The Role of Local Food Systems in U.S. Farm Policy

Sales of locally produced foods comprise a small but growing part of U.S. agricultural sales. USDA estimates that farm-level value of local food sales totaled about $4.8 billion in 2008, or about 1.6% of the U.S. market for agricultural products. An estimated total of 107,000 farms are engaged in local food systems, or about 5% of all U.S. farms.

There is no established definition of what constitutes a “local food.” Local and regional food systems generally refer to agricultural production and marketing that occurs within a certain
geographic proximity (between farmer and consumer) or that involves certain social or supply chain characteristics in producing food (such as small family farms, urban gardens, or farms using
sustainable agriculture practices). Some perceive locally sourced foods as fresher and higher in quality compared to some other readily available foods, and also believe that purchasing local
foods helps support local farm economies and/or farmers that use certain production practices that are perceived to be more environmentally sustainable.

A wide range of farm businesses may be considered to be engaged in local foods. These include direct-to-consumer marketing, farmers’ markets, farm-to-school programs, community-supported agriculture, community gardens, school gardens, food hubs and market aggregators, and kitchen incubators and mobile slaughter units. Other types of operations include on-farm sales/stores, internet marketing, food cooperatives and buying clubs, pick-your-own or “U-Pick” operations, roadside farm stands, urban farms (and rooftop farms and gardens), community kitchens, smallscale food processing and decentralized root cellars, and some agritourism or other types of onfarm recreational activities.

The 2008 farm bill (P.L. 110-246, Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008) contained a few program provisions that directly support local and regional food systems. However, many farm
bill-related programs benefiting agricultural producers may provide support and assistance for such food systems. These include federal farm support and grant programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which may be grouped into several broad program categories: marketing and promotion; business assistance; rural and community development; nutrition and education; agricultural research and cooperative extension; and farmland conservation. Examples include USDA’s farmers’ market programs, rural cooperative grants, and selected child nutrition programs, among myriad other grant and loan programs, as well as USDA’s research and cooperative extension service.

Although the farm bill currently contains few specific programs that directly support local and regional food systems, many community and farm advocacy groups have been arguing that such food systems should play a larger policy role within the next farm bill, and that laws should be modified to reflect broader, more equitable policies across a range of production systems, including local food systems. The 112th Congress will likely consider reauthorization of the 2008 farm bill, and may debate options for providing additional support for local and regional
producers. To date, a number of bills have been introduced, including comprehensive marker bills, that would expand the benefits for local and regional food systems.

Downloadable Documents: 
Author: 
Renee Johnson, Tadlock Cowan, Randy Alison Aussenberg
Publisher: 
Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service
Page Numbers: 
53
Publication Date: 
January 23, 2012
Literature Category: 
Reports and Studies