Years ago, when I first moved to Hawaii, I used to take The Bus to work. The trip from Ala Moana to Kapolei was about an hour long. I didn’t mind this so much, because I got so much reading done during that time. There were a handful of books that I read during these rides that were pivotal in shaping my current thoughts on business, life and health.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life is one of those books.
If you’re unfamiliar, here’s a brief summary: Barbara Kingsolver (the author) and her family moved from their suburban Arizona home to rural Appalachia to take on a new challenge: they vowed to spend a year living on their family farm on a locally-produced diet, paying close attention to the provenance of all they consumed. The book is an eye-opening account of their journey.
“Each food items in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles….If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week.” (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle)
What is local food?
There’s no formal definition of the term local food. But one common definition of “local” food is food grown within 100 miles of its point of sale or consumption.
But it’s up to you to decide what buying local food means to you. Maybe it means foods grown and produced in your state or your region. Or maybe it means that it comes from farmers you know and can talk to — for example, at a farmer’s market or through a CSA. And for some people, “local” is more about the values of small-scale and community-based than about a specific geographic configuration.
Taste and Nutrition
Two of the most important aspects of eating local food are improved taste and nutrition. Food grown locally typically tastes better, as it’s eaten soon after harvest. Local food is allowed to ripen on the plants and in the fields without additional chemical aid.
Moreover, local food is harvested at the peak of the season, making it more nutritious. While someone may be expecting a wallop of vitamins after eating some broccoli, that doesn’t always hold true. When produce is harvested out of season and then shipped over many miles, the nutrient content deteriorates.
A study done in 2008, found that the biggest determinant of nutrient density in broccoli was whether it was in-season or not. Another study from 2012 demonstrated that the anthocyanin (a powerful antioxidant) content in blackberries grew up to 4x as the berry ripened naturally.
Check out the “TF Produce Continuum” below to assist when shopping for vegetables and fruits:
Exporting and importing foods is becoming commonplace and this takes more energy. The average food item travels 1200 – 2500 miles in the U.S. before it reaches the kitchen table. While the specific number of miles a food travels has been debated by some, it doesn’t take much investigation to establish where a food was grown. Living in Hawaii, the distance our imported food has to travel is 2400 miles at the very least.
Food production depends heavily on energy and oil for its production, processing, packaging, and distribution. The price we pay, (directly to the farmer/packer/distributor/store and indirectly for the increase in CO2 emissions) is much greater than locally-produced goods.
Food safety is an often overlooked aspect of local eating. Years ago, when I first volunteered at a local farm, I found out that foods from local growers often contain little to no pesticides, even if they’re not “certified” organic.
Farmers have to pay hefty fees to become certified organic, and a lot of the local small-scale farmers who use organic methods aren’t certified because they simply aren’t big enough to be able to afford the certification fees. Even if they aren’t organic, small farmers tend to use fewer chemicals than large, industrialized farms. When we buy food from local sources, the opportunity for contamination is diminished.
Food contamination often occurs on massive industrialized farms that have livestock nearby. With controlled farming systems and a reduction in the number of “hands” touching food, the potential of food-borne illness is minimized.
Food purchased at a standard grocery store can provide as little as 3.5 cents of every food dollar to the farmer. The rest of the money goes to food processors, suppliers and marketers. Eating local helps to keep small farmers alive and provides more options to the consumer. Supporting local businesses can enhance the local economy.
Based off everything I explained above, the take-home is simple:
- Shop for locally-based produce when you’re at the grocery store.
- Attend farmer’s markets, when possible.
- Participate in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program near you.
CSAs are probably the best option for most people since it allows people to purchase seasonal produce directly from local farmers. Membership dues help to pay for seeds and plants, greenhouse expenses, equipment, labor, and other costs related to the workings of the farm. Members receive a weekly or biweekly share of the farm’s harvest.
Essentially, the community members become shareholders in the farm — and the farm has a steady supply of revenues it can count on. The other benefit: the supply of food is often cheaper to buy than the produce sold at supermarkets. Lastly, it’s fun to discover new varieties of produce that you may not have seen or eaten before.