By Erica Campbell, Vermont Farm to Plate program director
Since the beginning planning stages of the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan we have heard many definitions about what “local food” means in terms of geographic boundaries. Early localvores often used a 30, 50 or 100 mile radius, while others believe local to be a broader, regional concept. Labeling food as ‘local’ is important to consumers as well as producers, processors, distributors, and retailers along the value chain.
The Farm to Plate Strategic Plan defines local using the legislated Vermont definition: food that is produced or processed in Vermont plus 30 miles. We interpret that to be Vermont plus 30 miles from the border of Vermont (New York, Southern Quebec, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts). Some have agreed with this definition and others have found it to be too broad or too narrow.
While we have adopted this geographic definition, the Farm to Plate Network continues to wrestle with the concept of WHAT gets counted. Everyone agrees that if it’s grown here, it’s local. But how about specialty foods: the salsa that uses Vermont grown tomatoes only in summer and the bakery that has only one product with local wheat? How about coffee and peanut butter products? When it comes to processed foods, it gets complicated. We want to support processing businesses adding value to Vermont grown foods, but we don’t want to ignore the importance of food manufacturers that may not be using local ingredients.
Legislatively, Farm to Plate is about creating economic development opportunities in the farm and food sector, and increasing access of healthy, local food for all Vermonters. The Plan’s 25 goals to reach by 2020 include increasing farm viability, improving the environment, and reducing food insecurity. For some of these goals we will need to think broader, and more regionally, to reach them.
Definitions aside, how do these questions play out in actual purchasing decisions? What to do when you are standing in the grocery store, trying to make a decision about a particular food? Abbie Nelson of NOFA Vermont has championed a simple tiered, or nested, approach to local and regional food sourcing (see diagram). When possible, buy foods in season as geographically close as possible. When those are not accessible, source from other parts of the state. When it’s not available in Vermont, look to our regional producers. Because it’s really more about paying attention to where our food comes from and how it’s produced. Essentially, if you can get food—whether grown or manufactured—from your community, Vermont, or the larger region rather than from California, Mexico, or China, please do!
Erica Campbell is the Program Director of Farm to Plate, a core program of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF). Vermont Farm to Plate is the statewide initiative legislatively directed to increase economic development and jobs in Vermont’s food and farm sector and improve access to healthy local food for all Vermonters. The Farm to Plate Strategic Plan is Vermont’s ten year plan to strengthen Vermont’s food system and double local food production and consumption by 2020. Responsible for collectively implementing the strategies of the Plan, the Farm to Plate Network encompasses farms, food production businesses, specialty food producers, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, capital providers and government. The Food System Atlas is the searchable Vermont farm and food inventory website designed to strengthen Vermont’s working landscape, includes all sections of the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan, and acts as the communication hub for the Farm to Plate Network.