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Food & Cooking Articles   |  Healthier Eating

4 Good Reasons to Buy Local Food

The Benefits of Eating Locally Grown Produce

-- By Liza Barnes, Health Educator

If you’re buying California-grown organic strawberries because you know organic food is better for the environment, then you might want to reconsider your purchase—or at least your motivations. While choosing organic over "conventional" does reduce the pesticide burden on the ecosystem, shipping organic food thousands of miles across the country creates an even greater environmental woe—fossil fuel consumption. Says Barbara Kingsolver, author of the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, transporting fruit from California to New York, for example, is about "as efficient as driving from Philadelphia to Annapolis and back in order to walk three miles on a treadmill in a Maryland gym."

In a 2005 issue of the journal Food Policy, researchers stated that although organic farming is valuable, the fact that organic food often travels thousands of miles to get to our supermarkets creates environmental damage that outweighs the benefit of buying organic.

Before the advent of the highway, most food was grown or raised on family farms, packaged or processed nearby, and sold in local retail outlets. Today, this has become the exception to the rule, as the average North American meal logs more than 1,500 miles from farm to table. Although this shift results in an exceptional selection at the grocery store, it causes a host of other problems. Taste, quality, freshness, and nutritional value all decrease, and the environmental burden balloons. <pagebreak>

So what’s the alternative? Buy local. Buying food that a nearby farmer has grown or raised uses far less fossil fuels, and the benefits don’t stop there. Locally grown food is also better for:

  • Your taste buds: Traditionally, farmers selected breeds of crops for their flavor and growing abilities, and let them ripen until ready to eat. Now, more often than not, breeds are selected for their ability to withstand the rigors of cold storage and cross-country transport and are plucked from the vine far before their time. This results in tomatoes whose flavor only slightly resembles tomatoes and strawberries that are strawberries in name only. Buying local will yield food so fresh and ripe that your taste buds won’t know what hit them.
  • Your health: The moment an item of produce parts from its mother plant, its nutritional value begins to decline. Produce at the supermarket has likely been in transit or sitting in the display case for days or weeks. Local produce was probably picked in the last 24 hours and is still in its nutrient prime.
  • Farmers: According to Stewart Smith from the University of Maine, in the year 1900, 40 cents of every dollar a consumer spent on food went to the farmer. Today, only 7 cents goes into the pockets of food growers. The remainder is spent on storage, packaging, marketing, and shipping. Farmers are struggling more than ever as a result. Buying directly from local farmers can help reverse this trend.
  • Your local economy: In his book Eat Here, Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket, Brian Halweil states that, in comparison to imported produce, "a dollar spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy." All that extra money circulating in your neck of the woods translates into better schools, safer streets, and nicer parks perfect for picnics with all the healthful foods you purchased locally.
Buying local also means buying what’s in season in your area and not buying what isn’t. Thanks to modern supermarkets, we’re so accustomed to having what we want when we want it (watermelon in April, asparagus in September and tomatoes in the dead of winter) that eating any other way sounds like deprivation. Yes, getting used to tomato-less winters can be a challenge. You'll soon realize that tomatoes taste better when you’ve waited for them, not only because they’re at their season’s best, but also because you’ve waited. Kingsolver says, "It’s tempting to reach for melons, red peppers, tomatoes, and other late-summer delights before the summer even arrives. But it’s actually possible to wait, celebrating each season when it comes, not fretting about it being absent at all other times because something else good is at hand." The variety of a local, seasonal menu is a boon to your health, too. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) recommends choosing a variety of foods, to cover all of your nutritional bases. Eating local fits the bill.

There is no strict definition for mileage of local food, but generally anything grown within a 50- to 100-mile radius is considered local, and obviously, the closer the better. The best source for it is your local farmers market. You’ll find veggies, fruits, meats, and cheeses, and you’ll get to buy them from the hands that picked, dug, fed, or cultured them. Depending on what you’re buying, the price may be higher or lower than you’ll pay in a supermarket, but it will always be fresher and tastier. To find a farmer’s market near you, check out www.LocalHarvest.org.

Another option is to join a buying club. Farmers deliver many orders to one person’s home (or another centralized location), and the rest of the club members pick up from there. To find a buying club in your area, visit www.EatWild.com, select your state, and look for the "Beyond the Farm" link at the top of the page. It will take you to a directory of buying clubs that exist in your state.

Local food isn't just another passing trend. While it might be difficult or impossible to buy all of your food locally, any amount of local food you can find and purchase will still benefit the health of your community, the planet, and your own body, too.
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