Why buy local? What are the real health and environmental impacts of choosing locally grown and produced foods? These questions come to mind when forced with the decision to choose between certified organic and local. Often times, food is grown without pesticides but isn't certified because of the costs and legalities of gaining certification. Spoiler alert- 9/10 times I go with local over organic.
The reality is, there are health and environmental costs of eating produce and prepared foods that make the long distance journey from farm to plate. People often ask me about “superfoods” and which are my favorites. My answer has shifted over the years from understanding the health benefits of exotic fruits from all over the world, to actually feeling the benefits of foods sourced locally.
There’s a science to this. The moment a piece of produce is picked or cut, its enzymes begin decomposing and feeding on the nutrients within. Also, many of these nutrients, including vitamin C for example, will not reach their maximum potential within the fruit or vegetable when picked before being fully ripe.
In recent years, food imports have surged. The typical American prepared meal contains on average, ingredients from 5 countries outside the U.S. What’s more? Food on the average American plate was trucked in from more than 1500 miles away and spent between 7 and 14 days in transit; we use more than three times as much energy to obtain our food as to fuel our homes! To get mathematical with this: “Food miles” equal the distance from farm to plate. The correlation between food miles and health for the body and planet is easy. Higher the food miles equals a greater negative impact on health for our bodies and the planet.
So what can we do? Plant a garden. You don't need much room for this. We have two garden beds that are 4 x 6 feet, and they keep us full with herbs, greens, and tomatoes and beans throughout the year. We also plant pumpkin and sweet potato as ground cover along the side of our house. But in smaller homes (i.e., my college apartment) I grew herbs in pots, and that was at least something. If you can't grow it, buy local produce and foods from farmer’s markets and CSA’s when possible. At the grocery store, make a point to support local businesses creating foods with local ingredients and using sustainable methods of production. Every little bit helps, and every dollar is a vote. So use your votes wisely. Progress is every little step, not a destination.