eliminates the need for fuel, transportation, and additives. It also creates local employment and keeps food costs low. Not all food can be grown locally depending on demand and environmental conditions, yet greenhouses and specialized urban farming can overcome these obstacles to produce a nutritious yield of food for a community.

There are many successful farming cooperatives across the United States and around the world. The state of Tennessee has over a hundred farmers markets and co-ops operating across the state. OurCoop.com is a great resource for locating local markets and food producers.

Producing and consuming locally grown food reduces carbon emissions from transportation and can help ensure ethical treatment of farm workers. By purchasing food that is trucked across the country or even the globe, you are paying the base price for the product itself and to fill the air with noxious exhaust fumes that could be saved by buying locally. Much of the cost of food is not paid with money, but with sacrifice. Pollution created by transport is forcing us to sacrifice the health of our climate and our people.

When you produce the food yourself or buy from trusted local farmers, you are ensuring that no unfairly treated laborers were involved in the harvest process as well. Farmers’ markets enable farmers to keep 80 to 90 cents of each dollar spent by the consumer.

There is a multitude of resources available on the web on how to eat local. Sustainable Table is a great place to find farmers markets and local food vendors, as well as information on how to lead a sustainable life from the food perspective. With recipes, newsletters, and a “Shop Sustainable” section on how to shop for responsible food sources in traditional settings, Sustainable Table is a great resource.

OurCoop.com offers an interactive map to find farming co-ops in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.

Another great online resource is Local Harvest. Users are able to purchase food from sustainable farmers if local food is not available in their area. Local Harvest also provides a source for organic, free range turkeys every year near the Thanksgiving season. This site hosts a myriad of information on finding local organic food from farms, farmers markets, restaurants, and grocery stores.

Many people are fully embracing the local life-style. For example, Madeline Keenan and her husband have developed a fully self-sustaining farm and home where they grow their own food and sell the surplus to perform maintenance for the farm as a whole. They are focused on education in nearby communities and host classes and workshops to promote their sustainable lifestyle. Visitors learn to plant and harvest crops for fields of all sizes. Children are welcome since Sycamore Bend Farms places high value on learning where food comes from and how it is grown early in life. As they become trusted sources of local food and products like goat milk soaps, they are enriching their community and creating a viable alternative to commercially shipped and produced food.

Keep It Simple

Keeping it simple is also important in achieving a functioning food production system. It doesn’t have to be a large, complicated system. Depending on the size of the community, a handful of people can work together to produce a surplus of food. Staying on the local scale also keeps the system simple since there is no need to organize a complex delivery system. A small tract of fertile, well-managed land or greenhouse is able to provide staggering amounts of fresh, nutritious food for a multitude of people.

Keeping it simple also eliminates the need for preservatives and food additives. If you are producing your own food or buying from local farmers, there is no need to add chemicals for preservation or hormones to enhance growth. You can control what you eat and feed to your family. This guarantees a more sustainable future for our livestock and crops as well as a healthy alternative to the large, commercial farming status quo.

Producing enough food for a family or for a small community does not warrant genetic engineering of the plants or animals. If we do not expect spotless apples and mammoth sized livestock and purchase from responsible local vendors, there is no reason to pump our food full of artificial chemicals and hormones or breed super strains of crops.

Keep It Sustainable

Lastly and most importantly, keeping the system sustainable will ensure a bright future of food production. This involves farming techniques to improve the soil and rotate crops to regain nitrogen and nutrients for food production as well as using resources sparingly. Sustainability also translates to the human side of food production. If there is no one to continue the system after the present generation of farmers, there will be no system. People must work together in a way that will ensure the existence of the program for years to come.

Education is another element to keeping it sustainable. Proper education of children on healthy farming and nutrition guarantees that there will be a new generation of sensible, sustainable farmers for a bright future. Teach children and other adults new to the local food movement how to grow and find local food for their families as well as the reasoning behind why they should do this. We are living in an age when children do not know where food comes from or how their food was produced. We need to change this. We all remember an afternoon spent with a parent or grandparent learning lessons that we would never forget. Food production should be included in the regular rotation of lessons on which we place importance for our children.

Building a sustainable local food production system is not an easy task, nor is it a temporary solution to an age-old problem. To truly fix the broken system we currently operate under, we must make changes at the ground level. Fundamental changes in the way we produce food for our nation, cities, towns, and communities must take place. If we continue down the path we have laid for ourselves, importing food from foreign countries at high prices, relying on preservatives to keep the food fresh, and using once-fertile ground as parking lots, we will rapidly undermine our future.

Community Gardens

A small plot of land can be set aside for a community garden along with an optional greenhouse for more temperature-sensitive crops. A number of people or the entire community may work together to produce a variety of crops that will feed multiple families. Once the crops are available for harvest, the group can distribute the food throughout the local co-op network or simply use the produce to feed their families. Keeping the operation on a scale of three to five families helps ensure that the workload is man- ageable and realistic. One cannot feed an entire army with a community garden.

Creating a Community Garden

Any community with willing volunteers and a plot of land can start to produce their own produce. The American Community Garden Association provides a step-by-step instruction manual for creating a community garden anywhere. Contact your local Parks and Recreation department for information on creating a community garden in a city park or on public land.

See also: Urban Farming

Local Farming Cooperatives (Co-ops)

A farming co-op is defined as a collective of food producers working together to create an abundance of a crop or harvest. Co-ops can be as large or as small as needed. Many operate farmer’s markets to sell produce. For example, Sycamore Bends Farm produces food for the Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Farmers Market and serves as a member of a local, all-organic co-op. They produce enough crops to sell the surplus and supply the community. This is an example of a small co-op that aims to produce enough food for its members and for a small community of a few families.

Another approach involves existing farmers: Local farmers can “band together” to work as a team. They combine their crops after taking enough to feed their families then sell the surplus for a profit to be dis- tributed throughout the co-op. Many co-ops open small stores to sell surplus goods and use the profits to improve and maintain the operation. Those working together with prior experience and fertile land can produce a surplus of food quickly and efficiently. This is a more conventional example of a contemporary co-op, since modern communities rarely share the land or food itself.

Creating a Co-Op

Many guides exist to starting up a new cooperative for all types of topics. A USDA article outlines the process extensively from the ground up for a farming co-op. It gives step-by-step information on creating the management structure and how to acquire licenses from government agencies. Another wiki offers a more user-friendly approach to information on starting your own co-op.

Note: more elements of a local food system should be added on this page. There is also some need for discussion of local food policy that can help foster the emergence of a local food system.


Food Program”. The Sustainable Table. Grace Communications.

“Our Coop”. Our Coop. Tennessee Farmers Cooperative.

“Starting a Cooperative”. Cultivate.coop.

Galen Rapp and Gerald Ely. Revised 1996. How to Start a Cooperative. Cooperative Information Report No. 7. US Department of Agriculture.

Agroecosystems Management Program, Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, The Ohio State University. Local Food Systems. Website dedicated to helping entrepreneurs to start local food systems. This page is also discussed on the Local Food Systems page on P2P.


Feenstra, Gail. “Local Food Systems and Sustainable Communities”. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture. (1997) 12: 28-36. Web. 20 Sep. 2012.

“Local Harvest: Real food, Real Farmers, Real Community”. Local Harvest. Local Harvest Inc, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2012.

Qazi, Joan and Selfa, Theresa. “Place, Taste, or Face-to-Face? Understanding Producer–Consumer Networks in ‘‘Local’’ Food Systems in Washington State. Agriculture and Human Values. (2005) 22: 451-464. Web. 20 Sep. 2012.

“Sycamore Bend Farm”. Facebook page. Accessed 12 Nov 2012.

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