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:
It 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.