What is local food?
There is no technical definition for local food. The general idea of eating locally is based on the following ideas:
- Eating food that was grown and/or produced within 100 miles of where you live
- Purchasing food directly from local growers with whom you interact
- Buying food from local farm stands/markets
- Growing/hunting/fishing your own food
With the increasing frequency of food imports and exports, an even broader idea of local eating may include:
- Food grown in your region
- Food grown in your country
As you can see, “eating local food” can mean many different things. It refers to both geographic proximity as well as a more direct relationship with producers (or becoming a producer yourself).
Figure out your 100 mile radius for local eating
Why is local food so important?
Taste and nutrition
Two of the most important aspects of eating local food are improved taste and nutrition. Food grown locally typically tastes better, as it’s eaten soon after harvest. Local food is allowed to ripen on the plants and in the fields without additional chemical aid. (Compare the taste of a just-picked, dark-red garden tomato in August with a pink January one and you’ll be amazed at the difference!)
Moreover, local food is harvested at the peak of the season, making it more nutritious. While someone may be expecting a wallop of vitamin C after eating an orange, that doesn’t always hold true. When a piece of fruit is harvested out of season and then shipped over many miles, the nutrient content deteriorates. Buying locally not only provides better tasting and more nutritious food, but allows individuals to enjoy seasonal food diversity.
Supporting local businesses can enhance the local economy. When we buy food from sources outside of our region, we don’t support our local economy, we become dependent upon shipping methods that cover lengthy distances, and we don’t have as much control over what we purchase.
Food purchased at a standard grocery store can provide as little as 3.5 cents of every food dollar to the farmer. The rest of the money goes to food processors, suppliers and marketers.
Eating local helps to keep small farmers alive and provides more options to the consumer. The number of U.S. farms continued to fall in 2007 but the average size of them grew.
Exporting and importing foods is becoming commonplace and this takes more energy. The average food item travels 1200 – 2480 miles in the U.S. before it reaches the kitchen table. While the specific number of miles a food travels has been debated by some, it doesn’t take much investigation to establish where a food was grown. If you live in Wisconsin and buy apples grown in New Zealand, your food has traveled thousands of miles. If you live in Toronto and buy tomatoes and avocados from Mexico, your food traveled a long way. If you buy a mango from Ecuador and you live in Ecuador, you’re a local food stud.
Food production depends heavily on energy and oil for its production, processing, packaging, and distribution. The cost and availability of oil either directly or indirectly affects all food system inputs, including other forms of energy.
Food safety is an often overlooked aspect of local eating. When we buy food from local sources, the opportunity for contamination is diminished. Food contamination often occurs on massive industrialized farms that have livestock nearby. With controlled farming systems and a reduction in the number of “hands” touching food, the potential of food-borne illness is minimized.
In addition, food safety regulations and enforcement may not be as stringent in the region of origin as they are where you live.
When buying directly from local farms you can ask about production methods. A close interaction between producer and consumer also means that producers feel more responsibility to the people they feed.
What you should know
Local food systems can serve as a strategy to improve or maintain the environmental health of local establishments. Local campaigns are raising consumer understanding about the importance of sustainable agriculture by local farms. The food sold at farmer’s markets is 30-40% cheaper (on average) than those sold at supermarkets. Eating local expands into an overall sustainable food movement.
Once we build a healthy foundation with daily food choices, we can begin to make local food more of a priority. Inspecting the food on our plates each day is a good place to start. Ask where your food is coming from and why. Buying fresh foods in season and in rhythm with your local region can promote health and sustainability.
For extra credit
In 2007, the Oxford American Dictionary word of the year was “locavore.”
In 2001, the UK exported 149,000 tons of fresh milk and imported 110,000 tons.
In 1870, the state of Iowa produced 100 percent of the apples consumed in the state. That was down to 50 percent by 1925 and 15 percent in 1999.
Imports made up 15% of all U.S. food consumed in 2005.
For every calorie of lettuce imported to the UK from America’s west coast, 127 calories of fuel are used. That means flying over 2 pounds of California lettuce uses enough energy to keep a 100-watt light bulb glowing for 8 days.
Resources for getting started with local food:
Natural Resources Defense Council
Eat Well Guide
Folks in the UK – check this out:
Summary and recommendations
Basing food choices on what’s in season in your region is an excellent idea for a healthy diet, as this food is more flavorful and nourishing. Establishing methods for preserving this food, such as canning, freezing or drying can help to extend one’s local food supply over the non-growing months.
During non-growing months, learn how to use winter squash, root crops and cabbage family vegetables.
During months when local crops are not producing, find the next closest alternative. That could be as simple as buying from the country you live in rather than from across the planet.
Remember, some of the safest food you can buy is grown by a person with whom you can have a conversation with each season.
Come up with a cheat sheet of your favorite local foods/resources. The following topics apply:
- Local produce/farms
- Local meat/poultry
- Local dairy
- Local fish
- Local CSAs (community-supported agriculture)
- Local farmers markets/stands
- Local U-Pick groups
- Local eggs
- Local co-op/retail stores supporting local food
- Restaurants supporting local and/or sustainable food
- Local wines/beer
Find a list that outlines the yearly crop production calendar for foods in your area. Print it and post it on the fridge. Let it help you structure food shopping lists and recipes.
Learn about production methods of the foods you buy and become familiar with the commitments and ethics of brands you support. Buy from companies or producers you personally know and trust. Support producers who respect the land, the environment and your local community.
While joining a CSA and/or growing your own food might be the “holy grail” of eating local, it can be a serious obligation. Like everything else worthwhile in life, it will take effort. A CSA will likely provide you with massive amounts of produce. Have a plan for using and storing it. Nobody wins if the food goes to waste.
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Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.