Most Americans don’t think about where their food comes from. They like their food fast and convenient and don’t contemplate its impact on their world, local communities or expanding waistlines. There’s a serious cost to this kind of eating. Considering an average food item travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles before hitting the grocery store shelves, and was likely carried in a huge gas guzzling, ozone-depleting truck, it’s not hard to see this can be a big problem. The shrinking number of family farms and increasing obesity rates makes it even clearer that our relationship with food is broken.
Regardless of whether you’re a carnivore, herbivore or omnivore, most of our food comes from somewhere else. Beef from Texas or broccoli from California, the majority of the food we eat comes from hundreds of miles away. But there’s agrowing movement to keep things closer to home, which is no simple task. Localvores challenge themselves and each other to only eat food grown, harvested and processed within a 100-mile radius of where they live. Organized groups of localvores have popped up in Vermont, California, Oregon, Maine, Illinois, New Hampshire and other states as well. The groups set up potlucks, share recipes and provide support. They also issue challenges, usually one month long. Even if you are unwilling to give up that beloved cup of coffee or dark chocolate from South America, you can still participate. Sure, one hardcore group, the Champlain Valley Localvores in Burlington, Vermont, allows for only “modern Marco Polo” exceptions. These are food items that explorers would have in the 13th century, such as spices, baking soda and yeast. But other, more lenient groups allow for daily “wildcard” items such as coffee, or chocolate. Some groups have challenges focused on one meal, or as much involvement as people can handle. The idea is to get people thinking about where their food comes from and how much good eating can come from one’s home area.
So what does a Localvore eat? Central Vermont localvore Dana Hudson ate lots of eggs, cheese, frozen berries, locally-made yogurt, meats and salads during a recent challenge. Figuring out what’s available and acceptable is one of the hardest parts of a challenge. “I viewed it as a puzzle. I would visit our local farmers market and buy lots of what was in season and the cheapest. Then I would seek out different ways to prepare it from friends and websites,” says Hudson.
Does eating locally cost more? This depends, of course, on your interpretation of the word “cost.” Yes, buying locally produced foods will most likely cost more in upfront dollars, but what will be gained? Food that is produced with care and closer to home is fresher and simply tastes better. A tomato that is allowed to ripen on the vine always tastes better than one picked and shipped green.
By eating locally, you support your local farmer and economy, not faceless corporate farms which have already begun taking over the organic market. According to Susan Roy, head of the Mad River Chamber of Commerce in Central Vermont, for every dollar spent on local foods in Vermont, 43 cents stay in the community. That number drops all the way down to 13 cents per dollar when buying from a chain. Money that stays close to home has a better chance of making its way back into your wallet.
The environmental impact of eating locally is significantly smaller. An average, non-locally-produced meal produces up to 17 times the amount of carbon dioxide emissions of a meal of food produced locally. The food industry is responsible for about one fifth of the US’ consumption of petroleum. Only a small fraction of this is used at the farms – the rest is used for keeping food cold, transporting it, and packaging it. By shopping at a local farmers market, most of those packaging and transportation costs can be saved by simply bringing cloth bags.
And let’s not forget one’s environmental health – local foods often have less pesticide and herbicide residue, which is healthier for everyone.
Let the Localvores be an inspiration for how you can eat more locally – or better yet, join them and see if you are up to the challenge.
Learn more about Localvores: