The two most common reasons why folks avoid shopping for buying local, Organic meat and veggies are because it is too expensive, and/or it takes too much effort.
Next week I'll be sharing my 5 favorite tips for affording local meat and veggies, but there's another conversation we need to have first. Why does buying local food matter? Does it really benefit my health that much? Does it really make that much of a difference?
The answer that each of us honestly gives to those questions will dictate whether we are ready to prioritize buying locally produced food. It is usually more convenient to buy whatever we can find for the best price at the store, or even online and have delivered to our house. Changing habits to buy local food takes effort. And we only make lasting habit changes - especially ones that are less convenient - if we really believe something is worthwhile.
Now before we dive in, don't get me wrong: If buying local food isn't a top priority for you right now, I have absolutely no judgment for you. If you want to prioritize it but now is not the right time, I don't want you to feel guilty after reading this. We are all at different stages of our health journeys, and of our journeys to build meaningful community in our lives. There are many, many steps in this journey and this one may be further down the road for you... If so, file this post away for later :)
Let's talk about why buying local food matters from 3 perspectives: your health, the environmental impact, and building connections with your neighbors.
1. Why buying local benefits your health
The nutrients contained in the food we eat is what gives us energy, healthy skin, strong joints & muscles, and the ability to heal... most folks reading this blog are interested in eating food that contains as many vitamins and minerals, and as much healthy proteins, fats, and carbs as possible. Several factors cause local produce to have higher nutritional content:
- Soil health: Large "conventional" farms - farms that generally grow one crop per field every year on repeat, deplete the health of the soil. The nutrients in the soil give nutrients to the food that is grown in it, just the way that the food we eat gives us nutrients. Most smaller, local farms that you'll find at farmers' markets or selling to your quality local grocers use crop rotation practices which minimize nutrient depletion of the soil, composting and adding manure or other natural products to the soil to increase nutrients, and a variety of other strategies to ensure their soil is as healthy as possible to make your fruits and veggies as healthy as possible.
- Transportation: Produce has the most nutrients right after it is picked, and meat has the most nutrients shortly after processing. Today the average American meal involves over 1,500 miles of travel to get to our plates (read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver for more on this!). All those miles of transit are costing us nutrients, so a stalk of broccoli picked yesterday in the next town over and sold to you today or tomorrow may look exactly the same as a stalk of broccoli from Mexico, but if you were to lab test those for nutritional quality, the local broccoli would almost assuredly win. Proper storage of produce is also important to nutrient (and taste) preservation - listen to my interview with New Seasons' Produce Director to learn more.
- Variety & Volume of Produce: The #1 health reason I offer for signing up for a CSA program is because it forces you to eat more vegetables. If you pay up front for a season of vegetables, you won't want all that produce you pick up each week going to waste! Almost everyone I know who signs up for a CSA share eats more vegetables overall, and eats a greater variety of vegetables. But even if you don't do a CSA program, a focus on shopping for local food at your grocery store or farmers' market will inevitably lead you to eat more veggies... There are a lot more vegetables grown in most cities than there are breakfast cereals, donuts, and candy made!
2. Why buying local benefits the environment
Reference the above statistic about each meal traveling 1,500 miles to get to our plates. Our industrial agricultural system requires 400 gallons of oil per citizen per year. Equipment used to till, plant, spray pesticides, and harvest food at such a large scale uses oil. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers use oil. And the majority of that 400 gallons goes into transporting our food to us. If we want to talk seriously about reducing our dependence on foreign oil, reducing carbon emissions, or whatever else matters to you politically and environmentally, buying local food is a huge step in the right direction.
This agricultural dependence on oil is inclusive of large scale Organic farms. Chapter nine in Michael Pollan's fantastic Omnivore's Dilemma discusses how Organic has become big business over the last couple decades, and some of the ways consumers may be surprised that large Organic farms resemble their conventional counterparts, especially in oil requirements: "A one-pound box of prewashed lettuce contains 80 calories of food energy... growing, chilling, washing, packaging, and transporting that box of organic salad (from California) to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 57 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food" (p 167). I am absolutely NOT against Organic farming. The benefits of reducing pesticides from our air and our soil has significant implications for human health, soil health, and environmental sustainability. But I am saying that large scale Organic farming still contributes heavily to our oil consumption and thus carbon emissions, and we need to be cognizant of that.
I focused on oil dependence and carbon emissions as one aspect of the environmental benefit of buying locally. I could also talk about carbon sequestration of grass fed cattle, the benefits of no-till vegetable production, and many other environmental aspects of agriculture - and I hope to get to these in future blog posts! Hopefully this is enough to think about for now. :)
3. Why buying local builds connections with your neighbors
This might actually be my favorite reason on the list. Over the last 10 years, I have made major shifts in my food buying habits to a majority of local sourcing. I would say my main reasons for doing so were nutritional and environmental. But they resulted in an unforeseen benefit that I cherish more deeply than the former two: I feel connected with the people growing my food, and I have confidence that the money I spend on food is supporting people I know and trust, that live near me, and that are doing good work with their lives.
So much of what we buy - clothing, electronics, household supplies, cars, furniture, and yes, food - is produced by people we don't know. We don't know what materials they use, we don't know how their employees are treated, we don't know if the leaders of those companies are building a better world. I love that I can honestly say that this isn't true of most of my food dollars. I love that I can thank the folks who grow my food directly - and that most of them can be considered my neighbors. And I can't explain how great of a feeling that is to you... you just have to give it a try for yourself. We are so accustomed to being disconnected from the people whose livelihoods we support with our purchases, that this feeling of contentedness from supporting our neighbors is almost utterly foreign. I think food is an excellent place to start to recover that.
Before we wrap up, I'd like to take a moment and speak to my fellow Christians on the importance of being good stewards of our resources: our health, our environment, our finances, and our neighbors. The Bible speaks to these topics frequently (Genesis 1:28-30, Exodus 23:11, Psalm 24:1, 1 Corinthians 10:31), and I believe it is critical to living out our faith as followers of Jesus of Nazareth to pursue God's way for everything that we do: how we spend our money, how we care for the earth, and how we buy our food being a few examples. I encourage you to pray about this and ask God how He may be leading you to make changes in these areas.
OK, that was a long one. Thanks for bearing with me to the end. One piece of encouragement for you to wrap up: habit change takes a lot of effort at the beginning, but down the road can feel effortless. Don't allow yourself be overwhelmed to inaction by the gravity of agricultural problems we face. Start small: buy one thing from a farmers' market this week. Look for local tags at the grocery store. If you're in Portland, listen to my podcast interviews with farmers and think about how to buy from one of them.
And let me know: What other questions do you have about eating locally? What do you agree or disagree with in this post? What one step are you going to take to eating locally? You've got this!