We live in a time of ultimate convenience, when many fruits and vegetables are available any time of the year. Bright red tomatoes and strawberries fill produce bins in the middle of January, and fresh apples abound, even in early summer. But that availability comes at a price. When produce travels farther than the average business traveler, with nary a bruise or blemish, its taste is compromised by the need for durability. For those who prefer fruits and vegetables that don’t taste like cardboard, buying locally is the way to go.
Why Buy Local?
Most produce is shipped an average 1,500 miles from where it’s grown to the store. Many times, it is picked and shipped before it’s even ripe. While common sense tells us that foods grown close to home will inherently be fresher, there are other compelling reasons to consider buying locally grown food. Have you ever thought about the amount of fossil fuel it takes to ship that sweet cantaloupe from Central America to Wisconsin? What about the packaging materials used for that fruit’s safe travel.
Buying locally helps support small farmers and the local economy. If you buy directly from the farm, you can get to know the grower and learn how the crops were grown. Are they organic? If not, what types of pesticides are used? Are they really “free-range” eggs? By shopping at the source, you can feel surer about where your foods come from, and you may know a little more about what you’re eating.
Food grown closer to you is more often than not fresher and more full of flavor. Even if you buy it at a grocery store, local produce is usually picked a day or two earlier, rather than weeks, or even seasons, before the day you buy it. Foods grown for sale close to their source can be bred and nurtured for taste rather than for durability. Local buying is social. Studies show that people shopping at farmers’ markets have 10 times more conversations than their counterparts at supermarkets. You may find out that your neighbor grows the best tomatoes in town. Buying locally may help you become more involved in your community.
Still, some of us don’t think twice in the middle of winter about picking up a cantaloupe that traveled all the way from Guatemala. Such habits can be hard to break, but the key is to take baby steps and bring the food circle closer to home.
Before becoming a full-fledged “locavore,” start by buying from within the United States. Learn about what is really in season before you head to the store: grapes in midwinter are often from Chile, but as you get closer to spring, it is more likely they will be U.S. grown. Using U.S.produce might mean adapting recipes, but it’s worth it. Today, many stores advertise the country of origin for produce, but if not, check the PLU label, which will list where the food came from.
Where to Find Local Food
Eating locally is increasingly popular, and you may be surprised at the many options in your area. One of the best options for a steady supply of fresh, seasonal produce (as well as for eggs, herbs, fresh flowers and honey, depending on the grower) is to join a group for community supported agriculture (CSA). As a member of a CSA group, you pay the farmer a set amount by the month or season for a weekly basket full of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables. In the spring, you’ll enjoy early greens, peas, and new potatoes. As the summer progresses, baskets may brim with fresh tomatoes (that actually taste like tomatoes), peppers, beans, and the rest of the summer’s bounty. In the fall, expect sugar-sweet root vegetables, winter squash, and cool-season crops. If you’re unfamiliar with the local gardening cycle, joining a CSA–particularly if you have the opportunity to work in the garden for a portion of your produce–is a wonderful learning experience.
To Market to Market
Farmers’ markets are as much a social event as a place to pick up fresh vegetables for the week. They provide an ideal opportunity to develop a relationship with small farmers who take great pride in what they grow.
Saturday markets are by far the most popular, with an almost fairlike atmosphere, because people can take the time to browse and chat, oftentimes enjoying delicious food products from local vendors. Since most weekend markets are held in the morning, be sure to have a cooler with ice to keep things fresh if you have other shopping to do in the afternoon. It’s no pleasure to have wilted lettuce, especially if it was picked only hours earlier.
While weekend markets can seem like celebrations of seasonal produce, weekday markets are lifesavers for busy folks who need to grab something for dinner on their way home from work. A weekday market benefits everyone: farmers can sell produce that may not keep until the weekend; business owners hosting a market attract more customers; a buyer can pick up what is needed for the remainder of a week without having to wait for the end of it. Fast food couldn’t be fresher and healthier.
If your community doesn’t have a farmers’ market, talk to local growers to see if they would be willing to set up for a few hours on the weekend or a weekday. Their setup can be as simple as selling out of the back of their farm trucks. The key is freshness and availability.
Once a few producers show interest, talk to the city or the businesses where there is easy access and plenty of parking and see if they will be willing to have farmers set up with farm produce. It might take time to gain momentum, but soon farmers’ markets should become regular stops. Even though the opportunities to eat locally and seasonally may seem abbreviated by the seasons, in reality, there are only a few lean months during the winter and the very early spring. Once the weather turns nasty, some markets move indoors for a few weeks, to allow customers to enjoy the final gleanings of late-season vegetables, like Brussels sprouts and winter squash. It is a great time to stock up before winter.
If you want the great convenience of being able to wander out your kitchen door and pick something for dinner, you should incorporate vegetables into your landscape. Even if you don’t have space for a full vegetable garden, just a single tomato plant in a large pot will produce plenty of fruit for salads and fresh sandwiches.
Locating local meat products can be a little trickier, since processing facilities are becoming more difficult to find. Today, the majority of our meat passes through large feedlots and packing plants, where cattle from the U.S. and South America, or other parts of the world, can become part of the same batch of burger. To help consumers make educated decisions, Congress enacted legislation requiring country-of-origin labeling (COOL) as of September 30, 2008, for certain cuts of beef, pork and lamb, indicating where the animal was born and raised. This gives you some idea of where the animal came from, although it still doesn’t tell you of or mitigate the use of antibiotics and feeding practices that aren’t the healthiest options for the animals, or for you.
As with produce, by buying locally raised and finished meat or poultry, you usually can be assured the animals aren’t subjected to the same conditions as those in feedlot situations. Small producers take great pride in quality, and the proof is on your plate. They’re also less likely to use antibiotics and hormones, plus some are opting for organic feeding programs, to give consumers more options. Plan early in the season, because small operations have limited quantities; plus meat, like any local produce, is a seasonal product.
Amy Grisak is a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer specializing in gardening, local food, and stories about her home state of Montana. She enjoys sharing her experiences with self-reliant living and outdoor recreation. Her article on the "hugelkultur" gardening technique appears in the 2021 Farmers' Almanac. You can follow her topics on her site, AmyGrisak.com.