Eating locally is the latest diet trend among health nuts and environmental advocates alike. The locavore movement is as old as our early human ancestors, whose only option was to forage and hunt for food, but the recent popularity of books such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Plenty by Canadian couple Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon has inspired people across the country to take a new look at this old diet. People are also taking action: more families are planting their own gardens and an increasing number of businesses are offering local fare. But eating local foods is not just a new trend, it’s a better way of life for both people and the planet.
According to a 2002 study by the Worldwatch Institute, food travels between 1500 and 2500 miles from the industrial farm where it was grown to the average person’s plate. The enormous amount of fossil fuels used to transport food long distances has a significant impact on the environment. Emissions of carbon dioxide contribute to the Greenhouse Effect and global warming while emissions of particulate matter, sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide are responsible for smog, air pollution and rising rates of asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia and other respiratory diseases. The oxide gases combine with water vapor in clouds to form sulfuric and nitric acids that become part of rain and snow. This precipitation pollutes water sources and damages ecosystems when lakes and rivers become too acidic to support plant and animal life.
Environmental costs of shipping foods long distances also include energy required for processing, refrigeration and packaging. Plastic packaging usually ends up in landfills where it can take 1000 years to degrade, polluting soil and water in the process.
The sources of most foods shipped long distances – industrial monoculture farms and confined animal feeding operations – also damage air and water quality by spraying pesticides and producing pollutants such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and ammonia. In contrast, small family farms supplying local foods usually employ sustainable production methods like crop rotation and management-intensive grazing. They often improve the quality of the land they manage by enhancing soil fertility, water quality and biodiversity.
Any gourmet cook or professional chef will tell you that local foods are best because they are freshest. The flavor and texture of fruits and vegetables ripened on the plants that grew them and picked within hours of purchase is nothing like that of produce items picked days or weeks in advance and ripened artificially. But fresh, local foods not only taste better, they are much more nutritious. As soon as fruits and vegetables are picked, vitamins, minerals and other healthful phytonutrients begin to break down. When days or weeks pass between harvest and consumption, produce items can lose significant nutritional value.
Furthermore, local foods are usually whole foods. Unlike their processed counterparts, whole foods do not contain additives, preservatives, emulsifiers, dyes, artificial sweeteners or other chemicals that can have negative impacts on health. Processing foods removes nutrients, fiber and water that are essential to healthy digestion and optimal wellness. Whole foods, fresh or preserved at their peak, are always the best choice.
The best way to eat local foods year-round is to stock up during peak season and preserve what you don’t eat fresh by canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating or fermenting. Finding these foods can be easy, and you may be able to start in your own backyard.
Garden plots can be planted in any sunny patch of soil. Fruit trees and edible flowers such as lavender, nasturtium and violets make attractive additions to landscaping designs. When yard space is not available, container gardens can be placed on porches, balconies and windowsills. Food can be grown almost anywhere, as long as you choose plants to fit the conditions (sunshine, shade, temperature, moisture). For gardeners without a green space, community gardens offer a viable alternative.
For shoppers who don’t garden, farmers markets offer fresh, seasonal, local foods, from fruits and vegetables to eggs, cheeses and meats. Many also offer fish and seafood (in coastal areas), honey, wine, cider, juices, fruit preserves and pickled vegetables. Some farms offer Pick-Your-Own programs that welcome people who want to pick their own fruits and vegetables. Food cooperatives often carry local produce as well.
Other do-it-yourself strategies include beekeeping, hunting, fishing and foraging. Hunters and fishers should seek local licenses and the knowledge to operate their equipment safely in designated areas. Wild berries, salad greens and mushrooms can often be gathered, depending on season and climate. Edible plants may include strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, elderberries, mulberries, dandelion greens, nettles, lamb’s quarters, chicory, purslane, ramps (wild leeks), chanterelles, morels and oyster mushrooms. Foragers should be knowledgeable about the food they gather, as some wild plants can be poisonous. Around New York City, naturalist Steve Brill hosts tours and talks that teach attendees to identify local edible and medicinal wild plants and mushrooms.
The rising popularity of eating a local diet has prompted new business ventures for gardeners and chefs alike. Such services are an ideal option for people who don’t have the time, energy, interest or ability to manage their own gardens, shop for local foods or make their own meals.
Personal gardeners offer the benefits of a garden and fresh-picked produce without the long hours of labor. In cities such as Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, California gardening services offer clients a menu of produce varieties to choose from and design gardens tailored to meet their needs and preferences. They plant and tend the garden and pick the produce. Some gardening businesses also provide consultations for those who want to manage their own gardens but need advice.
Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) provides customers with shares of seasonal, farm-fresh foods each week. CSA shares usually include a variety of vegetables and some offer fruits, flowers, baked goods, dairy products and eggs from free-range or pasture-raised chickens. Produce is usually organic (check with the farmer), always fresh-picked and available for weekly pick-up at a regular location during harvest season.
For those who want to skip the gardening, shopping and cooking completely, some personal chefs offer meals composed of local ingredients.
Restaurants are accommodating local diets too. Across the globe, from the 100 Mile Café in Melbourne, Australia to The Plaza Hotel in New York City, an increasing number of eateries are proposing local menus. It is now easier than ever for locavores to dine out and support businesses that support their way of life.
To learn more about gardening, food preservation, beekeeping, hunting, fishing, foraging, and cooking local foods, visit your library or bookstore to browse the bountiful selection of books on these subjects. Instructional DVDs may also available.
Also, online resources abound. To find a farmers market or CSA near you, visit localharvest.org. Visit communitygarden.org to find a community garden in your neighborhood. To find farms where you can pick your own produce, visit pickyourown.org. Localfork.com can help you find restaurants serving local foods in New York and other selected communities. For more local resources throughout United States and Canada, visit 100milediet.org.