Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Green Kitchen: Why Eat Local?

Green Kitchen is a bi-weekly column about nutritious, inexpensive, and ethical food and cooking. It's penned by the lovely Jaime Green.

Do you feel like all you hear these days is "eat local"? Wondering what all the hype is about? What's the point? Isn't that just a fad for hipsters and yuppies who don't get enough snooty karma from their NPR totes?

Though it won’t cure the common cold or reverse the mortgage meltdown, local food is pretty darn great, and not just because it’s traveled a shorter distance in a gas-guzzling truck or plane. Food from nearby is healthier and tastier, not to mention good for the planet, good for your community, and good for your spirit.

Here’s why.


Local food has a smaller carbon footprint. Flying bananas in from South America uses fuel for the plane ride AND power for cooling and storing mechanisms. Food from your ‘hood (or nearby) puts much less CO2 into the air with its transport.

Keep in mind, not all local food is carbon-light. Wintertime greenhouse tomatoes may come from the farm down the street, but the power to heat their environments is not negligible. Still, if you stick to local and seasonal food, you’re golden.

Patronizing nearby farms also supports green, open spaces in your area. Farms are susceptible to commercial development and exurb spread. If you help keep them solvent, you ensure your region hangs on to those lovely spreads of farmland and pasture.

Local farms tend to be smaller farms, as well. Big, national suppliers will farm massive tracts of monoculture: acres of soybeans or corn, which isn’t particularly good for the environment or the national waistline. They often use heavy pesticides and genetically-modified seeds. Smaller farms, on the other hand, tend to be much more diverse, and the best ones integrate their production in a symbiosis of fertilization and need, keeping the soil super-healthy and producing awesomer produce and animals. When animals are involved, it means a better life for them before they become dinner, too.


Buying your food from local producers also supports your local economy. Greenmarket farmers take home about 90 cents of each dollar. With supermarket produce, after the marketing, transport, and distributors, the farmer’s getting more like 21 cents. Part of the reason: government farm subsidies are heavily weighted towards grain and meat production.

Buying local also gives you a personal connection to your food. I know that my eggs come from near Ithaca, and my apples a few towns over upstate, and I get to hand my money right to the farmers that raised them. I guess at the supermarket I’m shopping alongside my neighbors, too, but it feels more personal, and features more smiles, when we’re doing it outside, in the sun.


Local food is better for you. It's way fresher than what’s transported across the globe to your mega mart. Supermarket produce is often picked a week before it’s ripe, and has to do its final ripening in transport. Local produce is often picked the day you take it home. Nutrients are preserved, and the flavor is often more prominent. Like, amazingly so.

Local food is often, hothouse tomatoes aside, seasonal. Anyone who’s sampled a strawberry in January knows that food in its prime season just tastes better. And, bonus: seasonal food is super-cheap! Right now my supermarket’s red peppers are $4.99 a pound. In August the greenmarket has that down to $1.99. The seasonal price drop happens in grocery stores, too, but it’s way more dramatic at the farmers market. Plus, the apples taste more like apples, and the greens are bright and still have a little dirt on them from when they were picked that morning.

Eating local and seasonal also supports variety in your diet and the food that farmers grow. This happens in two ways: first, when you commit to eating local, you get pushed, deliciously, outside your veggie comfort zone. If you’re used to string beans and zucchini year-round, a local meal in October can broaden your tastes to Brussels sprouts, kale, and cauliflower. (I think this connection with the seasons is good for your soul, too. Especially in the city, it's good to keep in touch with how nature goes.)

The second kind of variety: Local farms, because they’re not beholden to corporate supermarket beauty standards, are also able to sustain uglier, weirder breeds of plants. My supermarket usually has three or four varieties of apples; the greenmarket has at least twelve. Those heirloom tomatoes may be super-unattractive, but they’re also super delicious.

The farmer’s presence at the greenmarket bolsters your sense of community, but also gives you a valuable resource that’s absent from all but the awesomest supermarkets. You can ask, “Hey, what’s the best way to store these carrots so they keep as long as possible?” and also, “What do the eggs who laid these eggs eat? “How much to they get to frolick outside?” Sure, I could share my enthusiasm with the supermarket stock clerk, but I’d rather gush to the person who grew it himself.

* * *

There are ways beyond the farmers market to eat well and cheaply while being good to the planet, and I’ll get into some of those next time. But what do you think, readers? Do you shop at a farmers market or subscribe to a CSA? Do you get local food another way? Why or why not?

“If buying locally isn’t the answer, what is?” Grist.org
“10 Reasons to Eat Local” Eat Local Challenge
“Why Eat Locally?” Treahugger
Local Harvest


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wosnes said...

I love the idea of eating locally and do as much as possible. But living in an area where there are no crops harvested between the end of October and the beginning of May does make it a challenge. Oh, there are some greenhouse grown things available, but $3 for a piddly bunch of greens isn't good for the budget.

The Local Cook said...

I'm a member of a CSA and a milk herdhsare. LOVE it!

Liz Tee said...

I don't think bananas are a good example. I'm too lazy to do the research but don't think you can get local bananas.

Unless you live in the tropics. unless you mean we shouldn't eat bananas at all. Which may be the case eventually anyway, since the Cavendish we know and love might not be sustainable commercially due to a fungus.

Oh well.

Jaime said...

Wosnes, I totally agree. It's really hard over the winter. I try to expand from local to seasonal, or just not-super-far-away - California rather than Chile, for example. Kale rather than string beans. And I'm working on other food choices we can make that are good for the planet (and ourselves) that don't rely on local eats. (Coming soon to a blog near you!)

Jaime said...

Liz, I don't eat strictly local by any means. I admire people who do, but I'm not up for that. (Yet?) I eat bananas, I eat chocolate. But whenever possible, I eat locally. It doesn't work in the dead of winter, and it doesn't work for everything, but I don't need mangoes and bananas all the time - often enough I can replace them with a local apple, peach, or plum.

Jane said...

Love the blog! Been reading for awhile now and am getting a lot of ideas to try out while I'm on Mat. leave.

We've been eating as locally as possible since I read "100 mile diet" about two years ago.

Some things were easy to give up (asparagus that tastes awful in Feb. anyway) but others improved impossible (coffee and chocolate). You do what you can.

wosnes said...

Jaime --

I also try to eat seasonally and at least stick to foods grown in the U.S. -- most of the time. I look at it this way: people have been exporting/importing food items for thousands of years. Coffee, tea, spices and so on have been part of world trade forever. I'm going to do the best I can and not get my knickers in a knot about it!

Lisa (newRDcook) said...

As a member of a CSA and a fervent farmers market shopper, I think eating locally is important to not only support the local economy, but to help preserve farm land and family farms, while cultivating relationships with those that grow and raise the food I eat. I think it's empowering to know exactly where your food comes from. As a Dietitian, I like to know that my food is in its freshest, purest form, without added preservatives or chemicals whenever possible. (That being said, I'll run to the supermarket in a pinch ;-))