So what are you trying to do here?
Mostly, we’re having a great time. We’ve always loved cooking and eating delicious food, and in the last two years or so, we’ve discovered that eating fresh — right off the vine from somewhere close by — is DEFINITELY the tastiest way to go. But if we have to nail down our philosophy on eating locally, it’s important to say that it’s never all or nothing. Not for us. The Local Dish is not about all-or-nothing philosophies. Instead, we focus on doing what
are able to do, both physically and mentally. Some people will be able to go further in their localvore tendencies than others. Some will be able to do less. And no one should be discouraged for making even the smallest step in the local direction or shamed for minor deviations. If you’re curious about the “official” Localvore Plegde, however,
What is this whole thing about local food?
Good question. A complex question, but a very good one. There are several reasons people are drawn toward local food:
- It tastes good! Fresh is flavorful, and you can’t get anything fresher than the tomato you pick from your garden, and most farmers market produce has been picked within 12 hours of your purchase. Many supermarket-friendly items, on the other hand, have been in processing or transport for days — even weeks — all the while losing that fresh flavor. In addition, in order to transport perishable produce from afar, producers are forced to use preservatives, waxes or chemicals to preserve faux freshness and they choose to produce only the hardiest varieties, meaning you will never even have the option of heirloom varieties. There’s a reason they’re called “heirloom”: because they’re quickly falling out of production. Eating local, then, offers both freshness and variety of flavor.
- The adventure. Focusing on eating locally means focusing on seasonal eating, consuming whatever crops are at the peak of ripeness at the time. Turnips, beets, kohlrabi, cabbage, radishes, choi, squash: These vegetables, though wonderful, are not exactly common fare on most American tables. Local eating is therefore an adventure that expands your horizons and your palate. Check out the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s chart of seasonality to learn more about what’s fresh right now.
- Transportation. Food trucked or flown or shipped from distant places obviously requires a great deal of fossil fuel and creates emissions. In fact, most produce grown in the United States travels an average of 1,500 miles before it gets sold, making about 180 kg of carbon by plane or 140 kg carbon by car. (Calculate the carbon cost of food from various countries here.)
- Sustainability. Industrial agriculture drains the soil of its natural fertility and forces us to turn to artificial fertility in the form of chemicals. The U.S. Uses about 23 million tons of chemical fertilizer every year. Where that runoff reaches the Gulf of Mexico, it’s created a dead zone, a 6,000-square-mile area that has no sea life. And it’s not just farming that has sustainability issues. Most livestock are now raised in concentrated-animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where they live haunch-to-haunch. Not only are vast quantities of their waste being released into ground and the water supply, but that waste is full of hormones and antibiotics. So yes, current methods of food production are blatantly unsustainable.
- Nutrition. Despite recent studies that attempt to disprove it, organic vegetables contain 53.6 percent more betacarotene, 11.3 percent more zinc, 38.4 percent more flavonoids and 12.7 percent more proteins. Organic food also has significantly higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of nitrates. And even if your local food is not certified organic, it’s likely to be higher in nutrients because of its freshness as nutrient content begins to decline after it’s been picked, meaning fresh food will always have more nutrients than food picked many days beforehand.
- Chemicals. Organic produce — which most conscientious local producers grow — doesn’t contain pesticides, which even the U.S. Government admits are dangerous to health. They note (PDF) that children eating conventional food had pesticide levels six times higher than their peers who ate organic, pesticides that are linked to hyperactivity, behavior disorders, learning disabilities, developmental delays and motor dysfunction. Chemical residue is particularly insidious in meat: When you eat an animal’s flesh, you’re consuming the condensed remains of every chemical that animal ate in its lifetime.
- Knowing how your food was grown or raised. You can’t trust a label. They say the chickens are “free range” or “cage-free,” but the only requirement to make that claim is that the animals have access to the outdoors, and that could be for five minutes a day on a gravel lot. Similarly, beef can be “grass-fed” if it ate grass for a time, even if at the end of its life, it was stuffed with corn. Only if you know your producer and their methods, you can never be sure of exactly how the food you are eating was raised.
- Food safety. Spinach, tomatoes, jalapenos, pistachios: These are just a few of the foods that have been found to be contaminated and were pulled form shelves recently. When such outbreaks occur, it often takes weeks or months to track down the source in the labyrinthine food transportation system. When you keep your food local, it changes hands only once, maybe twice, allowing for less chance of contamination.
- Helping struggling farmers. Fewer than 1 million Americans now claim farming as their primary occupation, and it’s no wonder when commodity prices are at historic lows, often below the cost of production. The farmer now gets less than 10 cents of the retailer food dollar. (PDF) When farmers have a direct relationship with their customers, they can keep the full market value of their crop and continue farming, as opposed to the path of bankruptcy and further farmland consolidation in corporate hands.
- Keeping your dollars in your community. For every $100 spent at a locally owned business, $45 stays in your community because that owner pays salaries, buys supplies and hires services. When you shop at a chain store, the amount that stays in your community falls to $13. (Source)
- Saving money. Buying local and/or organic CAN be cheaper than buying conventional produce and meats. Granted, it won’t ALWAYS be cheaper, but it is possible. In season produce is always cheaper than produce that’s out of season and transported from afar, so buy in season, buy lots and preserve it. Local food also cuts out the middle man, meaning extraneous food costs can be avoided. But even if local food costs the same amount as conventional, it’s cheaper in the long run. After all, we haven’t yet begun to pay for the costs of industrial farming, such as water pollution, air pollution, and burned-out soil that are associated with conventional products.
- Animal cruelty. In order to maximize profit, industrial agriculture is at odds with the well-being of the animals they’re raising. They’re kept in close quarters, fed foods they’re not designed to eat and force fed. Living a life they’re not meant to, they get sick and are given unhealthy doses of antibiotics. But some practices are truly revolting, such as cutting off pig’s tails, feeding cows beef lard or de-beaking chickens. Even those that aren’t overly concerned with providing animals with a happy, healthy life should know that when an animal is subject to stress and pain, it is more prone to disease and can produce lower quality meat, milk, or eggs.
- Fixing a broken system. The Farm Bill is a mess, controlled by powerful lobbies at the expense of growers and our health as a nation, and corn is usually the main crop cited as a problem. Between 1995 and 2006, corn growers received $56 billion in federal subsidies, and the annual figure may soon hit $10 billion. This keeps prices artificially low, creates low-grade corn fed to animals or made into unhealthy products, and is made into high-fructose corn syrup. Eating local circumvents that system, makes a statement to government and supports farmers that would fail under the current system.
Obviously, there are lots of reasons people choose to eat locally, and the more you research the subject, the more it makes perfect sense to change your habits in the local direction. The best thing to do is learn more about the subject and make up your own mind, and here are a few good places to start. (Only the basics here. More suggestions welcome, email kate AT localdish DOT net.)
Quick-hit, shorter resources
- The Eat Local Challenge, 10 Reasons to Eat Local Food
- The Sustainable Table, What is Local?
- The New York Times, Mountains of Corn and a Sea of Farm Subsidies
- Time Magazine, Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food
- Mother Nature Network, Is buying local always better? It’s complicated
- The Chicago Tribune, The green movement rethinks the way we cook
- Colorado Springs Independent, Local buying: different from local shopping
- Colorado Springs Independent, The corporate co-opt of ‘local’
- Organic is more nutritious according to the French
- The Nation’s series, Food For All: How to Grow Democracy
- TruthDig, Food Is Power and the Powerful Are Poisoning Us
Longer, in-depth resources