What Local Means in the Food World

FIRST PUBLISHED March 2021 Edible Communities, Edible Indy

Defining Local: what it is, and what it isn’t

Consumers are willing to pay more for locally produced foods. I mean, why wouldn’t they? When you buy local, you’re supporting your neighbors, promoting your community’s economy and protecting the environment by jumping on the sustainability bandwagon of the smaller ecological footprint of locally grown food. But what if the products you buy that are labeled local really aren’t local at all?

And for that matter, what exactly is local food? What does the word local mean to consumers, to producers, to those doing the labeling?

To explore this, we did a little face-to-face research and asked people what criteria they think make a product worthy of being labeled local. The answers varied, especially when the true origin of a product was in question.

For example: Take a guy making wooden chairs in his garage with wood and nails purchased from Home Depot. Some people would consider those chairs local, as they are locally made by a local resident, whereas others might take it a step further and want the wood to also be from within the state.

Similarly, a woman making salsa in her kitchen using tomatoes she grew in her garden but chilies imported from Mexico. Some would be OK with her product being labeled as local, while others would not.

Ask a group of people if the term local should be defined with geographical boundaries, and most everyone agrees that yes, to be considered a local product it needs to come from within a 100-mile radius and be bound by state borders. But, as it turns out, there is no one definition for what constitutes a local product, at least not from a legal standpoint. There are, however, some broad standards when it comes to distance.

In May 2010 the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledged the definition of locally and regionally produced food as referenced under the 2008 Farm Bill to mean: food raised, produced, aggregated, stored, processed and distributed in the locality or region where the final product is marketed to consumers, so that the total distance that the product travels between the farm or ranch where the product originates and the point of sale to the end consumer is at most 400 miles, or both the final market and the origin of the product are within the same state, territory or tribal land. But, adds the USDA spokesperson I talked with, “Local or regional food may mean very different things to different stakeholders, depending on a variety of factors, including where one is located or the time of year (based on growing capacity and seasonality) or what their needs or goals are for prioritizing local and regional food sourcing or marketing.”

Similarly, a spokesperson for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed that the term local is not defined on the federal level and “can be used by companies as long as it is used in a truthful and not misleading way.” As for what happens when a purveyor labels his product local when it isn’t, the FDA can “view on a case-by-case basis the context of the entire label,” but finding the time and resources to do so is challenging.

Trusting (or not) the labels on the food you buy

Fortunately, here in Central Indiana there are some organizations and individuals who are deeply invested in bringing truly local products to local consumers.

“Loose guidelines muddy the waters of what is local and what’s not,” says Mel McMahon Stone, co-owner along with her husband, Lance, of Indiana Originals, a private membership organization for locally owned businesses.

“Our goal is to help people discover and support local faster and easier and that means more than just shopping. We engage restaurants, farmers, artists, banks, accountants, crafters, manufacturers, nonprofits and more. When you see us promoting an Indianamade product, we’ve certified that it is created and/or assembled here.” As for how they make sure the products carrying the Indiana Originals logo are truly Indiana originals, Stone says all of their members are vetted and required to go through a certification process.

“All our members [businesses] are headquartered in Indiana, locally owned and operated, and not part of an out-of-state chain. We are very protective of our brand and we do not extend membership to entities that do not currently originate in Indiana,” she says. “When we have a specific Indiana-made campaign, we look for products created and manufactured here in Indiana—not just sold here. We take into consideration what our members can produce in our state and understand that some pieces of the product may have to come from or be packaged elsewhere.”

“Local or regional food may mean very different things to different stakeholders, depending on a variety of factors, including where one is located or the time of year.”

How “local” are your local farmers markets?

In order to sell anything at the Carmel Farmers Market, vendors sign a 16-page contract stipulating their products are made, raised or produced in the state of Indiana. The market board does make case-by-case exceptions, says President Ron Carter, for a few products that cannot be grown or produced in Indiana—like coffee, which in order to be sold at the CFM must be roasted and ground in state.

In an effort to ensure vendors adhere to the strict guidelines, the contract also requires they agree to allow the Vendor Relations Committee visit their operation to validate the vendor’s claims: Those who grow plants and/or animals must show they have the required land and facilities needed to produce the amount of product they claim to produce; and for those who bring prepared foods to the market, their kitchen must be certified for commercial use, as the CFM does not allow the sale of home-based preparations. Additionally, to help assure consumers that the goods they purchase are truly local, the CFM enlists a 50/50 rule.

“Vendors,” Carter says, “must produce at least 50 percent of everything they sell.” They can, he said, supplement their offerings with other products but only if purchased directly from another grower or maker within the state of Indiana.

“We expect our vendors to be with us every week of the season, however,” explains Carter. “Some vendors might grow crops with a short growing season, requiring them to supplement what they sell with product from another grower.” Additionally, CFM vendors may not purchase any type or amount of product from an auction, a commission house, a retail establishment (unless that product is incorporated into an end product made by the vendor) or from a middleman of any kind.

But even with all these policies in place, occasionally bad apples slip in. One time, recalls Carter, they caught a vendor selling apples with UPC stickers on them. Needless to say, he was asked to leave immediately. In another case, an established vendor had stopped growing their own product and was, instead, purchasing it from an Amish auction and reselling at the market. That vendor was terminated.

How state agriculture departments are helping (and how they’re not)

Throughout the Midwest, and the U.S. at large, state agriculture departments are doing what they can to monitor how products are represented to consumers. But, the programs designed to regulate what gets the official “locally made” stamp differ—and no, not all states require a product to be 100 percent “locally made” to qualify for their program.

In Ohio, for instance, the Ohio Proud program promotes food and agricultural products that are at least 50 percent raised, grown or processed within state lines. But while it may only have a 50 percent requirement, the state is completely transparent with their program and the criteria are plainly stated on the website, OhioProud.org.

“We are very upfront with promoting that percentage to consumers,” says Ashley McDonald, Ohio Proud program manager and SCBG (Specialty Crop Block Grant) coordinator. Vendors, she says, sign a licensing agreement with the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) stating their product’s percentage and attesting that their product(s) are state or federally inspected.

“Once an application is submitted, we do some online research about the company, in addition to reaching out to our food safety divisions to make sure that, if they are operating in Ohio, they’re in good standing with Ohio’s regulatory requirements,” she added. And if they discover someone has falsified information, they are quick to act.

“Should a complaint or conflicting information come to us about a company, we do respond. For example: Last year, ODA’s Division of Food Safety notified us that an Ohio Proud partner had moved their processing facility out of state. We took that information and contacted the company. Our office was able to verify that while the company had moved its processing facility, it was still getting 80 percent of its ingredients from farms in Ohio. Additionally, our Division of Meat Inspection regularly checks with us when they do label verification to make sure that if a meat processor is using the Ohio Proud logo, that they are licensed to do so. Consumers can and should feel good about buying a product with the Ohio Proud label.”

Like Ohio, the State of Kentucky also runs a pretty tight ship when it comes to its Kentucky Proud program. “The program,” says Sean Southard, public affairs director for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, “is for restaurants, caterers, schools and other food service participants that source and support local farms.” Offered by the State’s agriculture department, Southard says it rewards participants for enhancing their menus with locally sourced Kentucky Proud farm ingredients. There are three categories: Those qualifying for the gold label are 100 percent grown, raised and produced in Kentucky and are the only products that can be promoted with the Buy Local program; those in the silver category are farmed in Kentucky but blended with out-of-state ingredients; and bronze products are not sourced from within the state, but may be manufactured or processed within state lines.

“This program,” Southard says, “incentivizes participants to enhance their menus with locally sourced Kentucky Proud farm ingredients. We work to attempt the highest degree of accurate product origin in participant reimbursement submissions through multiple checks such as careful staff review at registration, a requirement of annual product updates, distributor input, and product vetting.” In addition to those guidelines the Kentucky Proud staff maintains communications with growers and producers to ensure accuracy of products reported as well as gather input from other partnering programs such as Food Connection, Bluegrass Farm to Table program, Community Farm Alliance and other Value Chain coordinators.

And, says Southard, though it is a rare occurrence, if they discover a product is flagrantly misrepresented, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture will either have a discussion with the party or its legal team will issue a cease and desist letter.

Indiana born, bred, grown and raised

As for the Hoosier State, Indiana Grown, an arm of the Indiana State Agriculture Department, works in ways similar to its neighboring states’ programs as it strives to promote local products to consumers. According to its website, a statewide branding initiative aims to not only form a clearer designation of which products truly come from Indiana, but to also help Hoosier consumers easily identify and buy these products. But, according to Indiana Grown Program Director Heather Tallman, they use a “big tent” approach when it comes to membership.

“We market and promote all forms of agriculture in the state of Indiana that is packaged, processed, raised and grown within the confines of the state.” And adds Tallman, “Indiana Grown has no regulatory authority and we certify nothing. The only thing we do regulate is the use of our logo, our terms of service and the use of the words ‘Indiana Grown’ on products and in marketing materials.”

Like the Kentucky Proud program, Indiana Grown has different categories for labeling and marketing purposes, ranging from (1) 100 percent Indiana grown and/or all ingredients come from Indiana; to (2) ingredients can be sourced elsewhere but production is done in Indiana; to (3) Indiana Grown partner; to the final category (4), which applies to all other Indiana Grown members.

Indiana Grown has just over 1,700 members listed on its website. These range from small farms, mom-and-pop baking operations and small brick-and-mortar shops to large distilleries and national mega-stores. At last check, Walmart in Benton County, for instance, is member number 1,639. Perhaps this is what Tallman, who was not available for further comments, means by a “big tent” approach?

Regardless, it definitely goes to echo what Indiana Originals owner McMahon Stone had to say: “Loose guidelines muddy the waters of what is local and what’s not.”

Since there is still no widely recognized definition of the word local, either on the federal or state level; what gets labeled as local food can and does vary significantly from state to state. Perhaps with the new administration and the looming 2023 Farm Bill, Congress will address this issue and maybe, just maybe, we’ll all come to a conclusion that makes for clearer water, at least where the guidelines for what constitutes local, and what doesn’t, are concerned. 

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