Defining “Local” in the Southern California Food Shed

A recent community conversation held at Antioch University opened the dialogue for a topic on everyone’s mind: how to define “local” as it pertains to food distribution and consumption. With the SOL Food Festival approaching on September 29th in Santa Barbara, Ca., the definition of local is key to understanding one’s food system and how it is linked to our environment and our economy. While everyone has the ability to create a healthier, more sustainable food future, the definition of the term is both personal and political, revolving around issues of access, education, and local economies.

The community panel consisted of Dwight Detter, Regional Forager for Whole Foods Market Southern California, Melissa Cohen, General Manager of Isla Vista Food Co-Op, and Jasper Eiler, Manager at Farmer Direct Produce. The diverse panel discussion showcased three different views on the term – from the voice of a large retailer to a local co-operative to that of a wholesale distributor. At the core of the conversation, however, was a focus on community building, primarily through supporting local farmers and empowering customers to cast their own food votes. At a fundamental level, transparency is key, both in company practices and food miles.

Starting the conversation was Dwight Detter from Whole Foods Market. Introducing community members to the concept of a “food shed,” the definition is everything between where a food is produced and where a food is consumed. This includes the land it’s grown on, the miles it travels, the market it goes through, and essentially, where it ends up on our plates. In order to be considered local by Whole Foods standards, it must meet at least one of the following criteria: Locally Grown, Locally Raised, Locally Landed, Locally Made, and Locally Finished. Also of key importance is where a product or product manufacturer is headquartered. Introducing the Southern California Food Shed, the model reflects the importance of community citizenship.

“What is especially important to me is transparency. The customer can make the decision of what’s important – we ask the consumer what is local. The whole piece on local will always be an evolving piece. We must constantly update our mission and agenda with this discussion,” said Detter.

Melissa Cohen was the next speaker, advocating the benefits of co-operative companies. At the Isla Vista Co-Op, local is defined by a three-tier system: Local Products (grown/produced within the tri-county area and locally owned and operated), 150 Mile Product (grown/produced within 150 miles of the Co-Op), and Native Cali Product (grown/produced by independently-owned CA business). By displaying what is local and in season, consumers can make better purchasing decisions based on availability. These “self-selecting” products allow people to think outside of convenience.

“When we talk about local, we talk about community. In the co-operative model, the entire community works together to take risks and the entire community wins when the business does well. The money you spend in the co-op stays within your local economy. We are small but fierce,” said Cohen.

Additionally, they offer a “Business to Business” program, allowing businesses to purchase wholesale from the store. With over 15 small businesses involved (from Simply Pies to Yoga Soup), the partnership acts as a resource for building the local economy. In the co-op’s fiscal year, over 45% of all produce dollars were spent towards local farmers and producers. The dedication to local can also be seen in the store’s current local product lists and farm specific signage. With over 100 products grown or produced within a 150-mile radius, the co-op helps promote small businesses overcome obstacles of distribution.

“We are growing business for many smaller producers. We are very lucky. The small nature of our company allows us to buy from producers that wouldn’t necessarily be able to sell bigger quantities. We decide ourselves what we want to carry,” said Cohen.

The final speaker, Jasper Eiler from Farmer Direct Produce, advocated their connection with local farmers and the community at large. The company picks up daily from local farms and farmer’s markets, supporting small-scale, often family run farms. Since 2005, Farmer Direct has been providing local and sustainably grown produce direct from area farms to local schools, colleges, hospitals, restaurants, grocery stores, home delivery groups, and other businesses. With many larger institutions needing an aggregation of products, the company works to provide an easy way to connect farm to fork.

“What we are really doing is supporting local farmers, helping the bigger local farmers localize so they don’t have to ship their produce all over the country. We are also helping the smaller farmers move their food – from restaurants to small grocery stores and various institutions. We act as their marketing sales engine,” said Eiler.

Staying away from industrial scale farmers, Famer Direct Produce prefers to work with small-scale farmers. By helping farmers localize, the company makes it easier for them to facilitate and sell their produce within the Tri-County food shed. Several local farmers even grow directly for the company (Tom Shepherd), keeping dollars in the local community rather than distributing cross-country. Through their work with local farmers, they have been able to educate businesses on the importance of localizing the food system, something wholesale suppliers simply cannot provide.

“It’s about building relationships with our local farmers and really getting to know them. We develop a level of trust – by interacting with them, by being on the farm, and by facilitating conversations. I don’t want farmers to perceive us as anything but supporters of their cause,” said Eiler.

What Does Local Mean to You?  Give us your opinion on this survey and learn more at this year’s SOL Food Festival, set for Sept 29th, 2012, at Plaza Vera Cruz in Santa Barbara. Check out event details at

-Rachel Hommel

LoaTree Team Writer

(“Defining Local Event” was presented by LoaTree on behalf of the 3rd Annual SOL Food Festival.)

1 Response

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    Joan Stevens

    Thanks for this great article! There are so many definitions of local – it’s nice to see how retailers work with this idea. I imagine I am like many – I aim for as local (and as “clean” – lacking petrochemical additives) as I can and ideally that means starting with my own yard and seeds I’ve saved. After diy growing it rapidly moves up from farmers markets to Whole Foods and Trader Joes. Sometimes convenience trumps ethics. We’re all doing the best we can! Lately I’ve been involved in a great community produce exchange that is a real delight and allows me to increase my local food intake substantially.

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