ERS provides a comprehensive overview of local food systems, including alternative definitions of local food, estimates market size and reach, characteristics of local consumers and producers, and early indications of the economic and health impacts of local food systems. Statistics suggest that local food markets account for a small, but growing, share of U.S. agricultural production. For smaller farms, direct marketing to consumers accounts for a higher percentage of their sales than for larger farms (see Direct and Intermediated Marketing of Local Foods in the United States and Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues).
ERS has conducted a series of coordinated case studies comparing the structure, size, and performance of local food supply chains with those of mainstream supply chains. Interviews and site visits with farms and businesses, along with secondary data, describe how food moves from farms to consumers in 15 food supply chains. Supply chains are compared by degree of product differentiation, diversification of marketing outlets, and information conveyed to consumers about product origin. The cases highlight differences in prices and the distribution of revenues among supply chain participants, local retention of wages and proprietor income, transportation fuel use, and social capital creation (see Comparing the Structure, Size, and Performance of Local and Mainstream Food Supply Chains).
Food environment factors—such as store/restaurant proximity, food prices, food and nutrition assistance programs, and community characteristics—interact to influence food choices and diet quality. The Food Environment Atlas assembles statistics on food environment indicators to stimulate research on the determinants of food choices and diet quality and provides a spatial overview of a community's ability to access healthy food and its success in doing so. The Atlas currently includes 168 indicators of the food environment in three broad categories-food choices, health and well-being, and community characteristics.