Foodshed Strategy


The Transition Centre Foodshed Strategy offers a program to develop robust local food systems that provides significant social, economic and environmental benefits for participating communities.

It is primarily economic. Bottom line:  it more than pays for itself in both tangible and intangible terms.

A ten percent local food strategy provides roughly $300,000 revenue per year per 1,000 people for food purchases.  That income stays in the community.  It can be invested to expand the community’s sustainable economy.

For every dollar spent on food there is a multiplier effect of related spending.  The local food system is not only growers but suppliers and distributors – many of which provided added value.  That can add up to 30% to local revenues.

A robust local food system creates businesses and jobs.  It creates greater community solidarity.  It creates a sense of community security, safety and self-determination.

The local food system is the foundation of a resilient community.  Upon that foundation can be erected the infrastructure of a robust and sustainable economy.

The list of benefits of a strong local food system are many:

  • Reliable source of food
  • Business and job development.  
  • Increase and retain local production revenues
  • Healthier food 
  • Reduce food insecurity
  • Stronger sense of community/place
  • Preserve and enhance the environment 
  • Reduce energy input to produce and distribute food
  • Reduce dependence on outside resources


Global Food System

The food system upon which the world now depends is vast, complex and vulnerable.  Reliable production of adequate foods and agricultural products is dependent upon a large variety of factors of both natural and of human origin. 

Over the past century and a half, the global food system has been a more or less successful race against Malthus. Nonetheless, more than one-tenth of the world population is undernourished.  Roughly one in eight people in the US are food insecure.

Malthus predicted that population would outstrip food production.  Then came the industrial revolution.  Energy, particularly petroleum, continues to drive food production. Over the course of the twentieth century global population more than doubled to six billion.  At current rates there will be nearly ten billion people living in 2050.  

The United Nations has set, and many organizations have adopted, a set of goals for sustainable development. These consists of providing a minimum of the basic needs for all people including food and health, reducing poverty and a variety of social services.  Emerging economies are working hard to pursue higher standards of living.  Achieving these goals will place additional demands on finite and non -renewable resources.  Continued growth of population is the major stress factor.  We need a workable alternative.  

Local Economies

More robust local food economies (and resilient communities) address the problem of potential political and economic instability.  Local food economies also provide a model for achieving the objective of a more just and equitable world.  It is becoming increasingly clear that communities that can resolve their own problems can and must lead the way.  It is a model that all communities around the world can follow – “raising all boats.”

Fresh water, arable land, energy and other mineral resources are critical variables in the global food equation. The larger and more complex the system the more difficult those variables are to control.  A local food system puts that control in the hands of your community. 

Fresh water is by a very large margin the most critical resource on the planet.  Many leading agricultural regions have been experiencing extended droughts.  Aquifers are also being depleted.  We need to reduce the stress on these regions by producing more locally.

Modern agriculture is driven by energy.  Energy is required for production, processing and distribution.  Some estimate that as much as eight calories of energy goes into every calorie of food on your plate.  There is an increasingly high correlation between energy cost and food cost. A local food system can reduce energy inputs and dependencies.

There is a steady rise of food recalls due to both physical and biological contaminations.  There were 3,000 food product recalls in the US in 2016. A local food system provides more direct and immediate control of food quality.  Accountability is close and immediate.

Much of our food is highly processed.  There are excessive quantities of starches, fats and sweeteners in such products. The rising level of obesity and incidence of type 2 diabetes is largely attributed to poor food quality.  A local food system provides healthier foods.  It produces fresh and/or frozen food products.

What is a Foodshed?

A foodshed is a geographic region from which a community draws it food and agricultural products.  A study of food reaching Chicago reported that it traveled an average of just over 1,500 miles.  That distance had increased significant (from 1,200) in just 20 years. Banana’s travel an average of 4,600 miles.  Bananas, harvested green (unripen) and mildly refrigerated, will last three to four weeks. They are shipped by sea.  This is true of many fruits and vegetables. There is also considerable shipment by air freight for more perishable foods.  

Where there is good soil and adequate water, communities in the US can grow 95% of what currently appears in grocery stores.  Strawberries and blueberries may replace citrus.  The five percent represents optional but popular coffee, tea, cocoa, spices, and such.

Until modern times, communities were largely self-sufficient in producing their needs.  That was of necessity.  With the railroad we developed a national market.  The steamship produced a global economy.  Interstate highways completed the network. Agriculture became an industry. Refrigeration and canning produced new products and created mass-market distribution networks.  

Local Food Market

Over the last few decades the local food movement has grown.  Consumers want fresher, better quality, more nutritious foods.  Such foods are more expensive.  It is estimated that that the national average is about one percent of our food is produced and sold locally.  The market continues to grow but slowly.  It is a niche market.

“Local” means that the food is grown within a set distance of markets, particularly farmers markets or restaurants that specialize in local foods.  The larger the market, the larger the radius.  A community such as mine (State College, PA) can draw the majority of its local food from a radius of 25 miles.  Philadelphia has defined a 100 miles radius.  New York City, 150 miles.

A foodshed is more than distance. Foodsheds are often identified with watersheds and thus have geographic identities.  My community is identified with the Spring Creek watershed; New York City with the Hudson River Valley.  Foodshed may also be defined by bioregions, sometimes contiguous with a watershed, such as the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

There is a great deal of academic research on foodsheds.  Planners have also been busy doing their work.  Both the science and art of foodshed planning are thus well advanced. Scaling up from the current level (1%) is, however, a serious challenge.  The State of Vermont has been by far the most successful, achieving 12.9% local food in 2017.

The larger the foodshed, the more complex the organizational problem.  Even a small foodshed is a complex organizational environment.  We need the appropriate skills required to work in such complex and dynamic environments.  Transition Centre DeepLeadership addresses this issue.  

Expanding a market starts with a clear vision.  Foodshed models are often about community benefit.  They imply inputs of public funding and management.  Expanding foodsheds also requires entrepreneurial motivation.  There is not enough money to fund foodsheds as public services.  They must pay for themselves.  As any ecosystem must, they are required produce at least as much as they consume.  That includes money.  In short, it is an economic venture and must work in the market.

The current local food is a lifestyle market.  Local, organically grown, products are costlier.  To expand, it must successful compete with the larger food economy. This means providing a better product at a competitive cost.  It will take a Silicon Valley scale initiative to make this work.  I believe Vermont has prototyped this model but that approach may not be appropriate for all communities.