Defining the Local Foodshed

Local food movements all over the world reconnect people with their local foodshed.  But what makes a local foodshed, local?

Before the industrial agricultural revolution, people sourced food from their local foodshed, which used to encompass nearby farms and even gardens of their own.  A foodshed consists of the distance between where food is produced and where it is consumed.  This includes every step of its travel—from farm, to distributor, to market, right to your table.

Industrial agriculture has allowed our foodshed to expand past county lines and across country borders—so that the bulk of today’s produce and goods offered at your local grocery store will have traveled hundreds, if not thousands of miles to get there.

The distance of what is considered local will differ from person to person.  For some, their local foodshed will include all domestically produced products or perhaps be confined to food produced within their state. Others will define their local foodshed as food from farms that ring their city, or even more locally from within their neighborhood.

The international foodshed

In almost all industrialized countries, the standard foodshed will extend to most of the world.  In the US for instance, the average pound of food will have traveled 1,500 miles before it has reached a diner’s plate.

When it comes to the international foodshed, not only does dependency on imported food come into question, but the sustainability and environmental impact of using massive amounts of fossil fuel to transport food that could be grown domestically—quite literally in your own backyard.  In general, these imported items are not on the shelves because they cannot be grown domestically, but rather because it is cheaper to grow them elsewhere.  For instance, California has temperate weather suited for growing food year round and yet even in the summer, staple fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, are flown in from South America.

There are a few circumstances in which a foodshed will expand to encompass a larger area in order to supply a population with food.

“When a hurricane overtook New Orleans, New Orleans’ foodshed grew, didn’t it? They would have to pull food from farther areas on the earth because a lot of their local production disappeared. I use that as an example because that’s what happens every winter in certain places in the country; their foodsheds grow. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as we’re putting it into some kind of context that’s measurable and understandable,” stated David Evans, owner and farmer of Marin Sun Farms, in California.

The bio-regional foodshed

A bio-regional foodshed is an agricultural area that shares certain physical similarities, such as climate, available resources, and geographical landscape.

For instance, California is broken up into two distinct regions, Northern California and Southern California.  Both of these regions source from the agriculturally abundant center of California, called the central valley.

The local foodshed

When considering what a local foodshed is, most will define it to include the farms closest to the area they live. Locavores are quick to point out the many benefits of sourcing one’s food from a supply that is closest to them.

For one, by decreasing the distance that food needs to travel before it gets to the consumer, so will the expense of fuel needed in its transportation drop, thus reducing the price of the product.  This will subsequently reduce the carbon foot print of food distribution, as well as provide fresher food which will not have waited days or even weeks on the road before it reaches store shelves.  This food is not only fresher, but more nutritious, as cutting out travel and storage time means that the foods’ nutritional content will not have had as much time to deteriorate (which happens at an alarmingly fast rate for some volatile nutrients).

Local sourcing often cuts out the need for food distributors thus allowing profits to go directly to the farmer, and once more reduces the price mark-up formerly added on to support both farmer and distributor.  Purchasing local products will help strengthen the local economy by keeping money within the community.

Local markets also support smaller farms.  One of the problems associated with large scale farming is that if a crop or food product gets contaminated with, for instance, listeria or E-coli, then the threat to public health as well as food access affects a wider percentage of the population.

In general, smaller farms use fewer chemicals, antibiotics and other drugs, and practice more humane methods of animal husbandry.  By abstaining from confining animals in uncleanly conditions, small farmers create an environment less prone to bacterial growth and infection.  In the case that an outbreak does occur on a smaller farm, a limited percentage of the population will be under threat of infection and having their supply of that product cut off.

This definition of local can, at times, be confusing.  For instance, farmers markets are generally thought of as hosting farmers from areas just outside of a city or township.  However, farmers markets can consist of farmers from all over a state—which, in a state such as California, could come from an area the size of some countries.


A hyper local foodshed often pertains to a neighborhood which produces its own food—whether it is in people’s backyards or in urban farms.  For Owen Dell, founder of the Neighborhood Foodshed Project, the area of this neighborhood foodshed should be small enough so that people have easy access to food (meaning they could take it to and from a market or food exchange without the use of a vehicle) but also large enough to supply the neighborhood with most of its dietary needs.  Usually the radius of this foodshed covers a six to eight block radius, supporting roughly 100-150 people.

Self sufficiency is a cornerstone of this type of foodshed, putting particular importance on independence from fossil fuels not only to transport food, but its use for farming equipment such as tractors and in petrol-based fertilizers and pesticides used on industrial farms.

It should be noted that those who support sourcing food hyper-locally are not advocating against support for local farmers.  In very few cases will people be able to supply all of the food needed to meet their dietary requirements, especially in densely populated areas.  Building a hyper-local foodshed simply means that residents work to gain a level of self-sufficiency and to reconnect people not only with the production of their food, but to their community as well.

On the topic of local foodsheds, David Evans commented, “The fact is, by thinking in these terms…we become more responsible community members. Therefore we seek out to work with others in our community before we reach out globally, and I think that’s just a good principle to operate on.”