The supply chain case studies suggest that indicators of market performance of local foods were more closely related to supply chain structure and size than to product origin. Food distributed in local supply chains tends to travel much shorter distances than in mainstream chains. But distance, or “food miles,” is not the only factor that affects supply chain performance.

Transportation fuel use per unit of product delivered depends on load sizes in different segments of the supply chain and logistical efficiencies. For example, beef sold in a mainstream chain in Minneapolis-St. Paul travels more than 1,500 miles farther from producer to consumer than beef in the direct market supply chain. But fuel use per 100 lbs. of product sold is slightly lower in the mainstream supply chain. Larger loads for mainstream beef account for this difference; full semi-trailers can carry up to 45,000 lbs. of beef in each transportation leg of the supply chain, while trucks carry only about 2,500 lbs. of beef in the direct chain.

The mainstream supply chains do not always use the least amount of fuel for transportation, however, despite efficiencies due to larger loads. Intermediated supply chains delivering local products in the beef (in Minneapolis-St.Paul), spring mix (in Sacramento), and apple (in Syracuse) cases used the least amount of fuel per 100 lbs. of product sold in those locations. In these cases, moderate product aggregation to increase load sizes coupled with shorter transportation distances yielded significant fuel use savings.

The location of production, processing, and distribution activities may affect local economic conditions. When supply chain activities occur within a local area, wages and business proprietor income are more likely to be retained locally. In all of the case studies of local food supply chains, almost all employment, wages, and income accrued within the local area. However, mainstream supply chains also make significant contributions to local economies because many supply chain activities, such as distribution and retailing, are performed locally and tend to be labor intensive.

What future for local food supply chains?

A striking observation about local food supply chains compared with mainstream counterparts is the myriad ways that food can move from producers to consumers. This variety may be due to the fact that many markets for locally produced and distributed products are relatively new; farmers and entrepreneurs are trying several different models for getting their products to market and matching product characteristics with potential consumers. Although some marketing arrangements for local foods, such as farmers’ markets or CSAs, are time-tested methods for delivering local foods, other supply chain models, particularly in intermediated supply chains, are emerging and proving to be successful.

The structure of local food supply chains may change if demand for locally produced products increases, or if more producers and businesses enter the market in search of price premiums for their products. In some cases, markets for local foods have relatively few buyers and sellers; in Washington, DC, one producer sells milk through home delivery to a few thousand customers, and only a handful of producers sell milk directly to consumers through other outlets. Greater demand may strain the capacity of existing producers, and increased supply from new market entrants could erode price premiums for unique product characteristics.

If demand for local foods is robust and continues to grow, supply chains in a larger local foods market may look different than they do in 2010. Meeting increased demand may mean that producers have to balance maintaining their identity in the marketplace and conveying information to consumers on one hand, with product aggregation to access larger markets on the other. The two extremes of this balancing act are well known: large mainstream supply chains in supermarkets, and intimate direct-to-consumer marketing. But case studies on local food supply chains suggest that there may be a fertile middle ground, where local producers and businesses can convey valuable information to consumers and achieve a scale of production sufficient to enter larger markets.