I came up with the topic of this post after looking at this picture from a bag of food. It’s proudly proclaiming to be a local business owned and operated out of California. Any guesses where it’s from?

That’s right…McDonald’s. Yes, I indulge every once in a while, even though I write about food and enjoy all its goodness. Give me two more hours in each day or a 20% salary increase, and I’ll discuss a no tolerance policy. As an aside, I think that pretty much sums up the argument that eating well is elitist, but that’s something I’ll get into another day.

What it really got me to thinking is, “What do people think of when they talk about supporting and buying local? Is it whatever McDonald’s stands for?” Probably not. If you talk to ten different people, you’ll likely get ten different answers of what a local food system means. I did. It’s a really hard concept and definition to pin down, largely because it depends so much on region, climate, and the surrounding food landscape.

Well, what’s the official definition of local? The U.S. Congress defined local in the 2008 Farm Bill as being transported “less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced.” The USDA defines local food as “direct or intermediated marketing of food to consumers that is produced and distributed in a limited geographic area.” They specify that there is no pre-determined distance to define local. You can see that there are discrepancies, with Congress focusing on distance and the USDA focusing on the point of sale, particularly farmers markets, farm stands, and CSA partnerships.

Has the international community figured it out? Canada is still struggling with defining local and may include criteria based on distance, time, political boundaries, and the natural boundaries of an ecosystem. The EU has defined it as a “food system in which foods are produced, processed and retailed within a defined geographical area,” but acknowledges that the notion is subjective and depends on local context.

Why do consumers want to buy local food anyways? In an increasingly globalized world where the U.S. imports about 15% of its food supply, consumers don’t have a good idea of where their food comes from. Consumers who buy local place importance on quality, nutritional value, production methods, and environmental impact. They also buy local to support local farmers and the local economy.

Those last two points are becoming increasingly highlighted in conversations about our food system. The USDA collects data on prices for various commodities and prices received by farmers for those same commodities. You can see some of the overall findings in this interactive chart. You’ll notice that for just about every product, there is a huge gap between the farm value and the retail price. Farmers receive up to 50% of the retail price on the high end, and as low as 12% on the low end. Unfortunately, the low end of the spread is more common.

Buying local is one way to offset this trend. Farmers keep more profit when they don’t have the costs associated with long-distance transportation and distribution, as well as low wholesale prices. If you’d like to find more commodity and region-specific price spreads, the Produce Price Index is a good resource.

Something that stood out as I was looking at the USDA data is that price spreads are larger for more processed food. It makes sense. The more steps between you and the food, the less there is for the farm.

And on that note, let’s go back to what started this post…McDonald’s. Does McDonald’s place importance on quality, nutritional value, or production methods? I don’t think there is a realistic argument that they do, especially not in the way that consumers who are buying local are expecting. What about McDonald’s environmental impact? They been making some large strides in conservation, but they aren’t exactly cutting edge. Their environmental initiatives have largely come about after facing pressure from customers about poor practices. What about supporting local farmers and the local economy? Over 90% of locations worldwide are franchised and owned by an independent operator. But that doesn’t mean that the food these locations serve comes from the “local” economy. The Big Mac is notorious for having a long supply chain and traveling thousands of miles before reaching a customer. The farmers supplying McDonalds don’t particularly make a lot either.

I’m not trying to hate on McDonalds. I wrote this post after buying something from them after all. Clearly, I think they meet a need for quick, inexpensive food (and clean bathrooms). But I don’t buy from them for the same reason that I buy local, and I don’t think most consumers do either.

There’s nothing stopping them from using the words “locally owned and operated,” but it is amusing that they are one of the reasons that consumers want local food in the first place. This is the danger with undefined and ill-defined marketing terms. We know that it’s a difficult concept, but if you are interested in a local food system, get to know your food sources and talk to farmers and producers. Keep asking questions of the places you frequent, especially when it comes to what their claims really mean. The only ones put-off by it, are those that aren’t trying to capture the spirit behind an idea.

When it comes to McDonald’s, are you lovin’ it? Tell me in the comments below.

Image by: Yours Truly

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