Local & Regional Food Systems

Photo credit: USDA

Investments that help to connect the dots between producers and local customers can generate significant social and economic wins that benefit farmers and eaters from rural and urban communities alike.

Consumer demand for local and regional products is on the rise, and the growing interest in “farm to table” is helping to open new markets and economic opportunities to farmers and food producers nationwide. Local and regional food has long been part of the social and economic fabric for many American communities, and today interest in eating local is stronger than ever.

In recent years, American farmers have struggled to deal with a lagging farm economy and the negative impacts of increased consolidation and concentration in agriculture. For many farmers and rural communities, the “farm to fork” pipeline represents a lifeline; a value-chain that allows producers to find new and better economic success close to home.  A recent Economic Research Service study utilizing data from the 2007 and 2012 Agricultural Censuses, shows that farmers who market food directly to consumers have a greater chance of remaining in business than similarly sized farms that market through traditional channels.

According to the 2017 Agriculture Census, 130,056 farms sold directly to consumers, those sales resulted in $2.8 billion in revenue for producers.

Sales to retail outlets, institutions (e.g. hospitals, schools) and to food hubs resulted in $9 billion in revenue for local producers. Clearly, local and regional food economies have a significant role to play in the future of American agriculture.

Despite the serious potential of this growing market place, however, many would-be food and farm entrepreneurs struggle to access the farm to fork pipeline. A lack of infrastructure (e.g., storage, aggregation, transportation, and processing capacity) and technical links (e.g., marketing and business planning) have made it difficult for many farmers and producers to update their businesses to reach these new customer bases.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has been a leader in advancing opportunities for family farmers and in helping to grow the local/regional food movement through our policy and grassroots advocacy. Most recently, our advocacy resulted in a 2018 Farm Bill that made significant investments in efforts to expand healthy food access and help farmers connect with direct-marketing opportunities, add value to their products, and build needed infrastructure (ex, food hubs).

This section of our guide provides an overview of the key federal programs focused on expanding local and regional food systems, from healthy food access and food security programs like Community Food Projects to the farmer-focused Value-Added Producer Grants program. The guide includes programs directly available to producers, as well as programs available to community-based organizations and institutions working on the ground to build and expand on the success of local and regional food efforts.