Why You and the Planet Suffer When You Don’t Choose Fresh, Local Foods

By Sonya Welter

Apples from New Zealand, bell peppers from Israel, lettuce from Mexico. The produce section of most grocery stores can read like a world map. Anything you might want is always in season somewhere in the world, and thanks to a global economy and relatively cheap oil, it can be shipped to any supermarket, where the shelves are brimming with food year round, offering consumers abundance and luxury.

Or at least the illusion of it. Most food travels on average between 1,500 and 2,500 miles before reaching your plate. These “food miles” translate into an enormous amount of fuel used for transportation: 10% of all energy used in the United States goes into food production and transportation. Those carrots or green beans must be sent through a series of packaging plants and distributors, traveling by truck, freighter train, cargo ship or airplane before finally arriving at the retail level. And if the produce is non-organic it uses even more fuel, since many fertilizers and pesticides are petroleum based and are applied to the field via a truck, tractor or small airplane. All this fuel use contributes to air pollution and to global warming.

Most imported food is grown on a very large scale by multinational corporations. Even if it is certified organic, a single crop covering hundreds or thousands of acres will be a disruption to the ecosystem. And unless it is certified Fair Trade, the workers may be not paid a living wage, especially in developing countries, and they will struggle to get by.

It’s a system that produces a large quantity of food, but not much food of good quality. That January tomato in the grocery store was likely picked green in South America, spent several days or even weeks in transit, then was ripened artificially using ethylene gas. Many other fruits receive similar treatment, and the result is bland and flavorless compared to fruit that was allowed to ripen naturally and was picked fresh. What’s more, when produce is picked under-ripe and stored for long periods of time in refrigeration, its nutritional content declines, often dramatically.

It is only the varieties of fruits and vegetables that can be grown in huge quantities and that travel and store well that ever wind up in the supermarket, and most consumers are aware of a fraction of the diversity possible. Did you know that strawberries and cucumbers and broccoli all come in different varietal forms, each with different tastes and shapes, just like apples do? Or, for that matter, that there are over 7,500 varieties of apples grown worldwide? Most supermarkets only carry six to ten of them – Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Gala, and a few others. Countless “heritage varieties” of fruits and vegetables that for centuries had grown in kitchen gardens and family farms, sustaining the people and contributing to the regional cuisine, are now being lost at an alarming rate, simply because they cannot endure the rough handling and long storage required by the modern economy. The family farms are being lost, too. In 1930, there were seven million farms in the United States; today there are only two million, and of those only about 565,000 are family operations. (The rest are run by big corporations like Dole, Green Giant, or Cascadian Farms.)

Eating Local

It’s been said that local is the new organic. More and more people are waking up to the huge amounts of energy used in shipping food from international, corporate farms and the effects it has on the local community and economy, and in recent years the local foods movement has been growing by leaps and bounds. For example, there are now over 4,000 farmer’s markets operating in the United States, up from just 1,755 in 1994.

The first step to eating locally is to discover your “foodshed,” the region that you will use to define what you consider local. Some people simply choose an arbitrary number of miles – usually between 50 and 200 – and will draw a circle on a map, or they will choose to eat foods produced in their state, province, or country. Others will look at the map a little more closely, and will select their outline based on natural features, like mountains or valleys, that define their region and affect climate and growing season. It’s a personal choice, and obviously the boundaries can be flexible.

The next step is finding out what foods grow in your foodshed, when they are in season, and where to buy them. Luckily, there are lots of options.

Some farms have roadside stands or run small stores; you can buy the product directly from the farmer, and could tour the fields while you’re there. This is a great way to not only to find some fresh, great tasting food, but also to meet the farmers who grew it.

If you’re not up for a drive in the country, there are also farmer’s markets that bring locally produced food into the city. The most common fare is fruits and vegetables, but you might also find meat, cheese and dairy, eggs, and preserves like pickles or jams. A market may run once a week or every day, and it may be open year round or only in the summer. It might be set up in the town square, in an unused parking lot, or in a building specifically designed for the market. Many markets have rules in place so that the products sold there can only be produced locally, but others will allow vendors to truck in food from out of the region. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask where something came from.

If you want to really get to know your local farmers, consider joining a CSA, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. To take part in a CSA, you purchase a “share” in a certain farm, and in return you get a big box of fresh produce every week throughout the growing season. One share usually provides enough fresh produce for a family of four, and many CSAs offer half-shares for smaller households. The contents of your CSA box will vary week by week, depending on what is ripe; one week you might get piles of snap peas and strawberries, and another week it might be heavy with potatoes and squash.

Many natural food co-ops, and even some national chain stores like Whole Foods, are starting to offer locally grown fruits and vegetables in their produce section. If your store doesn’t, then by all means speak up and make a request: enough demand may produce a supply.

Of course the most local food you can get is the stuff you grow yourself. If you don’t have a yard, look into obtaining a community garden space. If you don’t want to manage a large garden, it’s easy to grow herbs in a sunny windowsill or a pot of tomatoes out on the balcony. You could also can or freeze whatever produce you grow or buy, to make the summer harvest last all through the winter.

Eating locally reconnects you with the seasons and the weather and rebuilds a sense of community between farmers and consumers. There is no place too urban to accommodate local eating – even New York City, Toronto, and London all have thriving farmer’s markets with produce grown in the nearby area. Becoming a “locavore” doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing venture. Try putting together one all-local meal, or eating exclusively local for one week. Incorporate local foods into your daily meals. You will be reducing your carbon footprint, helping the local economy, and eating fresh, healthy, delicious food.

For more information

100 Mile Diet Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, authors of "Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally" offers tips and personal stories
Eat Local Challenge A community blog written by people interested in the social and epicurean benefits of eating locally
A Tale of Two Tomatoes Local Lucy and Traveling Tom illustrate the differences between local and mass-produced