USDA Gets Behind Local Food

Yes Magazine recently had a short article on a grant by the USDA to study local food production capacity in the northeast.

How much of the food eaten in the northeastern United States could be produced regionally? The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced $230,000 in funding to find out.

This grant is chump change compared to the approximately $17 billion in subsidies that went to corn farmers between 2003 and 2005, but it does mark a significant shift in policy.  In early fall the USDA announced a new program called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” that is funding the local food study.  In the press release about the program, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan noted:

Consumer demand for locally grown food in the United States is expected to rise from an estimated $4 billion in 2002 to as much as $7 billion by 2012.

That the USDA recognizes the growth of local food sales and has a number for it caught my attention.  Aside from planning grants and rural development grants and loans, drawing attention to a growing market is one way to create a positive feedback that builds momentum.

How do local food sales compare to organic sales?  Here’s a graph Farmland LP made with Organic Trade Association data.

organic sales

Current organic sales are over $23 million per year, so while local has a long way to go to catch up it is already a significant part of public choice.

Why?  Because people are hungry for honest relationships and food is viewed as very personal by many–after all, it goes into our bodies and becomes part of us.  When people can meet farmers and see the land where their food comes from they are more likely to trust in its health.  It goes both ways.  When farmers get to know the people who are eating their food, I believe they will take even greater care to make sure it is produced with the utmost care and integrity.  Because they derive from direct human contact, these benefits are only possible by localizing the food system.