Development of local food systems that spur economic development in rural areas requires different assumptions and models than the traditional market-based approaches applied in urban areas.

That is among the conclusions presented in a recent article in the Journal of Rural Studies, “'No money exchanged hands, no bartering took place. But it's still local produce': Understanding local food systems in rural areas in the U.S. Heartland,” by University of Missouri professor Mary Hendrickson; Sarah Hultine Massengale, an MU Extension county engagement specialist in community economic development in Dent County; and Randolph Cantrell, professor emeritus with University of Nebraska.

Development of local food systems is often looked to as an engine for economic growth in rural communities. However, studies suggest that people in rural areas participate in local food systems in significantly different ways from their urban counterparts.

“If we only define successful local food systems by their financial impacts, then we miss understanding and supporting the other benefits that local food can contribute in our rural communities,” Massengale says.

Through interviews with 10 focus groups in the Midwest, the researchers found that rural consumers may bypass formal economic channels such as farmers markets and instead participate in rural food systems through such methods as self-provisioning, sharing and informal cash or barter transactions. Many of these channels depend on cultivating personal connections within social networks.

The successful development of food systems as a rural development strategy will depend upon investing in both informal and formal channels in the local food system, not just in markets and economic exchanges. These observations challenge communities and food systems practitioners to refine their understanding of rural food systems and develop new strategies to ensure their successful contribution to local economies, the authors concluded.