It is high summer in the U.S. and if you are not enjoying freshly picked fruits and vegetables then it is time that you visit your nearest farmers market for some locally grown food! Consumer demand for food transparency has manifested into a powerful “local food movement”, which has been sweeping the country for the past decade. But, before picking up some fresh produce at your farmers market, we want to investigate exactly how local is “local” food? Is it fresher? Better for us? Better for the environment? And the farmer?
We feel better when we buy peaches from a local farmer’s market versus a cold air-conditioned grocery store. It is an age old emotional pull to remain close to the earth. Why is that?
Most of us will never pull a carrot from the ground, milk a cow, slaughter a pig or gather eggs from our own hens. Those days of rugged self-sufficiency are gone and aren’t likely to return. Yet people are increasingly aware that their hyper accelerated, super improved lives are missing something. They are rethinking not only what they eat, but where it comes from. This crusade has a name: The Local Food Movement.
-Douglas Gayeton, Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America.
What is “local” food?
Well, it often isn’t as local as you are probably thinking! “Local” should imply a close geographic relationship between you and where your food was grown—but, there is actually no consensus on the meaning of the term. There are no third party certifications, set production standards or required growing practices under federal programs that support local or regional foods. “Local food” does not provide any indication of food qualities such as freshness or nutritional value, and the term cannot be used as a reliable indicator that that food was grown organically or sustainably.
There are a few states, such Vermont and Connecticut, that have established rules to define local as within the borders of the state, but with no consistency in definition throughout the United States the door is open for unscrupulous sellers! A perfect example might be a Massachusetts grocer selling “local” tomatoes for the 4th of July. Hmmm…the tomato harvest in New England generally starts at the end of July. That tomato was probably grown in New Jersey or Maryland and trucked to supermarkets in the north. Is that local? You see where the confusion lies. As the local food market continues to expand, there’s growing concern that the term “local” could become another confusing label such as “natural“, organic,” “grassfed” and “antibiotic free.”
Farms with local food sales represent 7.8 percent of U.S. farms, and while local food sales account for a small percentage (1.5%) of the total value of U.S. agricultural production, it is a growing and differentiated market for producers.
According to industry estimates, the market for local and regional foods was valued at $12 billion in 2014 and is projected to hit $20 billion by 2019.
Generally, according to Mintel Research, consumers trust that local food is grown within a 100 mile radius or in state. The most widely recognized definition comes from the 2008 Farm Bill, which states the total distance for a “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as less than 400 miles from its origin or within the State in which it is produced. To put this into perspective, this distance could be an entire day’s drive OR it could be like driving from Cleveland, Ohio to Washington D.C.!
Ultimately, what defines local depends the level of access to food, the geography, and the lens of the consumer.
Local foods is one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture.
- As of 2014, there were 8,268 farmers’ markets in the United States, up 180 percent since 2007.
- The number of regional food hubs has increased almost threefold since 2007, to a total of 302 in 2014.
- Farm to school programs have shown a 430-percent increase since 2007.
What comprises a Local or Regional Food System?
- The Direct to Consumer Market – Farmers sell their products directly to consumers, rather than through third parties, such as grocery stores. These type of operations include Farmer’s markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) programs and other outlets such as pick your own or roadside farms stands.
- The Direct to Retail, Foodservice, and Institution Market – Farmers will deliver farm products directly to institutions such as grocers, restaurants, schools or hospitals or they may rely on a “food hub,” which is a centralized location to drop off farm products for distribution amongst multiple establishments.
Does “local” cost more?
Consumers may perceive that it costs more to buy from a farmers market, but research shows that in general, the cost of buying locally grown and/or locally grown certified organic products is competitive with regular supermarket prices. Prices do vary according to commodity, region and outlet; and factors such as drought or cold snaps are price influencers as well; but don’t be afraid to spend your money at the local farmers market!!
Is “Local” More Nutritious?
There is not a simple answer! It depends on the crop variety, how it is grown, harvested, packaged, and stored. No matter if it is grown 700 or 7 miles away, by the time the fruit or vegetable reaches your plate, many decisions along the production chain have influenced the nutritional quality. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health examined and summarized the the influences of this important nutritional question…
Knowing the seasonality of fruits and vegetables in your region goes a long way at the Farmers Market or your local grocers and restaurants!
Try these interactive guides to buying seasonal produce from Sustainable Table and the National Resources Defense Council
Storage: Fruits and vegetables continue respiration and enzymatic activity post harvest. Temperature, atmosphere, relative humidity, and sanitation are all important to maintain shelf life. How you store your fruits and vegetables at home is important, too. The scientists at UC Davis have put together an excellent guide for home storage of fruits and vegetables.
Source: Vermont Agency of Agriculture
Variety: Commercial growers are limited in crop varieties because of yield, shipping durability, and shelf life requirements. Although this is why vegetables and produce are available on our supermarket shelves at any time of the year, these crops are not necessarily bred for flavor and nutrition. Farmers growing for a local market, however, can grow many different varieties of a crop, offering numerous options for consumers, and harvesting crops at peak ripeness optimizes flavor, juiciness, and nutritional value.
Growing Methods: No matter the size of the farm, how a farmer tends to the soil and manages pests is critical. Organic matter, cover crops, letting fields go fallow to let the soil regenerate, and the practice of integrated pest management are some of the methods used by farmers to maintain healthy soil and crops.
Post Harvest Handling: Fresh vegetables are extremely perishable and how they are picked and handled after harvest will affect plant integrity, quality and nutritional value. It makes little difference what the quality is at harvest if it is reduced by poor handling, packaging, processing or storage conditions. Minimally processed foods such as pre-cut veggies are incredibly convenient, but the cutting, slicing, chopping, and peeling causes injuries to the plant tissues, increasing susceptibility to spoilage and microbial intruders, which can compromise food safety. Studies have shown that nutritional quality is affected as little as three days after harvest. The best nutritional value is attained by picking and eating within a day or two.
Is Local Food Greener?
“Food Miles” refers not to how far you travel to get your food, but instead how far the food travels to get to you. Multiple studies (Avetisyan et al., 2013; Weber and Matthews, 2008) have found that there are many more variables involved in determining greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) than just how far the food is transported from harvest to plate. Research shows that 83% of the GHG emissions associated with food are dominated by how that food was produced. Large farms growing crops suited to their region may use less energy per product and grow more food on less land realizing economies of scale in production and transportation methods. Strategies such as no-till, more efficient irrigation, integrated pest management, judicious fertilizer use, better handling of manure, and leaving fields fallow help offset the greenhouse gas of farms large and small.
The larger discussion now, driven by consumers demanding full transparency, is about sustainability, which concerns the environment, public health, labor workers, and animal welfare. How was the product grown? Were the animals treated humanely? How were the farm workers treated?
A farmer who understands that his customers want full transparency is more likely to adopt sustainable measures of agriculture to sell his product. The relationship and trust between your farmer and your food becomes far more important than how many miles it took to travel to you.
Every Monday, the team at Stamford, CT based Mike’s Organic Delivery travel no more than 90 minutes to their farms to pick up customer orders that have been placed online by the previous Sunday night. He then delivers them to their customers doorstep or farm-to-table restaurants. Remember the days of the milk man? It is the same concept but Mike takes it to the next level. Personal connections with these farmers for over seven years (20 of them attended Mike’s wedding last fall) have enabled Mike’s Organic Delivery to personally vet growing and food safety standards. The company has been steadily growing around the rate of 15-20% a year and (depending on the time of year) have from 300-500 home deliveries a week! Responding to client demand, offerings have expanded to include pantry items such as olive oils and vinegars, jams, and pastas. Although some of his products extend beyond “local”, Mike and his team visit where these products are grown, produced and packaged to ensure they deliver a quality product to their customers.
You are generally getting vegetables or fruits from us that were in the ground or on a tree 12-48 hours before they are in your home. – Mike’s Organic Delivery
So why buy local?
Many Americans learn about farming for the first time when they meet a local farmer or read about their products and production methods in a store. In this way, local and regional food economies help non-farming Americans reconnect with all of agriculture.
The USDA has a suite of programs to support local and regional food operations, including USDA nutrition assistance programs to provide access to local food at farmers markets.
FIND A FARMERS MARKET NEAR YOU:
Local food is not a trend. It’s not a fad hooked to a priority that will fade away. It’s a vital part of our nation’s diverse food system, born out of consumer demand and driven by the universal connection we have to our community and the farmers and businesses owners who produce the food we eat. Source: USDA
The Bottom Line:
Buying Local is good for you, your health, your community, and your farmer. But, the “local” aspect should not be the only reason to buy produce (unless of course you know the farmer). We recommend that you stay on top of what fruits and vegetables are in season in your region, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if a “local” claim seems out of place. With all the fruit and vegetables options available at this time of year, it is a great time to explore farmers markets, CSA’s, or other outlets for locally grown food, and it is a great time to get into the habit of filling half your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables at every meal!
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