Why Buy Local Food?

Alex Christensen is a regular contributor to Simple, Good, and Tasty.

The burgeoning sustainable food community and industry has presented a cornucopia of certifications and terms. I welcome them all – they give me a much better idea of the path my food has taken from seed to serving. But as sustainable food gains clout in the U.S., the sustainable food community needs to come together on what it prioritizes. While Organic food is increasingly popular (for good reason – it has significantly better taste and higher levels of nutrients, and poses fewer environmental hazards), the line between organic and industrial has blurred.

The same monocultures of crops and barns of tightly-packed animals associated with conventional, industrial food now could be organic, too. There is even organic high fructose corn syrup. The borrowing of industrial practices to organic farming isn’t the point of sustainable food. It certainly makes better industrial food, but it doesn’t make truly sustainable food. Local and organic food is truly sustainable. But it isn’t always an option to have both. That’s why going forward, local food is a much better idea for the sustainable food community to get behind.

The myriad of problems with the American food system – like the miles and miles of genetically-modified crops grown year round, picked when they’re crunchy, and shipped all over the world – are much more easily fixed when we encourage local food production.

  • The environmental impact of shipping squash from Hutchinson to Minneapolis is much smaller than from New Zealand to Minneapolis. The transportation of food in a global economy has created a multitude of problems like high carbon emissions. There is less need for refrigeration and packaging for local foods – since they don’t need to be preserved for a long period between the field and the consumer.
  • Local food puts the end consumer of food in closer contact with the producer. This contact builds up friendships and community, but also trust. It is a lot easier to trust that your food is handed to you by the person who raised it than it is to trust a shrink-wrapped box shipped from another state or country. Some industrial food companies have caught onto this and are trying to capitalize on it. Gold’n Plump is allowing buyers to see profiles of some of the farmers of their Just Bare Chicken product. But buying locally is no gimmick. If there is a problem with your local food purchase, you can bring it up with the producer or know what to avoid in the future. At a box store, you have no recourse. Knowing this, your local producers have a huge incentive to create a high quality product.
  • Local food purchases can help a resurgence of small farms (the “family farm,” if you want). When local food promotes friendships, alliances, and high-quality product, it is also promoting dedicated producers. The management-intensive style of farming that produces high-quality produce and meat lends itself to small, diverse farms (like that of famous food rebel Joel Salatin), not industrial complexes. With this model, family farms can rebound.

But that’s not the full story on local food. Chemical-drenched fields just outside of the Twin Cities are certainly local, but are they sustainable? No. Conventional farms near the Mississippi River have contributed to a New Jersey-sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The synthetic fertilizers and pesticides swirl around and deplete the water of oxygen and wildlife. So when it comes to water pollution, organic certainly has an advantage over conventional local food. The upside is that even if local food does not necessarily mean sustainable or organic, the buyer has the power to vote with his or her fork for the most responsible practices. Without being able to hide behind the veil of shrink wrap and styrofoam, local food producers can’t continue the noxious practices of today’s conventional food system. That’s why local food is my favorite sustainable food practice.