“Local” food may not be coming from the farm down the street.

The definition of “local” food was explored by Andrew Larson, extension program specialist for small farms and sustainable agriculture, during a lecture Monday, put on by the horticulture department, titled “Feeding Ourselves: Recognizing Opportunities in Local Foods.”

There are many different definitions of “local” food, all depending upon the view of the customer, he said.

“Local can change with each and every customer you are dealing with,” Larson said. “Some folks say that [local food] was food that was grown and produced within a particular state.”

However, that particular definition is not very clear or accurate.

For someone who is living in the southeast corner of Iowa, food that may be considered “local” in Story County is not necessarily “local” for the person living in the southeast corner of the state, Larson said.

“[Local food is] food that was produced or grown in your home county or a neighboring county,” Larson said. “That’s kind of an older definition but it’s something that surveys in Missouri have had as a pretty popular one.”

A third definition offered by Larson was “local” food is grown within 100 miles from a customer’s place of residence.

“[Local food is] food that was produced or grown within 100 miles,” Larson said. “It is not in law anywhere, by any means. It’s pretty much purely in people’s minds.”

A survey conducted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found the 100-mile definition was the most widely-accepted by the general population.

“The Leopold Center recently did a survey of perceptions of local food, and two-thirds of the people surveyed … said that 100 miles was probably the best definition,” Larson said.

Still, others will beg to differ that this seemingly well-accepted definition is not correct.

“Others will say that it is food that was grown or produced within a day’s drive, which could be 3-, 4-, 500 miles away,” Larson said.

Larson explained the pros and cons of the definitions concerning the distance food comes from.

One of the pros is it is hard for distant companies to co-opt.

“Local is the one thing that’s really hard to sort of repeat or co-opt by a larger scale company,” Larson said. “If somebody out in California wants to sell local produce, they’re going to have a hard time convincing people in Iowa that California produce is local.”

The cons deal with the questionable distances that food can come from and still be considered “local.”

“The miles that something came don’t necessarily provide a very accurate indicator of how sustainable that food product was,” Larson said. “However, on the other side of that particular coin, anybody who’s a little closer by, somebody from Colorado or northern Minnesota or Canada, could potentially get customers to believe that their produce is local, depending upon their marketing magnitude. It’s not something that anybody across an ocean is going to be able to convince, but if it’s within driving distance it would be a little bit easier to try and change their mind.”

Overall, finding a nationally-accepted definition of local food is nearly impossible, mainly because people want to be able to see first-hand where their food comes from and know exactly how it is produced.

“Having a national definition of local would be a pretty hard sell,” Larson said. “[People] want to be able to know the story behind that particular food. They want to be able to see the farmer’s face who produced it, they want to have been able to visit his farm to see his production method — develop some relationships and trust. That’s going to be a much more appropriate definition of local for most folks than any particular mile definition.”

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