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Measuring Local Food

I love eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill. For a fast-food place, it’s tough to beat on several points: The menu is simple, the quality consistently good and the price fair. No Dollar Deal Menu here. Just solid performing Mexican-inspired fare that basically comes wrapped in a burrito or as a salad.

The chain, based in Denver, Colo., has always been keen on sourcing ingredients in a sustainable manner. The proteins are from ethically treated animals and the produce is sourced from local farms whenever possible. Just this week, the company announced an ambitious goal. It wants to have 50% of the produce items it uses — primarily lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and onions — come from local farms, up from 35% last year.

Chipotle defines “local” as anything within a 250-mile radius of its distribution centers, though it points out that most products are sourced with a 150-mile radius.

That’s how Chipotle defines local. What about supermarkets? It just so happens that those unstoppable number crunchers at the USDA’s Economic Research Service issued a report on local foods, a much-needed update that will hopefully guide the food industry in moving towards a common definition of local.

The problem is that even ERS admits that’s tough to define. “Though ‘local’ has a geographic connotation, there is no consensus on a definition in terms of the distance between production and consumption,” the authors state. “Definitions related to geographic distance between production and sales vary by regions, companies, consumers and local food markets.”

So much for that, right? It turns out that consumers are using a bunch of different yardsticks to measure local foods. For instance, geography might be second to the principles of sustainable production and distribution. Some people think it’s more important to reduce the use of synthetic chemicals and pesticides, and so might stretch the “local” boundary to include operations that supply those items.

Then, there’s the producers themselves and the surrounding landscape in which they farm (this marks the first time I’ve seen the word “provenance” in a government document). Here, the idea of “the story behind the food” … “describes the method or tradition of production that is attributable to local influences, seems to capture the essence of this component of the local food definition.”

Finally, the ERS mentions that local can even be defined as the retail outlet that is selling the food, such as a farmers’ market or community-supported agriculture operation. In these cases, a “short food supply chain facilitates some form of connection between the food consumer and producer by providing clearer signals related to the origin of the food product.”

Supermarkets have struggled to define their local programs using miles, regions and even state borders. The ERS report shows us that there are alternatives available that are just as effective — and just as accurate.