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In recent years, the local food movement has gained a lot of attention for its effort at promoting sustainability from direct-to-consumer sales. Through processing, distribution and consumption, any regional food networks goal is to reduce the ecological footprint left by industrial farming practices, while supporting local producers who have to compete within the larger economy. Although it has its challenges, buying locally grown foods can help people make better informed purchases through developing relationships with farmers, namely in community supported agriculture.
The local food movement was brought to prominence by a number of important people. Michael Pollan was probably the most influential one, with The Ominvore’s Dilemma in 2006 pointing out that people could eat locally without it having to be inordinately expensive, and how little we actually knew about what we were eating. That followed on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, which in 2001 revealed some of the horrific practices associated with industrial farming. Barbara Kingsolver’s 2007 Animal, Vegetable, Miracle helped bring the idea of buying locally to a broader audience, since she was already a popular novelist. All of that had followed after the organic food movement, which had been in development for decades.
The organic food movement had a lot in common with the local food movement, and people developed an attachment to the idea of it as better food. But that was co-opted by the industrial farming practices, and by the time national standards for organic food were established in 2002, it was not all that different from industrial food. Local isn’t just about the distance food travels. It is, as much so if not more, also about the means and methods employed to grow that food. In some cases, Chilean tomatoes might have a lower carbon footprint than tomatoes available at the farmer’s market. But generally, they are grown in huge tomato fields that have been cut out of rainforest estate, are transported on roads that run through formerly healthy ecosystems, and produced by underpaid workers in an almost indentured servitude. Locally sourced food is often “synonymous with small farms that are committed to social and economic relationships” (Martinez et al. 4) that reduce use of things like “synthetic chemicals and energy-based fertilizers” and “limit chemical and pesticide residue on food”.
A food label is a tool that helps consumers discern the nutritional value of a certain product. In 2016, a study conducted on the efficacy of food labels in health prevention outlined its purpose: “it reports composition, ingredients and their relative amounts, it informs about quality, origin, processing and preservation”. Because people often think of food labels in those terms, it is easy for them to believe added nutritional claims on them. But most health claims on food labels are a marketing tool, with little evidence supporting them. It is often the highly processed foods with long ingredient lists that are labeled in this manner, which strips away the consumers “opportunity to consciously choose what to purchase”.
The best way to make an informed decision on a food purchase is to be in direct contact with the producer of that product; a local grower is observable. It is possible to step onto their land, check out their fields, and call them up to see how this year’s harvest was. People can get to know the farmer who produces their food, because “the product reaches the consumer embedded with information such as through package labeling or personal communication”. If people know their farmer, the label doesn’t matter. If they don’t know their farmer, the label doesn’t help, but they can visit the farm or join a CSA, and find out that way to make a more conscious purchase. In any farmer’s market, there will be food raised with a variety of growing methods: produce can be organic or pesticide-free while animals products can be pastured or cage-free. Just like at the supermarket, people should make sure that the food they are purchasing meets their standards.
Going to the farmer’s market does not necessarily mean “better” and “local” only states a few properties about that food. There is organic produce from the supermarket and organic produce from the farmer’s market; the idea is that if people cast away their dependence on single-word labels, they can create their own food conscience, which is made easier by being directly in contact with producers. Signing up for a CSA is the best way to procure locally sourced food at a significant level and at a reasonable price. With a CSA, the consumer pays the farmer up front for the entire season, and each week the farmer makes a delivery of produce.
Each week the farmer decides what they get, and how much of each, based upon what was harvested that week. The concept is that the consumer splits the risk with the farmer. Because the money is up front, it can be used for seeds and preparatory investments, unlike the conventional model which requires the farmer to take on debt and therefore risk financial ruin in a bad year. If there is a drought or other problem, consumers simply get their share of the smaller bounty. In a normal or good year, they tend to get an unbelievable amount of food.
For low-income consumers, there are challenges to joining a CSA. In 2017, an intervention trial examined the impact of community supported agriculture on the diet of children and found that low-income families were often deterred by participation because of “the upfront payment structure…”. For this reason, a case study was conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture on a business model that sought to further consider low-income CSA shareholders: “Farmer Dave’s CSA is a Boston, MA-based program that endeavors to bring CSA shares to residents of low-income neighborhoods”. Through this program, low-income and marginalized people could become shareholders because of a sliding-scale model, “[where] partners help collect weekly share payments and process EBT payments for programs like Snap that can be used to make weekly payments rather than one-time season payments”. While this model isn’t widely implemented, it shows that initiatives are being taken to secure an inclusive future of CSA’s for low-income consumers, who have a difficult time implementing healthy foods into their diet.
There are some disadvantages, especially with a CSA, to buying food locally. Eating locally means there will be a limitation of choice; many foods will be available for only very short periods of the year. During the winter, people may be reduced to a tiny range of crops, plus preserved or stored foods. There will be some foods that they never get, depending on where they live. It is a major shift for people to not just walk into a supermarket and buy whatever they want, whenever they want.
In a good season, there can be more crops than people know what to do with. Anyone seriously interested in locally sourced food is also likely to be unhappy wasting a ton of food. There are some solutions to this, like buying a chest freeze or canning the produce. However, this is also the best defense against seasonality. Having frozen or canned produce in February makes up for only getting turnips that month. The big disadvantage here, though, is the extra work it takes to get there.
The catch is, even those with ready access to a wide variety of produce at the supermarket don’t make healthful food choices. They rely on processed foods, which are largely devoid of nutrients and relatively high in things like calories, sodium, and trans-fats; foods that are drivers of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. The antithesis of this is locally sourcing food at the farmer’s market or from a CSA: buying whole ingredients, such as fruits and vegetables, with the full knowledge of how that food was produced. There is no need for someone following a whole foods diet to purchase only local foods; people can make controlled ingredients lists when shopping at the supermarket to avoid anything that is highly processed. But generally opting out of the processed food industry, and making the commitment to either going to the farmer’s market or joining a CSA, “can improve…consumption of fresh produce” (Seguin et al. 1) and the “nutrient content of [people’s] diets”.
The advantage to buying locally is not what it does for people, but what they can do as a result. Maybe it’s a variety that’s tastier; maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s picked ripe rather than forcibly ripened with gas; maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s produced with techniques that are easier on the soil; maybe it isn’t. What “local” means is that people have the option of finding out. And if they can find out, then the label doesn’t matter. When people begin to source their food locally, they start to see that “local” actually means putting money back into the community. They find that observable operations tend to pull fewer stunts, and that despite being somewhat more expensive on purchase, buying food locally improves their health in the long run.
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