Why We Should All Eat More Locally Grown Food

buying produce at the farmers' market

Many regions have declared September “Local Food Month.” It’s not a national celebration yet, but let’s hope it doesn’t become one. Every month should be local food month, and here’s why…

When I was a kid, it was considered a very special thing that my Uncle Kane shipped us a solitary, brown coconut from Hawaii every year. And my Aunt and Uncle in Florida would send us a crate of grapefruit every winter too because it was simply too rare or too expensive in the stores.

Now you can find coconuts and grapefruit readily stocked in any health food store, year-round. In fact, when we shop at the grocery store today, we take for granted that there will be strawberries or perfect tomatoes—in the middle of winter.

In the space of a single generation, we’ve become accustomed to eating food that’s never grown roots in local soil. In fact, most produce grown in the United States travels an average of 1,500 miles before it gets sold.

This must change if we hope to have the resources necessary to feed our growing numbers in the future.

Good Economics in Difficult Times

Eating local has enormous economic benefits for communities. Just spend a weekend morning at the farmers’ market and that conclusion seems obvious.

After all, you hand your money directly to the farmer who grew your food, rather than passing it along a chain of middlemen who take .85 cents out of every dollar you spend at the supermarket. (That’s right, at the supermarket, the farmer makes 15% or less on what they grew!)

In contrast, the economic logic of the industrial food system de-emphasizes place: Different regions specialize in growing different crops, thereby developing production efficiencies that enable them to offer their products at a lower price. Money flows freely among communities, and everyone gets a more varied diet for less money, right?

The trouble is, that’s not all that’s happening.

Over the past decade, Ken Meter, president of the Minneapolis-based Crossroads Resource Center, has documented the way the current food system drains money and vitality from farming communities throughout the United States.

His study found that farmers in southeastern Minnesota sold an average of $912 million worth of farm commodities every year, but they spent $996 million on seeds, fertilizers, animal feed, pesticides and imported food from out of state!

All of the money that the region earned from farming was drained right back out of the community by the food system itself!

Similar patterns are found in Iowa, Arizona, Washington and other states around the nation.

According to a report on local food by Sarah DeWeerdt of World Watch Institute, producing local food could reverse this economic drain. If those people in southeastern Minnesota bought just 15 percent of their food from local sources, it would generate two-thirds as much income as all the region’s farmers receive from subsidies.

And if the population in and around Seattle, Washington bought 20 percent of their food from local providers, it would inject an extra billion dollars each year into the local economy.

[clickToTweet tweet=”The true cost of industrial food is unaffordable.” quote=”The true cost of industrial food is unaffordable.”]”Every time money changes hands within a community, it boosts the community’s overall income and level of economic activity, and fuels the creation of jobs,” DeWeerdt explains. “The more times money changes hands within the community before heading elsewhere, the better off the community is. And spending money at a locally-owned business has a greater multiplier effect, because locally owned businesses are more likely to respend their dollars locally.”

To date, she reports, no community has actually made a sharp enough shift to realize these economic benefits. Still, government officials appear willing to explore how local food can help bolster rural economies.

Under President Obama, $1.24 billion in USDA funds have been allocated over the past three years to help build local food systems, including supporting new farmers markets, mobile slaughterhouses, community kitchens, food and cooking classes, and local food businesses.

This is a good start. The rest is up to us.

If the proverbial sh*t hit the fan, if there was a natural disaster or major economic upheaval, how would you and your community fare?

How strong is your local foodshed? What can you do to support and increase the number of local gardeners, homesteaders, farmers and food producers in your region?

Getting the Oil Off Your Plate

Besides supporting local economies, there is another important reason to buy local food: American food is simply dripping in oil.

Trucking, shipping and flying in food from around the country and the globe takes a major toll on the environment and on public health.

Take grapes, for example. Every year, nearly 270 million pounds of grapes arrive in California, most of them shipped from Chile to the Port of Los Angeles.

Their 5,900 mile journey in cargo ships and trucks releases 7,000 tons of global warming pollution each year, and enough air pollution to cause dozens of asthma attacks and hundreds of missed school days in California.

On average, Americans consume about 400 gallons of oil per year per person for agriculture, which is a close second to our car usage.

Tractors, combines, harvesters, sprayers, tillers and other equipment all use petroleum, but machines are not the real gas-guzzlers on the farm. That dubious honor belongs to synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are made from oil and natural gas, which are also used in their manufacturing.

More than a quarter of all farming energy goes into synthetic fertilizers. (Organic farms, which use no synthetic chemicals, use significantly less oil.)

Credit: Terry Eggers

But getting the crop from seed to harvest takes only one-fifth of the total oil used for our food. The lion’s share is consumed during the trip from the farm to your dinner table. Most produce in the U.S.—whether organically or chemically-farmed—is shipped an average of 1500 miles before being sold. Those distances are substantially longer when we import produce from Mexico, Asia, Canada, South America, and other places.

In addition to direct transport, other oil-guzzling steps include processing, packaging, warehousing and refrigeration. Energy calories consumed by production, packaging and shipping far outweigh the energy calories we receive from food. In fact, it is estimated that one can of soda requires 30 calories of energy for each empty, nutritionally-bankrupt calorie of beverage in the can.

30 calories in to get just 1 measly calorie out? This is not just unsustainable: It is a recipe for planetary disaster!

We can only afford to eat this way because we subsidize large scale, industrial farming with government handouts and artificially cheap energy. (All payed for by you, taxpayer.) We also externalize and hide the environmental costs of our wasteful food system, transferring our debt to skyrocketing healthcare and environmental remediation costs—again, paid for by you and me, of course.

The true cost of industrial food is unaffordable.

(See 13 Ways to Create a Sustainable Food System for some solutions to this problem.)

Cheap oil will not last forever though. World oil production has already peaked, and while demand for oil continues to grow, easily attained supply will continue to dwindle within the next 20 years, sending the price of energy through the roof.

We might then be forced to use energy efficient agricultural methods, like smaller-scale organic agriculture, Permaculture, and local production wherever possible.

Or we could just start now.

How to Become a “Locavore”

People who value local as their primary food criterion are sometimes referred to as locavores. The term “locavore” was coined by Jessica Prentice for World Environment Day 2005 to describe and promote the practice of eating a diet consisting of food harvested from within a 100-150 mile radius of your home.

One easy way to start eating more local food is to choose one food group to focus on. Vegetables are often a good place to start. Produce also offers a good introduction to eating seasonally, and to what grows in your part of the country, and when.

This great local food finder will get you started with a list of all the fruits and vegetables that are in season for your region.

Once you’ve got the hang of local produce, then try seeking out sources for local, pasture-raised meat, eggs or dairy. Finally, see if you can find grains locally, or grow a “pancake patch” in your backyard garden.

You can support your local food economy by shopping at the farm market, subscribing to a CSA, visiting a U-Pick farm or farm stand, or by purchasing local produce at your supermarket (though remember the supermarket chain takes .85 cents of every dollar, keeping only .15 cents in the community.)

And let’s not forget growing your own, and sharing, bartering or selling the excess!

Naturally, there’s money to be made off of local products, so big businesses have been getting into the game. As you learn to eat locally and seasonally, you’ll want to beware of “localwashing.” Localwashing is a variation on greenwashing, wherein businesses claim to be local to entice you to buy their products, when actually they are not.

Use a little common sense: if the food you are buying comes from a corporation, franchise or chain store with headquarters located far away (like Walmart, Hellmann’s, Starbuck’s or Frito Lay), their products are certainly not local, and they are draining money from your community.

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The Good News

The way we eat has an enormous impact on the health of the planet. Cheap energy and agricultural subsidies facilitate a type of industrial farming that is destroying our soils, air and water, weakening our communities, bankrupting small family farmers, and concentrating wealth and power into a few hands.

It is also threatening the security of our food systems, as demonstrated by the continued E. coli, GMO-contamination, Superbugs, and other health scares that seem to happen with increasing frequency these days.

But by choosing to eat seasonal, local and organic or pasture-raised produce, eggs, dairy, fish and meat, we can curb global warming and pollution, avoid toxic pesticides, support local farmers and enjoy fresh, tasty food. And there is no time better than Local Food Month to begin changing the way we eat.

The good news is that if every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week composed entirely of locally and organically raised produce and grass-fed meats, eggs or dairy, we could reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil—every week.

And by eating local, we would also be helping to create thriving local businesses, economically vibrant, resilient and self-reliant communities, and better health and nutrition for our families.

What more could you want?