With so much going on in our world today, why-o-why would anyone choose to spend their time on and put so much energy toward ‘local, sustainable food’? With only so many hours in a day each of us have to choose where to direct our efforts and food, local-food in particular , is where I choose to spend the most of my effort.
Food is Fundamental
Food is important for a lot of reasons. Without food, you won’t have energy to put toward any cause. Food is absolutely fundamental to life and to the way our bodies perform. As I explain to our three year old, food is the fuel that our bodies use to grow, learn, play and work. Quite literally, we are what we eat. Our bodies break down our meals and use the bits and pieces to build and repair the cells in our body. Affordable, nutritious food is essential to our well-being.
The food we choose to buy influences the way our natural resources are used. Clean air and water and healthy soils are things that every living thing needs. What we put into our air, water and soils depend, in part, on how our food is grown.
For many, food also has a spiritual aspect. For me, connecting with the cycle of the seasons while growing fruit and vegetables and raising livestock is very satisfying and sometimes feels almost magical to watch. I think most can relate to the connection that we feel when preparing or enjoying a meal with friends and loved ones. Case in point, the need for certain foods at certain celebrations: what’s a birthday without cake or Thanksgiving without turkey and green bean casserole?
Fresh is best
There are so many aspects of eating local that are important. According to a survey the Grafton Farmer’s Market conducted in 2013, the number one reason that customers of that market shopped for local food was because the freshness of the offerings!
The tomato is a pretty iconic fresh vegetable and a great example. When you eat a tomato from the store or many restaurants in our area it’s a pretty sure bet that it’s a variety that has been bred to ship well. These tomatoes need to be harvested by machine packed into tractor trailers shipped hundreds or thousands of miles and sit on grocery store shelves for days until we are ready to buy them. On the other hand, when you grow your own tomatoes or buy those raised close-by, varieties can be chosen that taste great and have better nutrition like the Indigo Rose or Green Zebra. When you buy produce locally, it’s possible to get vegetables and fruit picked at peak ripeness. This is important for getting the best tasting and most nutritious produce.
In addition, local produce has fewer miles to travel and can get to customers sooner after being picked. A study out of the University of California-Davis showed that there are many factors that affect the amount of nutrients in produce including how plants are grown, how produce is harvested, temperature and duration of storage and how it is processed or not. In general, when produce is picked ripe and eaten as soon as possible in a raw state, we can obtain the most nutrients from our food.
Know your farmer, support your local economy.
Choosing local food is a great way to support local families and individuals in your community and in turn, build the local economy. When you are able to buy directly from the grower, the grower keeps a large percentage of the food dollar. According to the USDA only about 15 cents of each dollar we spend on food actually goes to the farmer or rancher, 80 cents of every dollar we spend on food goes to processing, marketing, shipping and retailing! National Farmers Union has some great info on this. The idea is that if you spend your money with a local business or individual, some or all of that money will get recirculated in your community.
Choosing local food, especially food that you buy directly from the grower, also gives you a chance to get to know another member of your community. You can find out what some of their challenges are or the reasons that they farm the way they do. You’re able to ask questions about how the food was grown. Is the beef grass-fed? Do they use organic methods in the garden? Why or why not? This can be very eye opening if you are removed from the process. Many consumers know the buzz-words like ‘free-range’ when talking about chickens, but might be surprised to find out my poultry are not ‘free-range’ and why that method doesn’t work for us. We might also find out that this term means different things to the grower and the consumer. Buying direct from a grower can also introduce folks to new foods and how to use them. If I had a nickle for every time someone said they didn’t know what the eggplant on my farmers market table was, or said they didn’t know what to do with one of THOSE…
Another bonus of buying local food, especially direct from the grower, is getting that connection to the land and the food. There might be a lot of reasons people feel disconnect from the land: no time to spend on a garden or lack of ability to take care of a yard or garden. Knowing the people that grow the food you eat is a great way to get connected and have a chance to hear the story of the food you eat and even see for yourself where and how it’s grown.
Local Food=Food Security
The University of Missouri-Columbia published a study that found local food to be ‘key to providing long-term food security for communities.’ Community Supported Agriculture programs, farmers markets and local gardens are all great ways to provide fresh, nutrient dense food to people who may otherwise have limited access because of income or distance to grocery stores. Many farmers markets and some CSAs are now accepting SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps) making fresh, local produce more available to low-income households. The Hunger Free ND Garden Project is one way the Department of Agriculture here in ND is partnering with other groups and individuals to help supply fresh fruit and vegetables to food pantries in the state.
When I think of the words ‘food security’ I take this topic in a slightly different direction. It makes me a little bit nervous to think of the centralized control of our food system in America. We hear of food recalls that sometimes affect hundreds of people in many different areas of the country because one farm supplies produce to a dozen different states. Major droughts in California affect food prices for the entire country. And, as my mother likes to point out, if terrorists wanted to poison our food supply or if a major event took down shipping infrastructure, large areas of the country could easily be affected because so much of our food is produced in such small areas of the country. For example, the USDA states that 2% of farms raise 40% of all livestock in the US and 85% of hogs are raised on farms with more than 2,000 pigs. Contrast this with small farms located in every region of the country supplying food to families in their area, lots of backyard gardens filled with fresh produce and many pantries and root cellars and freezers full of locally grown food and locally raised meat for winter. It’s not realistic to say everyone will eat this way or that a change in this direction will happen quickly, but it could certainly mitigate some of the problems with this sort of centralization of the food supply. With more regional food systems many people would be close enough to see or even participate in the growing of their own food, ensuring it meets their safety standards. Additionally, major crisis like floods, droughts and trouble with infrastructure would affect fewer consumers.
Eating seasonally, a challenge and triumph.
One of my favorite things about eating locally is also one of the things that can be hardest for consumers to get used to. Eating seasonally can be a real challenge if you are used to getting any food item any time you want it. If one chooses to eat locally, there will be no fresh tomatoes in February. There are, however, dried tomatoes and homemade canned or frozen tomato sauces and salsas. I find eating seasonally can be very interesting and anticipatory. We look forward to eating that first ripe summer tomato with fresh basil or just as it is while we stand right there in the garden! Fall means more pork in the freezer, just as our supply is dwindling. Spring means fresh greens, which we crave. I find it very rewarding to change what I eat with the seasons and go through the work of putting up food for the winter, be it canning tomatoes, jams and pickles or drying herbs or curing and storing spaghetti squash. Looking at our full pantry and freezer at the end of the growing season makes me feel accomplished and secure.
Eating locally and seasonally is a real challenge. Our family made the change over the course of 10 years or so. We went from growing none of our food and buying mostly processed junk from the store to shopping the local farmers market and cooking some meals from scratch. Later on we got a garden plot and started growing a bit on our own and now we grow a large percentage of our own meat and vegetables, I’d estimate 90% or more. We are by no means eating only local food. I shop our local grocery store for most of our dairy products and almost all of our staples like pasta and flour. I certainly see the merits of shipping some of our foodstuffs, especially spices and occasional treats like citrus, avocados and the like, but it seems to me the logistics of keeping our food systems more local and regional make the most sense.
Making a commitment to local food is all about small steps like resisting the grocery store tomato in January. That’s an easy place to start since they taste terrible anyway. Maybe you could grow a tomato or pepper plant in a big pot on your patio . Or make it your goal to shop the farmers market once a week while it’s open. You can even find some locally grown items in your grocery store. In our own supermarket, you can find seasonal produce like melons, tomatoes and squash and a few things that you may not have even thought of as locally grown like beet sugar, flour and flax seeds!
What are your reasons for choosing local food?