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Why You Should Eat Local Food (Even if You Don’t Care About Food Miles)

 A little over a month ago, an op-ed in the New York Times got the online locavore community all worked up. Stephen Budiansky’s “Math Lessons for Locavores” contended that many of the commonly-spouted arguments for eating local are misleading or downright bogus. I myself have always been skeptical of the food miles argument, which basically states that you can reduce your environmental impact by sourcing food grown close to where you live.

The problem with focusing on the number of miles from field to fork, as Budiansky points out, is that it ignores the host of other factors in the environmental impact equation. Are semis full of tomatoes actually more fuel efficient than small farmers who drive 50 miles to sell a few boxes of produce? Is grass fed beef from New Zealand more desirable than feedlot beef from Iowa? How do I know those Minnesota-grown apples weren’t shipped to a distribution center in Texas before landing back at a grocery store in Burnsville? And how the heck am I supposed to make these kinds of calculations myself?

Even if you remain unconvinced that it is possible—or desirable—to reduce your carbon footprint by eating within a 250-mile radius, there are other less talked about reasons to make a commitment to eating local:

Lucia's chicken photo above and Spoonriver's salad photo here taken by Kate NG SommersLucia's chicken photo above and Spoonriver's salad photo here taken by Kate NG SommersIt will make you more aware of the landscape and climate of where you live

In today’s world it’s possible to live in a place and know very little about its environment. When you start paying attention to where you food comes from, you quickly realize what kinds of crops and animals can survive where you live. Cold-weather grape varietals developed by the U of M can survive Minnesota’s cold winters...as long as temperatures don’t drop to 20 degrees below zero. Topography affects how many times a rancher can graze his cattle on a parcel of land in a year, and thus how viable it is to produce 100% grass-fed beef. One bad hailstorm can level most of an orchard and devastate an apiary, as we saw with Ames Farm this summer. Eating local provides a tangible connection to our surroundings, and a greater understanding of our delicate connection to the natural world.

Special times of year stay special

Most seasonal cultural celebrations revolve around food in one way or another. Making strawberry preserves every June has become a ritual in my family, and fall celebrations in the upper Midwest rely heavily upon our abundance of squash this time of year. We now can buy strawberries and pumpkins year-round, but we lose the seasonal rhythms that help mark the passage of time and give us things to look forward to at various times of year.

It’s safer not to put all your eggs in one basket

Food stability and safety is contingent upon diversity in our food system. The recent egg recalls remind us that when we rely on regional or national food hubs and something goes wrong with them, it goes wrong in a far-reaching way. Local food systems diffuse risk by spreading it across smaller, more local producers.

Knowing your farmer is easier when your farmer is close by

If you care how animals and plants are treated before you put them in your body, nothing beats visiting the farm and talking to the farmer. Not only does it help ensure you’re supporting the kind of agriculture you want to see in place, it gives the farmer a chance to be reminded why what they’re doing is so important. It brings a heightened sense of accountability to both sides, and encourages a just food system.

You’ll be forced to examine your food more closely

This is probably my favorite reason to eat local. When I attended a class on surviving the Eat Local Challenge this past summer, most of the students’ questions were of the “can I get _____ local?” variety. Oftentimes the answer wasn’t so clear. We were forced to think about all the ingredients in a food, and how it was processed. Bread may be made by a local baker, and its wheat may even be from the Midwest; but what about the other ingredients? You can’t get local walnuts, but is it good enough if they’re processed here? We were forced to define why we felt it was important to eat local, and what we were ultimately aiming to support.

When you make a conscious effort to eat food from close to where you live, you begin to assemble in your mind a picture of where your food comes from -- and the places its stopped along the way. Its a great exercise in being more thoughtful about your food choices and identifying your priorities, whether or not you ultimately decide to make an eat local commitment.

 

Leslie Kruempel likes bringing people together to talk about real food, whether it's through the Real Food Minnesota gathering, Twin Cities Crop Mob, or on Twitter. Follow her at @realfoodmn.

Comments

Great article, lots of good, practical reasons for sourcing local food.

All good reasons, but I didn't see the most important reason to eat local – taste. I didn’t start going to the farmer’s market fifteen years ago because I wanted to get connected to the people and the land even though I strongly respect both. I love to cook and eat and I get up early on Saturday mornings because the lettuce is fresh, the tomatoes flavorful, and the new potatoes are sweet and moist. Let taste be your guide and you will likely find local.

Thanks to both of you. Steve - yes, yes, yes. Great point, you're absolutely right.

I have always felt that we should support our local markets and these photos and your story just provide me with confirmation. Thank you. I can't wait to share this story with others.

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Steve is correct. It should be about taste.

Taste is about ripeness. Taste is about Chi. When the product is optimally ready for harvest, and freshly harvested it is undeniably better tasting. This was the essence of foraging at Chez Panisse. It was not about tearing up parking lots and installing gardens. It was not about food miles. It was, and still is greatly about taste. Fairview Gardens and Chino Ranch are two significant Southern California suppliers of the venerable locavore destination. They both understand ripeness and the importance of managing the time between field and table. Air freight is the solution for a restaurant obsessed with the fetish of freshness.

The ultimate management of this variable is in the hands of the backyard vegetable gardener, and in this climate the greenhouse and cold frame gardener. This is where Growing Power has an up on restaurant elitism. There's also a need for training home cooks, because perfect ingredients mishandled don't encourage reinvestment of time and effort.

Very good points on taste, Steve and Karl. I think I often take for granted the corporal pleasures of eating local. If the food didn't taste good it would be hard to maintain a commitment to eating local for the above reasons alone.

And thanks for your comments, Debbie and Avery. I was hoping this might serve as a good summary of why we do what we do (and perhaps convincing to the unconverted!)

Carbon footprints may not bother everyone because not everyone’s counting. For those who care, each one of us can help. Eating locally grown foodstuff is something we can do to help our neighborhoods. We may not know everything in a 250 mile radius, but we probably know what the neighbors producing.

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One can't argue that food right off the farm does taste better than a week or two old. But, come the winter months, the shoe's on the other foot. The week old produce tastes better than the three month preserved food. But the answer to that, from some, is not to eat out of season, whatever that means as nothing is in season in winter, not even grains above a certain parallel. As for not eating aspargus until May or June because they'll taste so good for the absence, that strikes me a little like banging one's head against the wall, because it'll feel so good when you stop.

As for the eggs in one basket, that was the bane of locally grown for all the time in history when that was all there was. Nothing like a long drought during growing season or an unusually wet harvesting season to drive the point home. Speaking of eggs, the egg recall did involve a couple of 100 million eggs. But that did only amount to a couple days worth of the United States consumption of eggs. Do locavores propose replacing that scale of production via only locally grown?

There's some common ground we can agree on though, all would be better served if everyone had some knowledge of agriculture, much like physics, chemistry, history, etc. But i don't think we have to continually buy directly from farmers to have that knowledge, anymore than you should have to buy steel directly from mills to get some shelving.

I must say there also seems to be a undercurrent of elitism and unconcern of those not local in the locavore movement. They don't seem to care that many of the very farmers they claim to support also sell abroad, especially those in California, heart of the locavore movement. If they were successful in making the entire population locavores, how long would it take their customers to stop buying from them since they would no longer buy from their customers? And would really knowing your farmer strengthen community? Can you imagine yourself waiting in the farmer's market checkout line while the 12 people in front of you took 5 minutes each to catch up with their new found farmer friend?

There is also a danger in becoming too dependent on a few local producers. Competition is reduced or elliminated and, at worst, a one, "farming coalition", town can result, much like the one company towns of the early last century.

All in all, some things local, some things non-local doing what we do best and near best and others doing what they do best and near best, is probably the best plan for diversifying an economy and that's what we have now.

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