Defining local (STARS)

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9 replies [Last post]
AASHE Member
Joined: Jun 9 2010

This post is related to STARS, AASHE's Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System.

A group of us at Middlebury are trying to get a clearer picture of what other schools consider to be “local” when it comes to purchasing food for their dining services. We wondered whether AASHE has an official definition or whether it is left for each member institution to determine their own definition. I know that in the STARS Food and Beverage Purchasing credit a 250 mile radius is used, but is that AASHE’s official definition of local food? I would also love to hear what other schools are using as their definition.

Joined: Dec 16 2008

Hi Clare! Thanks for posting in the forums!
As you mentioned, our STARS program does use the 250 mile radius as a criteria in defining "local" food. AASHE as an organization, does not have an "official" definition of local food but the STARS credit is in a sense the standard the organization has set. It should be noted that as "close as possible" is the preference.
For reference, we had originally suggested 150 miles but received feedback from many campuses that a larger radius was necessary (see the feedback from campuses in STARS historical documents here, specifically version 0.5
In addition, there were other institutions that wanted any food grown/processed, etc within their respective state to qualify as local. As you know, STARS is constantly evolving in part from feedback received from various institutions. It is possible that particular credit could be modified based on the feedback coming in now (read more about the new version here:

This article may be of further assistance. It unpacks a variety of different issues related to local food

Major food service companies (Aramark, Sodexo, etc) are somewhat loose with the definition as well. See this publication from IFMA and Aramark that touches on local food: Sustainability “How-to Guide” Series - Aramark from the publication,
"Local sourcing could be from within the community, a specified state or province, or a region identified within a specified radius, such as 150 to 300 miles (241 to 483 kilometers). With- out any agreed upon definition, local purchasing criteria may shift based upon the priorities and limitations of the respective client. However, as some foods are perishable by nature, local sourc- ing is already common practice for many dairy and baked goods.
Local sourcing varies seasonally, based on the geography of the customer and the type of food provided. Growing season also impacts the avail- ability of the local supply. For example, tomatoes are seasonal in New Jersey in July and August. In winter, tomatoes served in New Jersey are typically grown in greenhouses or shipped from California and Florida. If local sourcing is a key part of a client’s goals, encourage menus to be developed using seasonal produce by contacting local producers to see what is available for each season. The chef can then develop his/her menu around local availability. "

Many campuses have wrestled with the topic as well. Here are a few examples:
Colgate University -
Appalachian State U -
Pomona College
UC San Diego
I hope that helps and that others will also weigh in!

peltonc's picture
StaffAASHE Member
Joined: Jun 16 2011

Hello Clare,

You may also want to take a look at some STARS reports. Many institutions provide public notes and/or URLs related to their sustainable food programs that may be helpful.

Other resources include The Real Food Challenge and the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

I should also add that STARS Technical Advisors are currently discussing revisions to the Food and Beverage Purchasing credit for STARS 2.0. One option under consideration would give institutions more flexibility to define "local" based on their particular circumstances. We would love to get feedback on how other folks are addressing this issue as well.


AASHE Member
Joined: Mar 12 2009


BAMCO runs our dining at Oberlin. We’ve been using their definition: food purchased within 150 miles from vendors that make less than five million annually. We could’ve scored higher on STARS by reporting on a 250 miles radius but food from Virginia and Maryland (as great as it is) doesn’t seem, in my opinion, “local” to Northeastern Ohio.

peter_1's picture
Joined: Jun 3 2010

Clare -

The shorter radius used at Oberlin, plus consideration of vendor size is much better than a flat 250 miles -- but I don't think 150 miles is really 'local'.

In practical terms though, the goal is to be as local as possible, and this could depend in part on where the campus is located, what product you're considering, and what season it is. It seems to me that the key to greatly increasing the amount of truly local food is to encourage -- or demand -- much more seasonality in menus.

It is also critical for someone to really work with local farmers to find ways to encourage their participation in ways that work for them. Asking them to meet national commodity prices isn't often reasonable, but there are advantages to the farmers if they have a predictable demand and price [even if it's lower than the retail price they're used to]. Some food-service providers seem to fight this type of partnership, while some actually work at making arrangements that work for both the farmers and the dining service.

One big mistake is for a college or university to choose a food-service provider on price alone, with only secondary [if that] attention to local purchasing. Even more important, most of them completely ignore the fact that most food from the industrialized food system actually undermines health instead of supporting it!


Peter Crownfield
Campus Sustainability Initiative
Alliance for Sustainable Communities-Lehigh Valley
Bethlehem, PA 18015

AASHE Member
Joined: Sep 9 2011

I can't say enough good things about the Frogs system that a student at Hampshire College developed a few years ago. They had different definitions for local (as I recall set at 100 miles), regional (which may have extended as much as 500 miles), and organic. There was a different colored frog icon assigned to various food items in the line so that students could make dining choices accordingly if they were so inclined.

What I loved about that approach is that it gets us out of the sometimes-ridiculous debate about local foods in which either food from 250 miles away is given the same "local" designation as the food from the farm down the street (I live in the New England region that still has remnants of many local family farms and some renewed interest in small scale local farming so such farms exist); or conversely in which the farm 99 miles away is considered "local" but the farm 101 miles away is lumped into the same "non-local" category as food sourced from clear cut Brazilian rainforest.

I love this approach, though there may be a couple of extra categories you could add (e.g. In deference to the hard work of folks at the Rainforest Action Network and similar groups, I would love more discussion about foods from far away that are native to their region or sustainably grown in their region - stuff like brazil nuts or shade grown coffee which help to protect native forests - even though they are far from local).

Sustainable foods are a "shades of gray" rather than a "black and white" issue and I'd suggest that we need metrics that reflect those shades of gray.

Is the farm 99 miles away that uses a full pesticide approach and monocrops all non-native crops better than the one 101 miles away that practices IPM, better crop rotation, and grows a lot of native or naturalized crops? If our criteria is too black and white, I worry that we will be giving preferences to the wrong food producers.

peter_1's picture
Joined: Jun 3 2010

Arbitrary mileage limits are problematic and can even work against the real goal.

Roger's final point, though, doesn't go far enough, in my opinion. Twenty years ago, many people believed that organically-grown food was better for the environment but otherwise no better than food grown in the agribusiness model. Study after study has shown this to be false; there are many good reasons to insist on sustainably-grown food. Here are a few:

  • Nutrient levels in organically-grown food are higher -- sometimes twice as high -- as food from the industrial farms.

  • Levels of pesticides and toxins in organically-grown food are dramatically lower -- as are the levels in the people who eat it.

  • The use of artificial fertilizers and high levels of mechanization result in far more greenhouse gas emissions [GHG], while organic practices actually sequester carbon in the soil.

  • 'Conventional' farming practices destroy the life-giving topsoil. In fact, an agronomist from Nebraska reported that industrial-style corn production loses 2 bushels of topsoil for every bushel of corn produced.

  • Our surface waters are polluted with fertilizer runoff and a majority of aquifers in the U.S. are now contaminated with Atrazine, the most widely-used pesticide in the U.S. [now found in over 80% of public water supplies]. Agribusiness says it's necessary, but Atrazine is banned in the EU and Canada, and recent reports link atrazine to reproductive/developmental problems.

  • Most pesticides are linked to serious health problems in farm workers and the communities where the food is grown -- so if you want to increase local health problems, just buy more of this food from local farmers.

  • The impacts of GMO foods on human health are unknown -- and won't be fully known for decades -- but there is ample evidence that they create or contribute to many health problems.

  • Mistreatment of animals is rampant in the meat and poultry industries, and I'm not talking about mild discomfort -- I'm talking about unspeakable, barbaric cruelty that is a matter of course.

  • Antibiotics are routinely overused in animal production, not to treat disease but to promote growth in disgusting, unsanitary conditions -- current estimates are that over 80% of antibiotics used in the U.S. are used in this way.

  • Processed foods are often further degraded with preservatives.

If you want food that promotes health instead of undermining it -- and if you want to reduce toxic pollution in your local air and water -- insist on organically-grown food and give local farmers a reason to make the transition to organic. I have lots of problems with the USDA organic certification process, but it's just about the only way to avoid GMO, pesticides, and harmful practices unless you can deal directly with a local farmer. Unfortunately, this is often impractical when buying and preparing large volumes of food.

Dining-service companies often claim that going to local, organic, sustainably-raised food would cost too much. There are two reasons: why campus food is so over-priced: (1) the high profit margins built into the contract by the food-service company and, in some cases,discounts and rebates from big sellers that are not always passed on in the form of lower meal costs; and (2) additional revenue that colleges and universities extract from meal plans.

This summer, a student team will explore the feasibility of transitioning to dining services that meet the high standards needed to protect student health and the environment. I hope we can provide some additional information at the conclusion of that project.


Peter Crownfield
Campus Sustainability & Sustainability & Health initiatives
Alliance for Sustainable Communities-Lehigh Valley
Bethlehem, PA 18015

ljohnson's picture
AASHE Member
Joined: Dec 23 2008

I am pleased to see this discussion looking at values other than arbitrary distances. Much of the area encompassed by a 150 radius circle around Florida Gulf Coast University is underwater with the Gulf of Mexico to the west and the Everglades to the south. With a 250 mile radius add the Atlantic Ocean to the east. We struggle with the same problem trying to source local building materials for LEED certification.

While more difficult to quantify, establishing goals for what we want to achieve in food purchases (supporting sustainable farming, living wages for workers, diversity of produce variety, reduced carbon emissions over-all) is a much better way to achieve our goal than selections based on arbitrary distances or annual incomes. The embedded carbon from transportation in one orange or head of lettuce in a truck or train car load is really not that much. Besides, we would hate to see all of you north of Florida giving up fresh orange and grapefruit juice or Florida seafood, or trying to grow it indoors with energy intensive heating and lighting.

AASHE Member
Joined: Apr 9 2009

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the AASHE forum. I am just getting out of a Sustainable Food Systems Working Group meeting and your post is relevant. Can you provide credible sources on bullet-points 1 and 2 above?
Thanks for any help,
--John's picture
Joined: Sep 11 2014

Thank you Peter Crownfield for sharing wonderful idea, which i find it quite useful.