Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 281–297 | Cite as

Operationalizing local food: goals, actions, and indicators for alternative food systems

  • David A. ClevelandEmail author
  • Allison Carruth
  • Daniella Niki Mazaroli


Spatial localization, often demarcated by food miles, has emerged as the dominant theme in movements for more socially just and environmentally benign alternative food systems, especially in industrialized countries such as the United States. We analyze how an emphasis on spatial localization, combined with the difficulty of defining and measuring adequate indicators for alternative food systems, can challenge efforts by food system researchers, environmental writers, the engaged public, and advocacy groups wanting to contribute to alternative food systems, and facilitates exploitation by the mainstream players using “localwash” to maintain the status quo. New indicators are urgently needed because research shows that spatial localization in general and minimized food miles in particular are not adequate or even required for most of the goals of alternative food systems. Creating indicators to operationalize goals for alternative, local food systems requires asking the right questions to make sure indicators are not misleading us: What are the goals of alternative food systems? What actions and policies will most effectively achieve those goals? What is the potential of reducing food miles as an action and a policy for achieving goals? What are the best indicators for measuring progress toward goals? We discuss how these questions can be answered for a wide range of alternative food system goals via four categories according to the role of food miles reduction as an action and policy in promoting them: necessary and sufficient, necessary but not sufficient, potentially important, and potentially supportive.


Alternative food systems Food miles Indicators Local food movement Local trap Localization Locavores Sustainability 



California Rural Legal Assistance


Community supported agriculture


Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture


Electronic benefit transfer


Food policy council


Good Food Purchasing Guidelines


Good Food Purchasing Pledge


Greenhouse gas emissions


Los Angeles Food Policy Council


Life cycle assessment


North American Free Trade Agreement


National Good Food Network


Real Food Challenge


Santa Barbara County


United Farm Workers


United States



This research was partially funded by the Sustainability Champion award to David A. Cleveland from the University of California, Santa Barbara Academic Senate, Sustainability Working Group. A much earlier version of this research was presented in 2011 at the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) Annual Conference, Oakland, California. For help with the research Allison Carruth thanks Kathryn Cai. For comments on the manuscript we thank Paula Daniels, Daniela Soleri, editor Harvey James, Jr., and four anonymous reviewers.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • David A. Cleveland
    • 1
    Email author
  • Allison Carruth
    • 2
  • Daniella Niki Mazaroli
    • 3
  1. 1.Environmental Studies ProgramUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA
  2. 2.Department of English and Institute of Environment and SustainabilityUniversity of California, Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA
  3. 3.Leichtag FoundationEncinitasUSA

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