Local Food: The Economics

Sarah DeWeerdt

Local Food: The Economics

In the second part of this two-part series, we learn that local food is better for local economies. In some ways.


One drizzly Sunday last March, I went to the weekly farmers market in my favorite Seattle neighborhood and bought a bag of potatoes. I stopped at a stall where a farmer, his hands caked with dirt, was filling mesh bags with small, just-dug potatoes and singing a silly made-up ditty as he twirled each bag shut. "That one looks good," I said, pointing to the bag in his hands. "Can I have that one?" "Yeah," he agreed with me, "it has a nice mix of spuds." I held out a few crumpled dollar bills and he passed me the bag.

Eating local has economic benefits for communities, say proponents of local food, and after such a quintessential farmers market moment that conclusion seems obvious, the logic inescapable. After all, I'd handed my money directly to the farmer who grew my food-rather than passing it along a chain of faceless and distant middlemen-and what's more, he honestly seemed to be having a good time.

That's different from the economic logic of the mainstream food system, which de-emphasizes place and sees trade as a disembodied, win-win endeavor. Different communities can specialize in growing different foods-or in activities other than growing food altogether-thereby developing production efficiencies that enable them to offer their products at a lower price. Money flows freely among communities, and everyone gets a more varied diet for less money.

Well-drained Farms

The trouble is, that's not all that's going on. Over the past decade, Ken Meter, president of the Minneapolis-based Crossroads Resource Center, has documented the way the current food system drains money and vitality from farming communities throughout the United States. His first investigation, focusing on the seven-county Hiawatha region of southeast Minnesota, is representative. In that 2001 study, Meter and Jon Rosales, of the Institute for Social, Economic, and Ecological Sustainability at the University of Minnesota, found that farmers in the region sold an average of US$912 million worth of farm commodities every year. But they spent $500 million on farming inputs-things like seed, animal feed, fertilizer, and (crucially) credit-sourced from outside the region. Moreover, the region's consumers spent an additional $500 million on food purchased from elsewhere. All of the money-and then some-that the region earned from farming was drained right back out of the community by the food system itself.