“Locavore” was the Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year in 2007. A locavore is someone who makes an effort to eat food that comes from his or her surrounding area. Some insist on food coming from within a 100-mile radius of their homes, others are less strict. What are the benefits of eating locally? How difficult is it to be a locavore? What resources are available to locavores in the five boroughs? This article will answer those initial questions and help you find the right questions to ask.
You may be thinking, “Isn’t most of the food I can buy in New York from New York?” No. No, it is not. The modern food system in America is built on the platform of cheap food. Most of the food in this country comes from huge assembly line operations that run like factories, giving birth to the term “factory farm.” These factory farms ship to locations around the world driving out small farms that cannot compete on price. A walk through the produce section of your local grocery store is like a trip to California and South America. The meat and dairy departments will take you to the Midwest. Purchasing seafood is practically a world tour. Being a locavore in New York takes effort.
There are lots of reasons people are willing to put in the effort to eat locally in New York. Local eating, compared to indiscriminate eating, consumes less oil, is better for the environment, is better for our health, is kinder to animals, supports a local economy, puts eaters in touch with the seasons, and just plain tastes better. Some of these benefits rely on your ability to ask the producer questions about the food production, a task that is much easier in a local food system where direct farm-to-consumer sales are the norm.
When consumers consciously consider food choices, they can reduce oil consumption and usage. The obvious oil usage comes from transport of food products. As mentioned in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, on average, food in this country travels about 1500 miles to your plate. And when you think about processed foods typically comprising many ingredients shipped from several distant locations, it’s easy to see that a wise food choice can have immensely positive effects. Combining the environmental effects of consuming local products and organic products can make an even bigger impact. Eating organic greatly reduces oil consumption in the growing of produce and animal feed by eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, which all require oil in their production. The conventional (inefficient) food production model requires more calories of oil than calories of food produced. The organic system uses one calorie of fossil fuel for every two calories of food. In her popular locavore book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver writes that if every U.S. citizen ate one more meal a week composed entirely of locally and organically raised meat and produce we could reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 30 million gallons of oil every week.
In addition to oil usage the conventional food system takes its toll on the environment in other ways. The transport itself increases air pollution and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. More pollution is caused by excessive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. These excess chemicals end up in our waterways. As stated in The Omnivore’s Dilemma nitrogen from synthetic fertilizer coupled with runoff from animal confinement feedlots has created an algal bloom dead zone the size of the state of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico. The use of chemical fertilizers also creates imbalance in the soil by dousing the land with nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and little else. This imbalance depletes the soil of other nutrients. It is certainly possible that farmers in your local region are using theses harmful conventional methods, however, it is much easier to learn how your food is produced when you can talk to the farmer at your local market, or better yet, schedule a visit to the source.
It is undeniable that eating local farm-to-table foods is better for consumer health. The so-called “Western” diet, heavy in processed foods, is thought to contribute to many health problems including obesity, adult-onset diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Buying foods directly from farms avoids processed foods entirely. Fresher produce is known to have more nutrients than produce that has traveled long distances in a truck bed. Organic produce also contains more nutrients and antioxidants than conventional produce. The antioxidants are the plants natural pesticide. Think about it: a plant that needs to fight pests on its own logically would contain more antioxidants than a plant sprayed with a chemical pesticide. Some produce found in grocery stores or restaurants are genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The health effects of GMOs are unknown. The studies that have been done on them are extremely biased as most of the studies are funded by the companies that create GMOs.
In addition to the benefits derived from eating local fruits, vegetables, grains, and other plant matter, animal products from small local farms are healthier in general as well. Animals raised on pasture produce healthier eggs, meat, and dairy. Compared to your typical grocery store eggs from factory farmed chickens pastured eggs have 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene. Grass-fed beef has shown similar health benefits when compared to feedlot grain-fed beef.
As a species, humans have evolved to rely on food found in nature. We are designed to reap the most benefit from our foods when nutrients are present in their natural proportions. For example, as described in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, spinach is known to be high in iron, but it is the calcium also found in spinach that allows our bodies to absorb most of the iron in the spinach. In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan advises us to eat foods that humans have relied on for centuries. He reports that societies relying on a “traditional” diet of foods found in nearby regions have a much lower incidence of so-called “Western” diseases.
One of the most compelling reasons to buy directly from local farmers is to support farms that treat animals humanely. For animals involved in the production of meat, dairy, and eggs found in most grocery stores and restaurants, cruelty is the norm. Animal cruelty laws, which protect our pets don’t apply to farm animals. Regardless of the fact that pigs are known to be as smart as dogs, they can legally be confined for most of their lives in a pen that doesn’t even give them enough room to turn around. Because of the amount of pigs in these confinement facilities waste builds up, damaging air quality. The damage is so severe that when people enter these pig facilities they must put on masks in order to breathe. But the pigs’ airways are allowed to be constantly damaged by this toxic air. This type of cruelty extends to most animals farmed throughout the world. It might be a stretch to ask that all farm animals be treated like family pets, but they are not even treated as well as their wild counterparts. Even if farm animals are destined to have short lives, there is no excuse for torturing them while they are on this earth. To read more about farm animal rights I recommend the animal rights classic Animal Liberation. Be warned, however, that Peter Singer will try to convince you to become a vegetarian. He does have a good argument for vegetarianism, but he also concedes that eating products from humanely raised animals is acceptable as well. Though attaining food from humanely treated animals was extremely difficult when Animal Liberation was first published in 1975, it is much less difficult today. The beauty of direct sales from farmer to consumer is that you, as consumer, can head to your local farmers market and talk to the person responsible for the food on your plate. Talking to farmers is an excellent way to eat consciously. Learn a little bit about the various forms of animal cruelty, and then ask farmers at market if they engage in those activities. You may also want to ask farmers what they feed their animals. Ruminants, like cows, sheep, and goats, have evolved to subsist on grass and forage and when farmers feed these animals grains, it can cause discomfort and health problems for the animals.
Buying food from local farms can also be a conservation effort. There are many species and breeds of plants and animals that are farmed so rarely that they are endanger of extinction. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the only way to encourage the continued existence of these rare domestic plants and animals is to eat them. According to Slow Food International’s Ark of Taste “93% of North American food product diversity has been lost since 1900.” The large farms supplying most grocery stores and restaurants are not supplying diversity. It is the small farms, which you can find in your local farmers market, that present a more diverse selection of plant and animal species and breeds. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle states that “according to Indian crop ecologist Vandana Shiva, humans have eaten some 80,000 plant species in our history. After recent precipitous changes, three-quarters of all human food now comes from just eight species, with the field quickly narrowing down to genetically modified corn, soy, and canola.” There are many breeds of farm animals, once prevalent, that are now almost nonexistent. But look to your local farms to find meat from Red Wattle Hogs, Navajo Churro Sheep, Buckeye Chicken, or Pineywoods cattle.
Supporting local farms is also a great way to support members of our community and boost the economy in our region. It takes effort to buy local food. There are more convenient ways to get food on the table. However, eating locally makes a statement that where your food comes from is important to you. The more consumers care about local eating, the greater the chance that convenient ways to eat locally will arise. Eating locally will put you in touch with the seasons and connect you to your region with the added benefit of eating produce when it’s at its peak. In this country it’s rare to find truly regional cuisine. If America is to grow as a gourmet nation we need to develop cuisine based on fresh, local ingredients and establish/reestablish good regional cooking. As it is, much of the cuisine in America relies on ingredients from other parts of the world so the food is destined to be inferior to food eaten in its indigenous region. Which brings us to the best thing about local food: it tastes better. Fresher food tastes better than food that sits on a truck, boat, or plane traveling. Grocery store produce is often bred for shelf-life while sacrificing taste. As long as the produce looks good and can survive shipping and sitting in the store for a while, taste is not a big concern. When you start buying local produce you may find a few odd-shaped vegetables, but they are all grown with taste, first and foremost, in mind. Grocery stores make other concessions which sacrifice taste. For example milk is sometimes ultra-pasteurized, which increases shelf life but results in bland milk. Grocery store fish and meat is sometimes color enhanced so you can’t use color as a guide of freshness either. The same can be true for fruits and vegetables, which are often picked well before they are ripe and then sprayed with ethylene, a plant hormone, which changes the color of the fruit to give the appearance of ripeness. To ensure your food is fresh, make an effort to buy as much food as you can from local farms.