Eating locally is very fashionable these days, but do you know what it even means? Here are five things to know about local food.
1. There’s no agreed-upon definition of local food.
When I hear local food I assume it’s coming from a farmer a few miles away, but living 30 minutes outside of New York City the probability of having a just-picked tomato is slim unless I’m growing it in my backyard (or it’s coming from the rooftop of a NYC building). And the fact is, there is no consensus on what “local” even means.
According to the USDA Economic Research Department report “Local Food Systems,” the 2008 Farm Act defines local as “less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, on the other hand, defines a “locavore” as a local resident who tries to eat only food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius. In the bag of produce I received last week there were some items from farms over 200 miles away from my home. I would still consider them local compared to produce from, say California, but some people would not.
2. Local does not necessarily mean organic.
Many people seem to equate the two, but local and organic aren’t the same, nor are they mutually exclusive. Some local food is organic and some is not. Some organic food is local and some is not. If you’re worried about purchasing non-organic food (which you shouldn’t be) and are buying local food directly from a farmers market or the farm itself, ask the farmers directly about how their food is grown. If you’re buying produce in the supermarket look at the label on the container or produce sticker.3. Local farms vary in size.
One of the reasons people give for purchasing local food is to support the local economy and small, family-owned farms. This is a great reason to want to buy locally, especially if you get to know the farm-family directly, but it’s important to realize that the majority of farms across the country, not just your local farms, are family-owned and operated. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2012 Census of Agriculture, 97 percent of farms are family farms. And if you think family farms are small, you may be surprised to learn what I did in The Atlantic: for farms with one million dollars or more in gross revenues, 88 percent are family farms. Now I don’t know a lot about farming, but that doesn’t seem so small to me!
4. Local food is not necessarily better for the environment.
Proponents of the local food movement argue that production and consumption of locally grown food reduces the production of greenhouse gases, as transportation miles are reduced. However, researchers have found that the transportation savings from local foods versus other sources does not substantiate benefits to society. Research shared in the USDA “Local Food Systems” report also found that some foods transported from further distances were more energy-efficient than more closely transported foods due to the mode of transportation (boat vs. plane).
5. Relying solely on local food could be limiting.
If I relied only on local produce, I would rarely get to eat fresh strawberries, grapes, oranges and an abundance of other nutritious and delicious fruit and vegetables. You will rarely, if ever, find me buying fresh berries, cherries, nectarines and other spring and summer produce during the fall and winter months because they are not in season and I’d rather buy apples, pears and citrus fruits since they are more flavorful at that time of year.
However, I do often buy berries and stone fruit from Georgia, Florida and California even during the spring and summer because the growing season for these fruits is longer in those states than it is in New York. Why would I want to deny my family and myself these nutrient-rich and flavorful foods? My colleague and fellow Digital Voices Council member Regan, over at Healthy Aperture, wrote about this just the other day in her post about why she doesn’t always buy local produce.
The bottom line for me, and what I hope you take away from this post, is that it’s great to support local farmers and buy local foods if and when it’s available to you, but local food should 1) not be put on a pedestal and 2) not prevent you from purchasing foods you enjoy that come from further away.
To read the full blog and more from Jessica Levinson, click here.
Jessica Levinson is part of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council. To learn more about the program and bloggers who participate, click here.