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Can states and cities give a preference for local food?

YES.  States, cities, and school districts can include a 'buy-local' preference in their food procurement programs.

Local  governments do not have to wait for any future legislation or USDA rule-writing, or for passage of a new Farm Bill, to implement buy-local preference programs.

Senators Grassley, Harkin, Leahy and other members of the Senate Agriculture Committee ensured that the 2002 Farm Bill contained a provision allowing for local food purchasing preferences.  The Senate version of a ‘local purchasing preference’ was codified in Section 4303 of the 2002 Farm Bill.  

Two years later, Section 122 of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act reinforced Congress’ desire to allow for local food preferences.  

Some past confusion about preferences had to do with the torturous legal language that provides the basis for the purchasing preferences.  Local preferences are not ‘required’ or ‘mandated’. Rather, they are ‘not disallowed,’ and even then, the creation of local purchasing preferences is only allowed because they satisfy the criteria under Federal law for an exception to the prohibition on local preferences! 

No one is going to create the preference for you as a buyer—it’s up to you to create it--and yes, you are allowed to do so.    

USDA has contributed to the confusion, rather than clarifying the legal basis for purchasing preferences.  In the last couple of years, USDA has put out inaccurate “fact sheets” referring to part of the Code of Federal Regulations that they say shows a prohibition on the use of in-state and local geographic preferences.

But the regulations USDA refers to were published in 2000.   That was before the 2002 Farm Bill that allows for preferences, and before the Child Nutrition Act was amended to provide clear support for buy-local.  So at the time they published their regulations, USDA was absolutely right.  Now, they are not.  Why?  Because subsequent federal laws did state an exception to the prohibition. 

Again, local food purchasing programs are not disallowed.  They are permitted, and you should make use of them.

USDA so far has missed the opportunity to work with Congress on this.  The agency continues to put forward its own rules and regulations governing local food purchasing;  but, USDA needs to consult the underlying statutory basis for writing its rules.  Those rules need to be based on the bill as passed by Congress. 

The local food purchasing presence has also been included in the draft 2008 Farm Bill, but as of this writing that bill has not been passed.  It can be assumed, however, that the local preference language will not just be retained, but even strengthened.  Check back here for updates.

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