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Despite The Buzz, Local Food Has A Small Economic Impact


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

Both the House and the Senate are winding down their last few days before summer recess. The farm bill is on the long list of issues that weren't resolved before vacation. Failure to pass the farm bill has angered lots of farmers, especially those who grow and sell food locally. They hoped the farm bill would bring about more government promotion of local food. Adam Davidson of NPR's Planet Money team has been looking over the bill and studying the local food market. Hey there, Adam.


CORNISH: So, first, let's be clear. What exactly are we talking about when we say local food? And I mean, how big an industry is this?

DAVIDSON: Yeah. I was talking to a friend today who didn't really know what it meant, which is surprising to me because I live in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, and I work for public radios. It seems to me some days that local food is the only kind of food that exists in America these days. It's what I see advertised in local shops and see in the restaurant menus. But the basic idea is local food.

It's food that is grown or made within - well, Congress defines it as 400 miles of where it's ultimately consumed. That's actually a really small part of our overall food economy, something like 3 percent of a, you know, well over a $100 billion food economy. And that's exactly what this part of the farm bill would change.

CORNISH: So how would it change the local food market?

DAVIDSON: The idea is to take local food out of these boutique corners, you know, farmers' markets and expensive restaurants, and really shove it into the mainstream of American industrial food systems, get local food into schools and big chain supermarkets and big chain restaurants.

CORNISH: But walk us through, I mean, how that would happen. I mean, how do the government decide where food is grown and sold?

DAVIDSON: You know, I always think it's important to point out agriculture in the U.S. is not really properly thought of as like a free market where just buyers and sellers determine how food is made and sold. It's very heavily influenced by the government through the farm bill, which is renewed every five or six years. And for the many decades it's been in existence, the government uses all sorts of subsidies and rules and regulations to heavily influence how food is produced and sold in the U.S.

So the idea is to use some of those things, things like crop insurance, things like government-sponsored marketing programs to make local food not quite as promoted as big commodity food like soy beans and corn but to make local food far more promoted than it is right now, much bigger than it is right now.

CORNISH: But why? I mean, I see that label, local food, and I don't know is it good for the environment? Is it good for my health? Is it just marketing?

DAVIDSON: You know, there's a lot of debate around this, and there's absolutely no definitive study that says that food consumed within 400 miles of where it's grown is particularly healthier for you or particularly better for the environment. But the farm bill, really, isn't about any of that stuff. The farm bill has always been about money. There's not that many famers in America. But the farmers who receive the lion's share of government subsidies through the farm bill live in around 30 or so congressional districts. And the Congress people from those districts, that's what they're sent to Washington to do, to get the farm bill passed and bring home the money.

CORNISH: So what are the chances that this local food proposal will actually pass?

DAVIDSON: I think very, very high. This is a great bipartisan issue at a time where there are almost no great bipartisan issues. Rural Republicans love getting money for farmers. Urban Democrats love local food.

CORNISH: That's Adam Davidson with NPR's Planet Money team. Adam, thank you.

DAVIDSON: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Adam Davidson is a contributor to Planet Money, a co-production of NPR and This American Life. He also writes the weekly "It's the Economy" column for the New York Times Magazine.