Once upon a time, not too long ago, North America was full of farms. Just 60 years ago, there were more than 1.5 billion acres of farmland in the U.S. That number has shrunk to 920 million acres today, according to the U.S. Census. Food deserts (areas where it’s difficult to find fresh, healthy foods) have sprung up in urban areas all over the country, and many of our kids have never picked a fresh, ripe strawberry.
Much of what we see in the produce aisle at the grocery store, especially in the winter, has traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to get there. In 2009, the U.S. imported 32 percent of its fresh fruit from Mexico alone, according to the USDA. That disconnect between farm and fork has inspired many Americans to take steps to cut out the middle man and support their local farmers.
That’s exactly what happened in 2001 to Pat Greer and her daughter in Houston when they founded the Central City Co-op, a nonprofit that works with farmers to provide the community with produce grown within 200 miles. “When they came to the realization that what they wanted was organic or locally grown food, they found that it was just darn hard to find in the city of Houston at the time,” says Tiffany Tyler, chair of the Board of Directors.
“Greater Houston used to be farmland all around,” she says, “but as the city grew and took over the farmland, there were no roadside stands in an easy drive anymore.” Back in those days, there was only one Whole Foods store in the area, and local or organic produce wasn’t widely available at the supermarket. “It’s hard to put into context now because grocery stores all carry it now,” Tiffany says.
As celebrity chefs tout the benefits of eating locally and farm-to-fork restaurants pop up in metropolises across the country, the movement is picking up steam. Farmers markets have doubled their numbers in the last decade and coops like Central City are spreading their reach. With 40 to 50 members in 2003, the co-op has grown to serve 200 households on a regular basis today.
“It’s really easy for food to become disconnected from the point it’s grown to the customer,” says Rachel Hettler, a local foods advocate who works with The Fruit Guys, a company that delivers fresh, local produce to homes, schools and workplaces. “You’re not sure it’s grown in a way that it will taste the best or be as healthy as possible. It’s not possible to do without chemicals in many cases.”
Rachel got involved in the local food movement when she started selling pies at her local farmers market and began visiting farms for ingredients. “I grew up with gardening and all that at home, but hadn’t really thought about where other food we were eating was coming from,” she says.
That desire to reconnect with our roots and really get to know where our food is coming from is a main driver in the locavore movement. Concerns over genetically modified organisms, pesticides and herbicides are also prompting many to really examine the foods they’re putting on the table.
A Fresher Option
If you’ve ever picked an apple right off the tree or tried a tomato that was on the vine earlier the same day, you know that freshness is a huge factor in quality and taste when it comes to produce. Local foods are, more often than not, in-season, meaning they’re not only perfectly fresh-tasting; they’re also longer-lasting.
“With the grocery store, you have no idea how long something’s been in the back,” Tiffany says. “You have to be a big label-reader, even at Whole Foods. They carry as much conventional produce as they do organic. The whole thing for us is that we make it easy. We go out and talk to every farmer. We do a farm inspection.”
Because locally sourced fruits and vegetables don’t have very far to go, they aren’t selected for their ability to stand up to the rigors of handling, packaging, refrigeration and travel. While the artificially ripened tomatoes at the store might look nice, they actually pack less taste and nutrition than a vine-ripened one.
Rachel, who eats almost exclusively organic produce, says she can feel the difference between eating organic and non-organic produce. “I notice a difference in terms of energy and what I get out of the food in terms of how I feel, besides knowing the long term effects of pesticides on people’s health,” she says.
The shelf life of vegetables and fruits can be disconcerting as well. Some produce will take weeks to get to its final destination, but shoppers have no idea how long their produce has been sitting on a truck, on a dock or in a refrigerator. “People are going to enjoy local food and there will be more nutrients,” Rachel says. “A big part of it for me is definitely what it tastes like. We cook a lot at home, so how fresh produce is, how it looks and just the actual function of food is important. There’s a big difference between what you can get at the store versus what you can get on the farm.”
That’s what brings people to Central City Coop as well. “It’s driven for a lot of people by taste,” Tiffany says. “People will say ‘I came because I was trying to find a tomato that tastes like a tomato. The supermarket tomatoes are bred to travel well and look good – not to taste good.”
Rachel says part of the reason she eats local food is the carbon footprint of transporting food long distances. In fact, about 10 percent of the U.S’s entire energy budget is spent on bringing food from farm to fork.
Beyond that, there’s the worry of pesticides leaking into local water supplies, damaging the local ecosystem and harming the workers that harvest foods. That’s why many local foods advocates encourage organic farming methods, alternatives to pesticides or integrated pest management whenever possible. “We’re thinking about the land and the wellbeing of the workers,” Rachel says.
For example, The Fruit Guys will only source organic strawberries due to the extremely high levels of pesticides used in non-organic fields. “It’s one of the most toxic chemicals used in agriculture,” Rachel says. “They have to fumigate the fields before the strawberries are planted, and you can’t have any human presence for days because it can cause severe health issues.”
Building a Community
As the local foods movement takes over, it changes the way people not only think about their food, but the way they think about their communities. School gardens, community gardens and co-ops all foster the idea that everyone is connected while bringing them together through efforts to keep food local.
“By supporting local economies, we can make much more impact by keeping our dollars local for a small farm rather than buying something from a large distributor where the money doesn’t end up back at the source,” Rachel says. “We can make a difference for local communities and small farmers so that they can continue to be a sustainable source of food.”
Much of the movement comes from the desire for community. Not only does shopping locally support local farms and the economy as a whole, but by shopping at a farmers market or a coop or other nearby source, there’s a sense of camaraderie from a group of like-minded people with a similar goal.
“It’s about food, local economic development, empowering people’s choices about food and where it comes from and the power of community,” Tiffany says, noting that all produce not sold at the end of the day is donated to a local shelter. “People have always come together over food. We just expand that circle.”
Shortening the supply chain by shopping locally cuts down on food waste as well. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, North Americans only consume 48 percent of produce that goes through the food supply chain each year. Thirty six percent of produce never even makes it onto the table.
While the supermarkets might have perfectly round apples and stick-straight carrots, the standards at grocery stores lead to an enormous amount of waste as workers are instructed to choose only the picture-perfect produce, and leave the rest in the field. What’s known as “Off-grade” produce that’s perfectly edible cannot be sold to grocery stores as they don’t meet standards for size, appearance or shape.
That’s starting to matter less and less to shoppers, who often seek out heirloom varieties, or who like to go to the farmers market and see bumps and dirt on their sweet potatoes. Many would prefer to see an odd-shaped organic tomato than a perfectly round, red commercial variety.
Shopping at a coop or joining a CSA can also help you cut down on food waste at home, Tiffany says. “Because our produce is fresher, it lasts longer.” Join the Movement
If you’re inspired to start living more locally, there are many ways, big and small, to make some changes. You don’t have to dive in head-first with a fully local diet. Try a few different things and see what works for you.
“Go to a farmers market and walk around, and see what’s familiar that you would buy anyway,” Rachel suggests. “If you have questions, you’re buying directly from a farmer and that oftentimes means they’ll know how to cook it or what goes best with it.”
If you need a little inspiration to get started, make it a fun outing with friends or family. Make it a point to try something new, or to cook a new dish. “Make it something to look forward to,” Rachel says. 3. Grow and preserve your own foods.
1. Shop at a farmers market.
Try the USDA’s database of farmers markets.
2. Join a COOP or a CSA.
Visit Local Harvest’s map to find one near you.
Think about what you eat the most at home, and plant something you know you’ll enjoy. There are great container or hydroponic options for those working in small spaces. 4. Eat at a farm to fork restaurant.
There are many, many options
to choose from. 5. Visit a local farm.
The best way to get to know what you’re eating is to go to the source. There are a lot of farms
that make for a great vacation.