By Rick Morse.

By now most people have at least heard of the local food movement. Thanks to Michael Pollan and his compatriots, terms like “locavore” and “foodshed” have made their way into popular lexicon. The basic idea is to create “more locally based, self-reliant food economies.”

The argument is part of a larger one about sustainability, that sustainable local food systems are net-positives for public health, the environment, and local economies. Thus cultivating (pun intended) robust local food economies can (and I would argue, should) be seen as a strategy for sustainable community and economic development.

An article accompanying the 2013 “Locavore Index of States” reminds us of some of the reasons why the local food movement is an important component of community development:

  • Local food travels much less distance to market than typical fresh or processed grocery store foods, therefore using less fuel and generating fewer greenhouse gases.
  • Because of the shorter distribution chains for local foods, less food is wasted in distribution, warehousing and merchandising.
  • Local food is fresher and healthier, spending less time in transit from farm to plate, and therefore losing fewer nutrients and incurring less spoilage.
  • Local food encourages diversification of local agriculture, which reduces the reliance on monoculture — single crops grown over a wide area to the detriment of soils.
  • Local food encourages the consumption of organic foods and reduces reliance on artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Local foods build local economies by circulating food dollars locally and creating local jobs by supporting family farms and local food processing and distribution systems
  • Local foods create more vibrant communities by connecting people with the farmers and food producers who bring them healthy local foods. As customers of CSAs and farmers markets have discovered, they are great places to meet and connect with friends as well as farmers!
  • Local foods promote agritourism — farmers markets and opportunities to visit farms and local food producers help draw tourists to a region. (From

And research is beginning to quantify these positive community impacts. A recent study at Penn State University finds “at least in certain regions of the country, community-focused agriculture has had a measurable effect on economic growth.”

Local food economies are complex systems, with many interrelated parts and no one “in charge.” It involves producers, consumers, processors, distributors, and so on. And it involves more than just “slow food” enthusiasts with time and money to enjoy local culinary delights and small-scale, niche farmers. It also involves low-income people who are food insecure. It involves large institutions, such as schools, that distribute a lot of food on a daily basis. It involves businesses such as restaurants and grocery stores. And it certainly involves local governments who can provide greater access to land and other forms of food system infrastructure, and can also wield a great deal of influence through local policies and incentive structures.

Complex systems like local food economies are great examples of what University of Minnesota Professors John Bryson and Barbara Crosby describe as a “grand challenge” or issue where “no one is in charge.” Such situations require purposive efforts to coordinate work as well as develop boundary-crossing partnerships that enable the system to work in an integrated, strategic manner. The ideal of a strong, sustainable local food system that works for all is impossible to achieve without that kind of integrative, coordinated work that we call collaboration.

This is why the development of local food councils (often referred to as food policy councils) is such an important innovation. Here in North Carolina, just a couple of years ago, you could count the number of local food councils (LFCs) on one hand. Now there are over a dozen, with many more counties and regions looking to develop one soon. What is a LFC? It is a volunteer group made up of representatives from the different parts of the local food system. It is a forum where these disparate stakeholders can come together and look at the local food system more holistically. They can look at the forest and not just their individual tree or section of the forest, if you will. They recommend policies, develop projects, and develop priorities for their communities and regions. They also help create key linkages, for example, between producers and consumers. They identify gaps in the system and seek to bridge those gaps. LFCs are a form of collaborative governance. They are boundary organizations that help facilitate boundary-crossing work in a community or region. For more details, see the report on Food Policy Councils published (online) by the American Planning Association.

The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) produced an excellent report titled “From Farm to Fork: A Guide to Building North Carolina’s Sustainable Local Food Economy” in 2010. In it are many great recommendations for how local governments can help build sustainable local food economies. Also see the (free) publication titled “A Community and Local Government Guide to Developing Local Food Systems in North Carolina” available at CEFS. No one entity in a community or region can make those strategies happen; rather, concerted effort is needed and a LFC is an ideal arrangement from which to conduct that concerted action.

The newly-formed Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council is notable in many respects. They organized around six clusters that engage different stakeholders around different parts action-areas such as access, land-use, and food security. Representatives from the different clusters (sub-groups) meet together as the LFC and develop strategies and coordinate efforts. In their first year they have already developed a food action plan that establishes a vision and goals for the region that is a great example of the integrative potential of LFCs. This new endeavor, as well as the examples of Cabarrus County (NC) and the Western NC Food Policy Council are good places to start in exploring what communities are doing with respect to LFPCs. The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins is also doing some excellent research on this topic. And, as mentioned, CEFS is another terrific resource.

This past fall (September 2013) my colleagues at CEFS and I conducted a webinar on local food and local government. On April 17, 2014 we are doing a follow-up webinar specifically on the topic of local food councils. We believe that while local foods may be a ‘hot topic,’ it is not at all a fad. Awareness about the importance of local food systems will continue to increase and communities that pay attention and make strategic investments in local foods (like sponsoring LFCs) will reap the benefits in the near and long-term.

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Rick Morse is an Associate Professor at the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where he works closely with local government officials in the areas of collaborative governance, leadership, and community engagement. You can follow him on Twitter @MorseSOG. He also is a regular contributor to the School’s Community Economic Development blog.

Article adapted from post on