Local Food Systems

A local food system is a collaborative network that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management in order to enhance the environmental, economic, and social health of a particular area. Increasingly, communities are organizing “food hubs” around co-ops or other community wealth building enterprises to anchor local food systems. The USDA defines a food hub as a “centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.” Food hubs help provide wider access to markets for small to mid-sized producers, and increased access to fresh healthy food for consumers, including underserved areas and food deserts, as illustrated below.

Food is big business and localizing the food system can have major community wealth building benefits. For example, a 2010 study of the 16-county Northeast Ohio (NEO) region found that shifting 25 percent of agriculture to local production could create 27,664 new jobs, providing work for about one in eight unemployed residents, generating $4.2 billion in economic activity and $126 million in state and local taxes, while increasing food security, improving public health, and lowering the region’s carbon footprint.

Urban agriculture—the process of cultivating, processing, and distributing food or livestock within an urban environment—is part of these efforts, particularly in urban communities such as Detroit and Cleveland that have been strongly hit by deindustrialization and disinvestment.


Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are often important parts of local food systems. CSAs directly link residents and nearby farmers: participants pay before the growing season, and then receive a weekly (or other regular) share of the harvest. The model was first developed in Japan in 1965 and referred to as teikei—“food with the farmer's face on it.” The first U.S.-based CSA was established in 1985 in Massachusetts at Indian Line Farm. The model quickly took off—growing to about 60 CSAs in 1990, 1,700 in 2004, and more than 4,000 today.

Local food systems play a critical role in building community wealth for several key reasons:

  • Growing, processing, and distributing food locally creates and sustains community-based jobs.
  • Direct marketing channels between farmers and consumers (e.g., through farmers markets) boosts local farmers’ incomes.
  • In contrast to large, industrial farms, small family farms are more likely to spend their dollars in the community on farm-related inputs (e.g., machinery, seeds, farm supplies, etc.) and engage in farming practices that do not harm their community’s physical environment.
  • Farmers markets and food cooperatives not only help ensure dollars remain and circulate within localities but also create more vibrant communities.
  • Urban agriculture projects turn vacant tracts into productive, income-generating spaces and often include job training or employment opportunities for low-income youth and other urban residents.

Community-wealth.org houses an extensive collection of resources focused on Local Food Systems and this model’s role in community wealth building. Below is a glimpse of the rich array of materials you will find as you explore our site:

Our Support Organizations section features major organizations working to advance local food systems. One such group is the Institute for Food and Development Policy (aka Food First), an Oakland-based nonprofit committed to ending global hunger that carries out research, analysis, advocacy, and education to help develop democratically controlled, sustainable, local food systems.

Key Facts and Figures

Number of farmers markets in the U.S., 2018 vs. 19948,742 vs. 1,755*
Number of CSAs in the U.S., 2015 vs. 20015,638 vs. 400*
Estimated gross revenue potential of urban agriculture businesses per acre$50,000+*
Economic impact if Northeast Ohio produced 25% of the food it consumes:*
New jobs27,000
Increase in regional output per year$4.2 billion
Growth in tax revenues$125 million

Our Best Practices  section showcases exemplary organizations working in the local food systems field. For instance,  Fifth Season Cooperative is a multi-stakeholder cooperative that includes producers, producer groups, food processors, distributors, and buyers in South Central and Southwest Wisconsin, Southeast Minnesota, and Northwest Iowa. Founded in 2010, Fifth Season links local small and organic growers to anchor institutions, including hospitals, universities, and public schools.

Our Research Resources section highlights web-based resources focused on local food systems. For example, UC Davis’ Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program’s (SAREP) website includes a wealth of materials relating to local food systems including a downloadable bibliography of over 2,000 articles and the results of several food system assessments, which examine the connections between and impact of food production, distribution, consumption and waste disposal.

Our Articles and Publications section includes links to a diverse selection of articles, reports, papers, and books focused on local food systems. One such paper is PolicyLink’s Economic and Community Development Outcomes of Healthy Food Retail  (2013), which highlights the economic development benefits of improving healthy food access.

Lastly, our Toolbox  features practical resources designed to help those working or interested in the local food systems field. For example, the USDA’s  Regional Food Hub Resource Guide (2012) aims to help  food entrepreneurs, current food hub operators, and their supporters by defining and describing regional food hubs, and highlighting their  impacts, strategies to boost their growth and success, and financial resources that could support them.