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From a legal standpoint, what is “local” food?

The term “local” means many things to many people. Despite the fact that it carries so many different connotations, it is used frequently in the law and in the marketplace. If the term is to have a meaning that carries legal weight, it must have a clear definition that reflects the priorities of the entity defining it.

Laws should also include language that allows for meaningful accounting of local purchases and enforcement of targets and objectives. Some states are moving toward more clearly defined uses of the terms surrounding local foods, as well as more clearly defined targets for local purchasing, but overall “local” remains largely undefined, creating potential challenges for meeting the goals and evaluating the impacts of local food legislation.

"Defining Local Food: An Analysis of State Approaches and Challenges" describes the various definitions for "local" or other analogous terms used in state laws meant to incentivize or otherwise promote the purchase of agricultural products that meet those definitions. The first section describes different ways governments, consumers, and other stakeholders use and define the word "local." It also describes some of the attributes commonly ascribed to local foods, which often form the basis for legislation related to local food systems. The second section centers on challenges that arise when different interrelated players use a word with such breadth of meaning. The third section describes the findings of a scan of laws from US states and the District of Columbia and provides examples of the terminology each state uses and defines. The paper concludes with considerations for further research.

This report was funded by the National Agricultural Library, Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.