When Your Food Travels More Than You Do, It's a Problem PDF Print E-mail
Univetica Staff

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture1 released in 2010, the number of farmers’ markets in the U.S. nearly doubled between 1998 and 2009 (from 2,756 to 5,274), direct-to-consumer agricultural sales rose by a full percentage point between 1997 and 2007, and the number of community-supported agricultural organizations in the U.S. rose from 400 in 2001 to 1,144 in 2005.

All of this shows that sustainable food movements are gaining traction, and while direct-to-consumer (i.e., local) agricultural purchases are still only a tiny percentage of the overall agricultural economy, these trends are positive.

You’re probably already familiar with the ideas behind the organic food movement, which holds that food should be grown using sustainable, pesticide-free processes that don’t cause damage to the soil, air, or water. The local food movement builds upon these concerns, encouraging food-buying practices that minimize carbon emissions, support family farms, and don’t contribute to exploitative labor practices in other parts of the world. Local food is not necessarily organic, but there is often crossover between the two.

At the most basic level, the local food movement encourages us to question old habits. If you live in California, for example, there is no such thing as “fresh” oranges from Florida. Yet if you go to any major California supermarket, you’ll see oranges from Florida, not to mention from the Caribbean and South America. Similarly, if you live in New England, then California wine, Washington apples, and Mexican avocadoes must travel long distances before reaching your supermarket. Whereas in the past many people wouldn’t think twice about these issues, the local food movement calls attention to the waste inherent to late-20th-century food consumption practices.


What is local?

There is no consensus about what constitutes local food, but the Food, Conservation and Energy Act passed in 2008 by the U.S. Congress was unequivocal, establishing that local food comes either from within a 400-mile radius or from the state in which it is consumed. Some might argue that 400 miles isn’t local enough, but considering the fact that food consumed in the U.S. travels an average 1,500 miles, a norm of 400 miles represents a significant improvement.

Adherents to the local food movement try to accomplish a few different objectives, including:

  • Cutting down transportation costs surrounding food, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Buying from small, local farms and avoiding food from large corporate agriculture companies that are more likely to use unsustainable business and agricultural practices.
  • Supporting higher-quality food that is fresher than the alternatives and less likely to contain harmful chemicals.
  • Supporting agricultural companies that treat their workers with dignity and compensate them justly.
  • Supporting the local economy rather than sending consumer dollars to distant parts of the world.


How to go local

The first step in going local is to start thinking beyond mere pricing when it comes to food selection. Of course, most of us look for the lowest-cost produce at the store, and while cost is an important factor, we should also think about where the food comes from, whether or not it is organically produced, and the labor practices used to produce that food. Because we can’t determine all these things just by looking at a piece of fruit, it’s important to educate ourselves before going to the store.

Consider which foods are currently in season in your area. There are various online resources that can help with this. Many of us are accustomed to eating practically any type of food in any season, but being a “locavore” (as some supporters of the movement call themselves) means accepting that every food has a season. For example, if in the spring you can only find apples from areas that are half way across the world, then you may consider avoiding apples until they’re in season locally.

Meanwhile, to better ensure you’re getting local food, shop at farmers’ markets, where you can talk to the farmers directly, ask where their produce is shipped from, find out about their farming practices, and learn new information about the crops that are grown in your area. Thanks to the rise of farmers’ markets over the last decade, chances are there is at least one weekly event in your local area.


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