What Is The Definition of Local?

What is local? Is there one definitive definition? The Canadian government defines it as anything within the province or within 50km of the province’s border.

What does that mean? It means that food from Michigan can be labeled as “local” anywhere in Ontario, Canada. Hmmm ….

Did you know the the food on the average North American plate has traveled an incredible 1500 miles? That’s average, which means that much of it has come from much farther away. Let us take a moment and look at the different categories.

The average meal travels an incredible 1500 miles. How far does your food travel to get to you?



Really, it can’t get much more local than that.

If you’re growing it on a windowsill or balcony, under a grow lamp, or in your backyard, this is about as local as it is possible to be. This is uber-local food that travels no food miles at all to reach you.

Very few people can raise/grow/make everything they need in their home or backyard, but most of us can grow something.


The definition of your neighbourhood is going to be different if you live in a city or out in the country. Perhaps your neigbourhood is defined by a large city block, with your grocer on one corner and the local school on another. (Do neighbourhoods like that still exist? I mean, other than on Sesame Street?)

I would consider “neighbourhood” to be the distance you can reasonably bicycle with children and a bike wagon.

Of course, this depends on fitness, terrain and weather, with some people struggling to do a mile and others finding ten miles an easy ride.


Most people would certainly consider “with the city limits” to be local, at least for now.

However, what if you don’t live in a city? What else to call this? Farmers with horses and wagons can travel at a decadent 5-10 mph in order to bring their goods to small markets, which means they can’t travel very far. Shall we call this “farmer’s reach”?

Region or county

What about our regional municipality? Now we’re entering the fuzzy area, especially for anyone contemplating a resource-depleted future.

I would love to consider the region “local”, because it opens up a lot. With cars/trucks and affordable gas, it certainly is local.

When I lived in the city, we would happily drive outside the city to pick up bags of locally grown grain or vegetables.

Here in Nova Scotia, folks around here certainly consider anything within neighbouring counties to be local. For example, when we asked about local beef, we were told to go to a really great meat market (and it IS!) that is 100 miles away in the county to the south of us in order to buy meat that came from a farmer in a town that is about 100 miles away in the county to our east!


100 miles

Now, this must have been picked arbitrarily.

For most of us, a 100 mile radius covers quite a large distance, larger than a city or county, smaller than a province (unless you live in PEI, in which case it’s your entire island plus good chunks of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick!).

Still feel local? It generally takes 2 to 2 1/2 hours to drive 100 miles in a car, and almost 9 hours to travel by bicycle.

Walking? If you were in fabulous shape, you could do 20-30 miles a day, so that would be 3-5 days.
The meat that I mentioned above is certainly within my 100-mile radius, but then so is most of PEI and a big chunk of New Brunswick.


Ontario, which is a massive province at over 415,000 square miles, has over 250,000 freshwater lakes, a one and a half million square mile saltwater bay, and three geographical regions. An incredibly variety of crops grow in these three regions.

An in-province trip from Tillsonburg in southern Ontario to Cobalt in northern Ontario is almost 400 miles, and it crosses a ridiculously small part of the province.

Focusing on “Ontario grown” is a wonderful way to introduce people to the idea of local eating, but can you really call something local when it drives a full day by truck to get to you?

It gets worse. The definition of “locally grown” in Canada used to specify that it was being sold 50 kilometers or less from where it was grown. Some people found that to be too restrictive, so the rules were eased. Local now means food grown within the province or up to 50 km from the border of the province.

This is how apples grown in Michigan appear in Ontario, Canada as “locally grown”.


Of course, we’re clearly out of the “local” category now, by anyone’s standards. Is it reasonable to buy, for example, kiwifruit from British Columbia or Nova Scotia’s Jost Ice Wine if you don’t live there?

Should Glen Breton, Canada’s only single malt Scotch, be restricted to the Maritimes? What about scallops and lobster if you live inland?

If hard wheat does not grow in your province, do you purchase it from the closest out-of-province source or do you adjust your diet?

There is no hard right/wrong answer here and we all need to decide what percentage of our diet should be from outside our local foodshed.


Florida oranges.


Dried dates.

Canadians have been importing these since steam engine days, long before refrigerated trucks and jet engines.

What place do these foods play in your diet? Foods that Canadians (and others) have traditionally imported have been ones that keep for long periods of time, like molasses and dried dates.



Tea (except specific herbal teas).



Exotic fruit.

I’m sure you can think of many other things that you buy that simply do NOT grow in your part of the world. For me, coffee and cocoa and vanilla top the list.

Here’s a cool little tool that, if you’re like me, you’ll waste an hour playing with, seeing what 50 miles, 100 miles and 1000 miles looks like from your home.

Now, with all of those on the table, it’s time to analyze where your diet fits on the spectrum called “local”. It’s not a competition, especially since not everyone has access to the same resources. There are always going to be things that you will acquire from outside your area, however you define that.

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