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What makes food ‘local’?

“Local” food is all the rage, but what makes food local?

Ask 10 people and you’ll probably get 10 different answers. There is no standardized definition which means local can be whatever we want it to be. That sounds great until you start thinking about where food is grown and how value-added items are processed.

I live in eastern North Carolina, which grows more sweet potatoes than any other state. If I define local as within 50 miles of my house, I can have a local sweet potato every day of the year.  

If I want a local apple, I won’t find one within 50 miles of home. It’s too hot and humid to grow apples in eastern North Carolina. 

That’s one of the limiting factors of the term local. Some crops just simply won’t grow everywhere. Sweet potatoes like sandy soil and warm, humid climates. Most U.S. sweet potatoes are grown in North Carolina, followed by Mississippi, Louisiana, and California. 

Apple and other fruit trees need a certain number of chill hours, where temperatures are lower than 45°F., to break dormancy and grow each spring. That’s why Washington, New York, and Michigan lead the country in apple farming. It’s also why the North Carolina mountains are perfect for apple orchards.

Weather also impacts the timing of when local food is available. Strawberry farmers in the southeastern part of my state typically start picking two weeks before those in the Piedmont, which is about a four-hour drive west. Those same farmers usually stop picking first because their plants have peaked, and temperatures are too hot for them to keep producing berries. 

When you look at value-added, it gets more complicated. I remember talking with a colleague who had attended a meeting on local food. She said people wanted to have local ketchup that was made within 100 miles of their home. They didn’t realize what it would cost to build a plant that turned tomatoes into ketchup. Most of our state’s tomatoes are sold fresh, at a higher profit, and not for processing, so supplying a plant year-round would not be feasible.   

We are fortunate that local food is available at farms, roadside stands, farmers markets, and retailers. It’s great to support locally grown food, but in doing so, we must realize that there are limitations. Our definition may need to change depending on the season or the crop. Otherwise, we won’t ever have bananas or pineapples, two of my kids’ favorites.  

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