Thu, November 01, 2018   |    Download PDF of this article

Chefs sourcing ingredients for their restaurants from within local and regional food systems began in earnest with the New American cuisine movement of the late 1970s and early ’80s, led by pioneers such as Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, and Cindy Pawlcyn. What started as a mostly fine-dining movement has become customary for restaurants and foodservice operations of all sorts, styles, and volumes across the country, from large cities to small towns. Some source exclusively locally and find inspiration in their own gardens and farms, while a great majority of operations combine local and broadline sourcing.

Looking at it with some historical context, the 1980s and early ’90s were marked by the growth of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs, both direct-to-consumer (DTC) strategies. Restaurant and foodservice sourcing was limited to finding farmers willing to let a chef pick up or make a delivery. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, local grocers began to consciously stock local products. Concurrently, sourcing by chefs and foodservice providers increased.

In addition, college and university foodservice operations began sourcing more local and organic products in response to student demands. Recently the top trends in restaurants have been dominated by aspects of local, organic, and/or sustainable sourcing. Local and regional sourcing has become part of the restaurant industry’s way of doing business that covers the plate, or at least a portion of it. Today, 51 percent of all local sales are still fruit, vegetables, and nuts, while far-flung commodity and large-scale producers provide most of the rest. One next big challenge with regional sourcing will be moving towards more seasonal menus—rather than simply substituting distant for regional as the weather changes.

There are two simple questions to ask to gauge the extent and potential of local/regional food systems beyond 2018:

  • Is there sufficient food quantity and diversity in various regions of the U.S. to feed its population?
  • Is there enough land available?

Simply put—maybe, depending. Researchers found that New York State could feed 34 percent of its population from in-state production (with significant shifts in production to meet needs). Others did a national analysis of local potential. They reported that, using a 100-mile foodshed model, the available agricultural land could, on average nationally, produce 88–92 percent of the local population’s food needs depending on dietary pattern (more meat = lower potential). No studies project forward in time and account for population growth, land development, or potential climate change or water scarcity impacts in various regions. Also, none of the studies account for urban agriculture potential or indoor production potential. In almost all local regions, it is clear that the diversity of agriculture and various forms of indoor production would need to change substantially for this to become a reality.

Is “local” always more environmentally friendly and good for business? Given the data, it’s difficult to determine precisely positive environmental differences between those farms supplying local markets and those supplying broader markets. How food is grown can be a more significant factor than where it is grown. A recent study that compared DTC producers vs non-DTC producers found there is a greater proportion of DTC producers who are certified organic, though only 5 percent of the DTC farms are classified as organic. DTC producers are also more likely to use manure as a fertilizer source.

A recent report provides a first take on this question of economic sustainability. In 2012, there were in excess of $6.1 billion in local sales—55 percent of which is from intermediated channels (i.e., indirect to consumers). Most of these sales, in dollar value, occur with farms having gross sales of over $350,000 (the transition size between small and mid-size farms). Between 2006-07 and 2012-14 there was a 180 percent increase in farmers markets, but a 288 percent increase in food hubs and a 430 percent increase in local sourcing by school districts. Farms selling locally with intermediated market sales—i.e., through a food hub or some other distributor type—tended to get larger, and as farms grew larger, they tended to be more viable (i.e., net positive cash flow in both 2007 and 2012). This insight implies that the types of channels restaurants and foodservice operations typically source from are important in helping farms grow in size and maintain profitability.

Regional distributors and nonprofit food hubs also are becoming a more important component of regional food systems.

In short, restaurants and foodservice leaders play an important role in enabling local and regional farms to scale up and be profitable. And many of the newest restaurant concepts are focused on doing just that. According to the National Restaurant Association, the top concepts for this year largely focus on various flavors of local: hyperlocally sourced meats, locally sourced seafood, farm-branded items, and the continued emphasis on local fruits and vegetables. Now part of the mainstream thinking, local is beginning to show up in more concepts that reach beyond full-service dining to more types of eating occasions.

From grocery stores to full-service restaurants, chefs and operators are helping their consumers connect to their regional food systems in greater numbers every year, by featuring products from local farmers and growers. While the age of naming the farmer behind each item in every dish on a menu is mostly behind us, restaurants and foodservice operations often choose to list all of their local purveyors in one section of their menu, on a board on a wall, or on their website, all of which are effective ways to communicate with their diners and help them further support those purveyors at markets or directly on farms; more operations can follow that path. The next stage of communication and consumer education should be around the environmental and economic impacts of tapping into a local food system. The two are more complex elements for chefs to explain and diners to understand than creating a personal connection between producers and consumers, but they will go further in helping diners understand the business structure behind a restaurant or foodservice operation and its impact on food costs.

Next Door, Modern Market, Sweetgreen, Tender Greens, Cava, and many others highlighted in past Menus of Change annual reports and summits now are leading the industry to a local, regional, and delicious future. Established companies will need to reduce their reliance on far-flung commodity markets and suppliers in order to stay competitive.


Chefs ignited the local food movement, and restaurant companies are now creating new concepts to bring local to the mainstream. However, established players still look to commodity markets to fill out most of the plate, missing an opportunity to support local communities, a more resilient farm sector, and biodiversity.


  • Currently, across the U.S. there is great potential to re-regionalize a high proportion of our food system. The land base relative to population exists for this to become a reality. However, there is still a need for an analysis that projects forward relative to population growth, climate change, and water availability.
  • Significant growth has occurred in intermediated local and regional sales. These types of sales show a solid correlation with respect to profitability and growth of farms marketing within a local region.
  • Chefs ignited the local food movement, and restaurant companies are now creating new concepts to bring local to the mainstream. However, established players still look to commodity markets to fill out most of the plate, missing an opportunity to support local communities, a more resilient farm sector, and biodiversity.