These days, sadly, eating local often means ordering from a nearby restaurant on a food delivery app (or taking ten steps to the fridge to grab the remains of said order). It’s a culinary and cultural state of affairs due, in large part, to the federal government’s abandonment of subsidies for small farmers (in the US, that happened when President Richard M. Nixon signed the infamous 1973 farm bill in order to make food cheaper). Thus began a steady slide towards factory farming and agribusiness that maximized the profits, with antibiotics, hormones, and chemical fertilizers, of a few subsidized “commodity” crops: mostly corn and soy. (Yes, that’s why there’s so much cheap, processed food filled with corn and soy, including corn-syrup-infused sodas.) Meanwhile, thanks to growing globalization, any kind of “seasonal” food could now be jetted in at any time of the year, clad in plenty of plastic, aluminum, and cardboard. The death of the small farm meant the death of nutritious, various, and sustainably procured foods for us all.
Enter the hippies, the food coop crowd, and the community garden folk, who started singing the praises of taking back the power from big corporations (“food for people, not for profit”), organic food, and getting back to Mother Nature (cue Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”). Eating organically and sustainably belonged to them for a good 30 years, but then a new movement started to take root.
After digesting books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Forks Over Knives and films like Super Size Me and Fast Food Nation, people were finally getting sick of fast food and factory farming’s aftertaste: the health problems — obesity, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections — and the Earth problems, like fields saturated with toxic chemicals. Suddenly, a new body of eaters wanted something different. Some gave up fast food, others went full vegan, and some joined what is known as the locavore or Local Food Movement.
There is no official or legal definition (although maybe there should be, for labeling purposes): 25, 50 or 100 miles could all be considered “local.” But most simply, it means food that is produced within a short distance of where it is consumed. That usually also means a supply chain of nearby producers who sell directly to eaters via farmers markets, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes, and farm-to-school lunch programs, without retail middlemen.
So, does choosing to get your asparagus from a farmstand versus a supermarket really make a difference? It’s the same veggie either way, right? Actually, it does and it’s not. Here’s why:
- Eating local conserves energy: The average item of fresh produce has traveled 1,500 miles to your plate. That’s a lot of carbon dioxide emissions for your small salad.
- Eating local uses less plastic and other packaging: Many farmstands use no plastic packaging or bags — it’s bring your own reusable shopping tote.
- Eating local supports farmers: Help them and your local economy generally by putting money directly in growers’ pockets, so they in turn spend at area stores.
- Eating local means better tasting food: Produce is often picked while still unripe and then gassed in an attempt to “ripen” it after transport.
- Eating local means more nutritious food: Whether sitting on a plane, train or supermarket shelf, those strawberries aren’t gaining Vitamin C or antioxidants, that’s for sure.
- Eating local preserves land: By buying locally you are maintaining green space and farmland in and around your community.
- Eating local boosts biodiversity: Unlike agribusinesses, small farmers can employ diverse crop rotations and grow a variety of heirloom fruits and vegetables, attracting specialist pollinators.
- Eating locally improves the soil:Sustainable farming practices, like cover crops, increase soil fertility, nutrients, and moisture and prevents soil erosion.
- It banishes chemicals: Local farmers use less or no pesticides: Up to 90% of crop spray don’t stay on the plant, bouncing straight into the soil and eventually reaching the waterways and sea life.
- Eating locally will expose you to new foods: These are not your grandfather’s rutabagas. Actually, they may be the farmer’s grandfather’s rutabagas — from heirloom seeds passed down the generations.
So, next time you’re tempted to buy a pre-made meal of jet-flown food in a plastic container at the supermarket, maybe take a stroll to your local farmers market instead and see what unique fruit, veggies, bread, homemade pies and pastries, jams, jellies, milk, honey, eggs and more they have on offer. And throw some flowers on the pile too; you deserve them for going local.