Mother Earth Living

Eat Local for a Healthier Diet

Learning how to eat local and where to buy fresh food is simple once you know where to look.
By Brian Lavendel
March/April 2002
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A trip to the local farmer’s market can yield everything from fresh greens and vegetables to homemade jams, honey and goat cheese.
Photo by Joe Coca
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Did the vegetables you enjoyed at dinner last night come from a farmstead in the next county—or from fields on the other side of the globe? If you’re not sure, join the club. Many consumers are in the dark when it comes to the source of their food, according to Betsy Barnum, director of the Great River Earth Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis that seeks to promote local—not global—consumption.

Barnum is one of a growing number of consumers who are becoming conscious eaters, enjoying homegrown,  locally produced foods  whenever possible. It’s a way to get more closely connected with our environment and to take better care of it, explains Barnum.

“I belong to a community-supported farm eighty miles from where I live,” says Barnum. Like the other members, she gets a delivery of fresh vegetables—whatever is in season on the farm at that time—every week. Occasionally, the farm hosts gatherings where members come together to enjoy a potluck or a harvest celebration on the land. Plus she has an open invitation to help weed, cultivate, or harvest.

By being a member of a local farm, Barnum has learned a lot about how her food is grown and when produce is in season. “The very first delivery of the year includes lots of lettuce, spinach, and radishes,” she explains. In July, she’ll get to enjoy local strawberries.

Conscious eating

In recent decades, with readily available air freight and refrigeration, food has become a global commodity much like lumber or copper, according to Joan Dye Gussow, a nutrition professor at Columbia University and author of This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, (Chelsea Green, 2000). But Gussow is not convinced the globalization of our food supply is a good thing.

“There are a significant number of people who are concerned about our food system,” notes Gussow, who says industrialized agriculture encourages monoculture planting of single crops and extensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides—some of which are banned in the United States but still used abroad to grow food consumed in this country.

“Choosing foods grown in your local community that have minimal processing and packaging is better for both you and the environment,” Gussow notes. Among other things, “long-distance food requires an enormous amount of fossil fuel to ship it around.” Gussow prefers to eat food grown in conditions she can monitor as opposed to places where she has no idea of how the food is grown or how the field workers are treated.

Gussow, who grows much of her food in a small backyard garden in upstate New York, calls on consumers to “re-localize” their food choices. She urges them to purchase their food from farms within a day’s travel distance. Alternatively, she suggests spending at least $10 per week on local produce through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture arrangements.

Gussow adds that consumers can also benefit by thinking about their diet from a seasonal perspective. “Find out what fruits and vegetables are in season and plan meals around that,” she says. Eating locally may also be healthier because it helps our bodies synchronize with the earth’s natural cycles, explains Gussow.

Barnum agrees. “If you live in a place that doesn’t have a year-round growing season, ask yourself if you really need to eat lettuce or fresh strawberries in December, or if you could enjoy feasting on vegetables and fruits from the root cellar and locally grown food frozen, canned, or dried from the summer’s harvest,” she suggests. Choosing to eat locally, she says, is not about deprivation or severely limiting your choices. “It’s about being sure that the choices you make strengthen your local ecology, economy, and culture rather than harming them.”

How to eat local

These are some of the ways you can eat locally. Check out  www.localharvest.org for locations near you.

  • COMMUNITY-SUPPORTED AGRICULTURE (CSA) farms are a way for consumers to create a relationship with a farm and receive a weekly basket of produce. A CSA season typically runs from late spring through early fall. The number of CSAs in the United States was estimated at fifty in 1990, and has since grown to more than 1,000. To find a CSA near you, visit www.sare.org/csa/index.htm.
  • FARMER’S MARKETS allow farmers to sell their products once or twice a week at a designated public place. Shopping at a farmer’s market is a great way to meet local farmers and get fresh, flavorful produce. To find a farmer’s market near you, check out www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets.
  • U-PICK FARMS open their fields and orchards to the public during harvest season. U-Pick produce may include strawberries, kiwi, pumpkins, and apples.
  • ROADSIDE FARM STANDS give farmers an outlet from the back of a truck parked on a main street, or from the farm driveway.
  • DIRECT-MARKET FARMERS sell and deliver meat, dairy, and eggs directly to consumers by special order.
  • YOUR BACKYARD GARDEN provides another source of local food. And somehow, that spinach or tomato from your own yard has a taste all its own.

Why buy local food?

  • It is often better-tasting and more nutritious, in part because it’s so fresh and helps our bodies adjust to seasonal changes.
  • It preserves genetic diversity and reduces our reliance on genetically modified organisms.
  • It supports local farm families and preserves open space.
  • It supports a clean environment and benefits wildlife.
  • It protects our food supply for the future.

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