The Tricky Thing About Labeling Foods as ‘Locally Grown’

August 23, 2016

We’re living in an age of conscious consumption. For many of us, settling for the cheapest, quickest option doesn’t cut it; we want to know that our purchases are not contributing to economic or environmental degradation.

One of the best places to spot this trend? Our food shopping habits. We’ve learned about the demise of the small farmer, the incredible distances most ingredients travel to our plates, and the damage industrial farming is doing to our soil and air—and we want something different. Recent polling shows that for most Americans, purchasing food from local producers is a high priority. According to a 2014 survey by Cone Communications, almost three-quarters of Americans stated that buying locally was a significant factor in determining what they buy, and 77 percent of shoppers consider the sustainability factor of what they purchase.

According to another survey from Consumer Reports, two-thirds of shoppers specifically look for a label indicating that a product has been grown locally. In New York, shoppers can now pick up a product and see on the label if it’s been grown in-state. The new Empire State label goes beyond just identifying food origins, though.  According to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, it indicates that a product has been inspected for the highest level of food safety and environmental sustainability standards.

“New York State Grown & Certified is the first state program in the nation to combine modern food safety standards with environmental stewardship to achieve a premium level of certification,” reads the New York Governor’s website. “By certifying food at this level, New York is providing consumers with an assurance of quality in how and where the food is grown and produced while promoting New York State producers who are meeting a growing market demand for foods that are safely handled and grown in an environmentally responsible manner.”

But pinning down what “locally grown” means can be a difficult task. There is no standardized definition provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, only corporate and state-level definitions. Vermont considers anything grown within its borders or 30 miles outside them; a locally grown label in large states like California or Texas could mean a product has traveled as much as 800 miles from its source. It’s clear that a “local” label has its limits, and if it goes unregulated by the USDA could become as meaningless as an all-natural label.

So what’s a conscious consumer to do? Get educated about the food you’re buying. After all, your local farmer might be cranking out beautiful produce—that’s loaded with pesticides and GMOs. Shop local and organic as often as you can, and meanwhile, support producers that might not be local but use sustainable practices.

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.


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