Do You Eat Local? – Part 2

This is the second post in a series on eating local — what it is and what it isn’t. See the first post here. The post came about because we went to a restaurant that advertized itself as a place to go to “eat local.” Conversations at the some of the other tables about what this meant started us to discuss whether some of the ideas bandied about had any validity about the “good” we were doing “eating local.”

Growing Local Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Eating Freshest

Now we get to even more of the muddy mix: some presume that locavores have a more healthy diet, meaning more vitamins and nutrients, since “local grown” might be fresher. Again, notice I say “might”, because food can be shipped by rail from one coast to the other in 3 days, which is pretty fresh, actually. And with a weekly farmer’s market, food might sit for as much as 6 days before being offered for sale in a local farmer’s market! Locally grown may even be available during harvest season from our local supermarkets even though many of us do not realize it.

fresh food
fresh food

Growing Local Doesn’t Mean It’s “Organic” or “Sustainable”

And there is no guarantee that locally grown produce is “organic” (although it may be), or more “sustainable” (meaning that farm land is being cared for in a long-term eco-conscious way). Again, using our most populous state, California, as an example, the problems of irrigation and water resources are legion, whether the farm or backyard gardener is being organic or not. “Sustainability” is an amorphous target that changes as our knowledge grows about the long-term consequences of our actions or inactions.

organic labeling
organic food labeling

Growing Local (Produce) Doesn’t Mean It’s More “Diverse”

Nor is there any guarantee that produce that is “grown local” is more “diverse” than what is not “grown local.” Seed producers, both large and small, have worked on producing high-yield seed and roots, and a farmer growing for a farmer’s market or a CSA will try to get the best yield out of his/her acreage, in many cases using the same high-yield sources as the large operations.  (And I can buy heirloom seeds from many sources, none of which are local).

nat geo corn seed
National Geographic – corn seed

Growing Local Doesn’t Mean It’s Safer

Buying “local” food does not make it safer, either. In general, our food is safe, whether grown on small or large farms, whether organic or not, and whether grown far or near to us. Serious food contamination outbreaks have happened, but they happen to large and small concerns all over the nation and the world, not just in the hotbeds of large production agriculture (remember last year’s listeria from cantaloupe processing in CO; and this year’s salmonella in cantaloupe in IN and salmonella in mango from Mexico). No business can risk its very existence, or at the least its reputation, because of taking short cuts to food safety, whether local or across the continent. Local growers have no more incentive than those growing from a more distant location to grow safer.

food safety
food safety

Grow Local When You Can, Eat Local When You Can, Just Don’t Get Mixed Up About What It Means

So go ahead and buy local when possible to help the local economy at the very least. But be aware that it may or may not be environmentally sustainable, organic, healthier, safer, or more diverse than what you buy in a supermarket. It may be a good thing to do, but don’t think it is a blessed solution to our future food and nutrition needs or desires, or that it can or should replace our mass-marketed produce. It is a seasonal niche for farmers and consumers living in northern climates, and a delightful opportunity for those of us able to travel to farmer’s markets, purchase a share of a CSA, or have land that we can devote to growing our own. Good growing and good eating to you all!

Our raised bed veggie garden
Our raised bed veggie garden

The End of the Story

By the way, as for the restaurant experience that started me thinking about “eating local”: their fish of the day was mahi mahi from Hawaii and we were dining in Maryland! What do you think about eating local now that the local farmer’s markets are thinning out now that winter is coming? Are you a CSA member? Are you still harvesting from your own garden? Did you share your garden bounty with local food banks — they would welcome whatever you can bring by.

7 thoughts on “Do You Eat Local? – Part 2”

  1. The reasons to eat locally-produced organic food go far beyond freshness. One of the primary ones is the support this provides to local economies. This is especially true when payments are made by cash rather than plastic. Dollars earned and spent locally help communities to build sustainability and resilience despite sluggish national and international economies. It’s simple really: helping create local prosperity has a stronger and more direct economic impact on your family than purchases of well-traveled foods bought from grocery chains with headquarters in other states.

    An additional concern is our world’s declining supply of fossil fuels. As supplies decline further the price rises, making costs rise all along the food chain. Fossil fuels are the base products of most agricultural fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Fossil fuels drive the farm equipment, transport the food to distributors, then again from distributors to grocers and to individual stores. Fossil fuels are used to refrigerate the transportation, and to create the electricity that refrigerates the stores. Then customers use fossil fuels to drive to the grocer. It takes just one of the links in the chain to no longer be profitable and the whole chain will break, making the food system as we know obsolete. Note that we don’t have to wait decades to run out of oil, it simply has to become too expensive for some part of the low-margin food business. A repeat of the situation when many long-haul truckers went out of business due to rising fuel prices a few years ago will trigger much larger impacts when sustained. Given this situation we have an excellent reason not only to support our local food system as much as possible, but also to learn how to grow our own. The Victory Gardens of World War Two provide a great example for us moving forward.

  2. Thanks for a thorough discussion of what it means (and does not mean) to eat local. It is not as simple a concept as some might believe and not automatically or inherently a good thing.

    Another advantage to eating local is that consumers (a term which can be taken quite literally here!) have more and better opportunities to control (in the case of home gardening) and learn about (from neighbors, farmers at the market, grocery store managers, etc.) how the food is grown, how it gets to market, and what other impacts (good or bad) it might have on the environment and economy. Armed with this information, consumers can make rational decisions about what local foods to eat and which local producers to support.

    Large-scale agricultural corporations are not, typically, very transparent about these sorts of disclosures (witness the opposition to California’s Proposition 37, which would require labeling of genetically-modified organisms). If they provided the pertinent information (and I suspect that some do), then consumers could make the same sort of decisions about their products, taking the scale and non-locality into account. It is possible, for example, that vegetables grown naturally and responsibly in a distant country might be preferable to the same crops raised by a neighbor who douses them in chemical pesticides.

    As a gardener in the northeast, I enjoy eating the vegetables I grow in my own backyard. But I love avocados and oranges, too, and they don’t grow anywhere near here!

    1. Yes, we too couldn’t get by without a jolt of citrus upon occasion, and seriously, thank you for your thoughtful comments!

  3. I try to buy as much of my food as possible from small, local farms. (I like being able to talk to the producers of my food and find out about their farming methods.) My priorities are: local organic, local sustainable, more distant organic. I know that some of the non-local organic foods in my supermarket are from factory farms, which I prefer to avoid if possible. I love the website as a source of information about local food sources. Through them, I found the local farm that raises goats and sells artisan goat cheese to die for. I also found the various CSAs that I have belonged to over the years and the Maine farm that provides me with my holiday turkey every year. For me, a big part of eating local is varying my diet according to what is in season and preserving some foods for use out of season. In summer and early fall, fresh local salad greens are a major part of my diet. But now that we’ve had our first frost, I’m switching over to making a big pot of soup every weekend (often from winter squashes and pumpkins, which can keep for a long time under the right storage conditions). When a farmer at my farmer’s market had a surfeit of eggs and was having a “buy two get one free” sale, I found myself with 3 dozen eggs (a lot for a one-person household!) which created an incentive to try some new egg-based recipes (including savory and sweet souffles, custards, and frittatas). Recently, I bought a fresh roasting chicken from a small local farm and used the carcass to make a big batch of soup stock as a base for those winter soups. And looking at that pantry shelf full of home-canned jars of tomatoes and tomato sauce for winter eating gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. I do supplement my locally-based diet with some non-local foods (including tea from India and chocolate from South America), but I think of these as luxury treats, not the base of my diet.

    1. Jean,
      Thank you for your explaining how you mindfully eat local and especially how that suggests the seasons and their celebration! Do you grow your own beans for soups or is your growing season not long enough?

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