Saturday, December 12, 2009

What is Local?

Buy Fresh Buy Local, Locavore, the 100 mile meal, Local Food. We hear a lot about local food these days but what does local food really mean? How local is local? The answer is surprising. Some farmers markets clearly define what they consider local. Freshfarm Markets consider local to be within 200 miles, the Farmers market in Lorton will only accept producers within 125 miles. Whole Foods considers local to be within a day’s drive. My husband and I drive to Michigan in a day which takes about 9 hours but I would never consider an apple from Michigan to be local. When I checked their website, they states that a day’s drive is 7 hours and individual stores may establish a shorter distance to define their local foods.

I recently learned that a large scale dairy producer trucks his milk from Virginia to Pennsylvania for pasteurization and then drives it back to Virginia. Is that milk local? Many foods are grown in one area and then transported to a different area for processing. Then the items still have to be transported to the consumer and they might even make another stop before getting to market. Some produce is sold wholesale and has to be transported to a warehouse location before it makes the market. If produce was labeled with the miles it took to reach the shelf from start to finish, people might think differently about their food.

Food travels an average of 1,300 miles from farm to table and can spend 7-14 days in transit before it arrives at the supermarket. That is a lot of time and distance for who knows what to happen to those food items, not to mention that produce will lose vitamins and minerals in time. I think food that travels a short distance will be fresher, healthier, and less beaten up by a long commute. In 2007, a study was conducted by the Dewey Health Review which examined the diet of 100 people between the ages of 18-55 who enjoyed a diet of local food that was grown within an 80 mile radius. The study found a 19% increase in the sturdiness of bowel movements and a drop in sleep apnea and night terrors.

Michael Pollen often uses the term food miles which refers to how many miles the food must travel before it makes it to your plate. If I get lamb from New Zealand or carrots from California, I picture the food swimming in oil. How much oil did it take to transport these items? How much pollution was released into the air? Buying local food will reduce our dependence on oil, congestion on our roadways, and the amount of pollution that is released into the air. There needs to be a better way for local food producers to reach the average customers. Virginia is an agricultural state that has many productive farms. This makes me wonder why most of the local produce I see in supermarkets comes from Pennsylvania. Virginia is a producer of cheese, meat, vegetables, and fruit. Our farmer’s markets are filled with apples, peaches, beets, greens, carrots, potatoes, figs, corn, tomatoes, berries, and asparagus when in season, just to name a few. Farmer’s markets can offer a greater variety of produce that would not be available in supermarkets. Farmer’s markets can promote local obscure varieties and tell you how to enjoy them.

A locavore is a person who values local food as their primary deciding factor when choosing food. The term was coined by Jessica Prentice from San Francisco for World Environment Day 2005. It was intended to promote the idea of enjoying a diet that consists of food harvested from within a 100 mile radius. The New Oxford American Dictionary chose locavore as the word of the year in 2007.

The local food movement is a group effort to encourage locally based and self reliant food systems. The local food movement values sustainable food production, processing, and distribution. They want to enhance the economic environment and social health of the area. Local food systems remove the middle man and encourage relationships between producer and consumer.

Why buy local? You can enjoy fresh food, support the local economy, and reduce your environmental impact. I like to think about the process my food endures before it gets to my kitchen. I drive to a farm to get my milk, butter, eggs, and the occasional duck or chicken. I know where these items came from and I know what they eat and who takes care of the animals and makes the end product. I know how many miles they had to travel before making it into my fridge.

Many farms in Virginia offer community supported agriculture or C.S.A programs. People buy a share in the farm and enjoy its bounty. Many farms sell at farm stands and farmers markets. But it is daunting for a small farm to sell to a national supermarket chain. Whole Foods wants its producers to have a large amount of liability insurance which may be unreasonable for the average small scale farmer.

People often argue that shopping at Farmer’s Markets is too expensive. But many people consider cost per calorie instead of cost for nutrition. The dollar menu may sound like a deal but that food is not healthy. Some CSA’s and buyers clubs can make eating local less expensive. Industrialized, commodified food is often cheaper due to governmental subsidies and tax breaks. Organically and sustainably grown food cost more because of many of these government subsidies which favor big agricultural business. Currently there are three farmer’s markets in the D.C. area that accept EBT cards. More and more farmer’s markets nationwide are accepting food stamps.

For every $100 spent in our local economy, $68 of those dollars return to the community in taxes and payroll. Buying local is a great way to keep money in the area you live. Not to mention supporting small local business. Every $1 spent locally will see a return of $.45 into the community compared to a return of $.15 on non-local items. The 3/50 project asks people to pick 3 local independent businesses and spend $50 once a month at these businesses. If half the employed population spent $50 a month in locally owned independent business it would generate more than $42.6 billion in revenue

Since 1935, 4.7 million farms in America have vanished. Currently there are less than 1 million farmers in America who farm as their primary occupation. Most farmer’s must work an off-farm job at some time to support their farm. Farming is hard enough without working a second job. Supporting local food supports local farms and local people. I care about local food and value the people who produce it. I want to support local farmers in my community and I want to live sustainability. Today is the first Save Our Food local food Holiday Festival. I am excited to check it out and share my experience with you.

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