At The Food Institute, we have a little saying we like to repeat: we cover the entire food industry, from farm to fork. But the distance between the two seems to be shrinking as American consumers are exhibiting rising demand for locally-grown and produced foods.
According to industry estimates, local food sales surged to $11.7 billion in 2014, up 57% from about $5 billion in 2008. The food isn't coming from one particular source; in fact, this USDA map showcases 4,000 local and regional food businesses and projects that range from food hubs to farm-to-school programs to initiatives aimed at expanding access to healthy food for those living in low-income communities. The raw data is very impressive, and underlines how the local food movement is decentralized.
Perhaps this success prompted the second year of Local Foods, Local Places, the federal initiative that seeks to build strong local food systems. The program has been helped by over $800 million in investments from USDA targeted towards more than 29,100 local and regional food businesses and infrastructure projects over the past six years. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack provided powerful analysis of the trend:
"Local food creates new market opportunities for farmers, brings fresh meals into schools and other institutions, expands healthy food access to underserved communities, and builds infrastructure needed to support ranchers and other meat processors. By investing in projects at the local level, this Administration is encouraging growth in this sector and creating new opportunities for families who live in rural America."
Providing healthier food for the country's underserved communities while also bringing economic opportunity to rural America is a win-win. And as the country moves closer and closer to a fully-local diet, it's important to note that smaller operations are poised to take full advantage of the close relationships necessary to foster a local food chain.
So, while it may no be possible for every city to enjoy local food 100% of the time, it's important for producers and packers to note the growing importance of the "locally-grown" label to the American consumer. Decentralizing production in order to serve markets at the local level may very well be the wave of the future for the American food industry.