Eat Local (and sustainable!)

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One of the most popular food trends in the past year or two has been local food. So why is eating local all the rage, and what can you do to be part of this growing movement?

What is local?

We need to start by defining the word local. It has different meanings to different people, but I define local as being as close to home as possible. With food, that would mean buying food raised or produced as close to your home as possible.

To purists, or locavores, local means buying food within a set radius, such as 50 or 100 miles. To others, local means as far as a day’s drive from where you live. Because geography and growing is different around the country (and world), I opt for a more flexible definition.

Technically, this means that any food you buy close to your home is local, even conventional or industrially produced food. So inherent within the local label is the concept of sustainable. Try to avoid food from a large industrial operation, no matter how close to your home it is. The best way to tell if a farm is industrial is to find out how big it is and how diverse its products are. A very large farm producing only one crop is most likely industrial – when you plant the same crop on many acres, you attract pests, which means you have to use pesticides. So focus on smaller farms, ones that have different types of crops, and find out what their growing practices are.

When you’re shopping for local food, look for local sustainable food from a small independent family farm. That means minimal chemical pesticides and fertilizers were used, the land and everything on it was treated with respect, and every effort was made to provide you with the most wholesome, nutritious food. In general, smaller farms are more sustainable because they tend to grow a variety of crops and undertake conservation practices such as crop rotation, so they usually have less problems with pests. But it’s always wise to find out exactly how your food was produced before you make the decision to buy and eat it.

Why buy local?

There are many reasons to buy local, including –

– Taste. Local sustainable food is most often picked when ripe because transport time to market is so small. It is also usually grown with minimal inputs such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This provides you with better tasting food.

– Better for you. Food raised close to home will not be shipped long distances so will be harvested when ripe, giving you optimal nutrition. Industrial food shipped long distances is harvested before ripe, shipped, and sometimes sprayed with chemicals to preserve or forcibly ripen it.

– Helps the environment. By not shipping food such long distances, less pollution is emitted and less waste is created. There is a debate over whether individual farms driving to markets pollutes more than shipping food in large containers on trains or ships. The key problem with long distance shipping is the processing and packaging necessary to transport the food such long distances – processing uses more energy than the shipping – so you’re still better off buying local.

– Supports family farms. 80 to 90 percent of the money you spend at a local farmers market goes to the farmer, thus helping to provide a fair wage. Most farmers now hold off-the-farm jobs in order to pay the bills – by supporting the farmer directly, you are helping to support one of our oldest American traditions.

– Helps local communities. Small family farms are much more likely to spend their money locally, both on feed and farming inputs, and also on regular services like restaurants and stores. Studies have shown that local farms help boost local communities. Industrial farms tend to get their farm inputs from outside the community with the owners often living off the property.

Be local

Below are ideas on what you can do to join the local revolution.

– Farmers markets. Farmers markets have sprung up all around the country. According to the USDA, farmers markets in the U.S. increased from 1,755 in 1994 to 5,274 in 2009. Between 2008 and 2009 alone, the number of farmers markets increased 13 percent. Check out the USDA’s site to find a farmers market near you.

– CSA’s. CSA stands for community supported agriculture. You purchase a share in a farmer’s crop before the season starts. This helps the farmer buy seeds and necessary supplies. You then reap a portion of the season’s bounty. Visit the Eat Well Guide to find a CSA near you.

– Buying Clubs. Less well known but increasing in popularity are buying clubs. These are simply a group of people – from a little as a few families to 100 people – who purchase food together in order to buy in bulk at wholesale prices. You can go through a distributor or with a little extra effort, work with local farmers to set up your own distribution network. Buying club members work together to purchase, pick up and distribute the food. How to Create a Neighborhood Food-Buying Club can give you some information on how to start one up. You can also ask at your nearest health food store to see if they are involved with or know of any local buying clubs in your area. It’s usually best to join an already existing club rather than start up your own because they can take some work.

– Farm stands. Farm stands range from a bench with tomatoes alongside the road to an enclosed structure that sells many types of produce, meats and even baked and processed foods. During the height of the summer when vegetables are abundant, you can still find small stands at the side of the road with vegetables and a cash jar, so customers can pay what they want. Some even leave signs encouraging people to take the food. Large farm stands can resemble stores and do not always sell local goods — check the labels or ask if you aren’t sure.

– “Pick your own” farms. Some farmers, especially berry and orchard growers, allow consumers to pick their own produce. Usually for a set price by the bushel or pint, families can go into the farmer’s fields and pick their own crops. This is good for individuals interested in freezing or canning. Some farms also allow consumers to come to the farm and choose which animal they would like, before slaughter.

– Grow your own. Probably the biggest trend today is growing your own food. From planters on window ledges to taking over a front lawn, gardens are springing up everywhere. I’ll be focusing on this in more detail in a future post, so stay tuned!

If you can’t buy local

If, for whatever reason, you can’t buy local, buy as close to your home as possible. If you live in Virginia and want to buy an orange, buy one from Florida, not California, or from anywhere in the US as opposed to overseas. Why would we buy an apple from New Zealand when most states can grow them also? Don’t feel pressured into labels and definitions – however you define local is fine. The point is not to deprive yourself – the point is to enjoy the freshest, best-tasting food possible, and eating local is the best way to do it.

If you’d like to learn more about the local movement, check out Sustainable Table’s Eat Local, Buy Local, Be Local section.

(Diane Hatz is the Founder of Sustainable Table, Executive Producer of The Meatrix movies and co-Founder of the Eat Well Guide. This is the 22nd installment in her series, Sustainable Table’s Guide to Good Food.)

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