A lot of fuss has been made about eating locally. The argument typically goes that to help reduce your carbon footprint you should reduce the miles that your food has to travel to get into your mouth. More local = less food miles.
Part of this is a reaction to the fact that food production in the United States has become highly centralized.
An entire movement has sprung up around the notion of eating locally.There's even a name for people who confine their food sources to an approximate 100 mile radius: "locavores".
The real cost of food
Of course, there's more than just transportation costs to what we eat. As I've mentioned before, there's packaging, but there's also production. As it turns out, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, livestock production accounts for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions. To make the biggest difference, eat more plants.
Now I wouldn't go so far as to say that eating local doesn't make any difference. Obviously, eating less animals makes the biggest contribution. But if you've already cut back on eating meat, particularly beef, the next logical step is to reduce your food miles.
The real benefit of local
I'm a huge proponent of eating local food. Grocery stores typically make it easy to do so by posting the country and, sometimes, state of origin for most produce. Of course, in the middle of winter, in the more Northern climes, that signage does nothing but tell us there's not one thing local to eat.
So why both to eat local foods? There are some fairly strong reasons aside from one's carbon footprint:
- Supporting small farmers within the local economy. Any time I can take money away from the huge agri-business monsters that brought us high-fructose corn syrup, I consider that a success.
- Supporting sustainable, diverse, organic, and humane agricultural practices. Small scale agriculture, as opposed to industrial monoculture, is more able to use the land in such a way as to minimize the environmental impact, while also maintaining the biodiversity of amazing varieties of crops, particularly heirlooms. I think we all remember the Irish potato famine. Lack of diversity = bad.
After you cross off the political-economic-philosophical reasons for eating local, the reality is that it just tastes better. With the ability to transport food vast distances and grow things in greenhouses year round, we're all so accustomed to having any kind of food any time of year. But that's not how the world really works. Without all the wrangling of industrial food production, plants really want to grow on their schedule, not ours.
To be able to eat fruits and vegetables at their peak of flavor, you have to wait till they're good and ready. Fortunately, seasons start around April with first asparagus and end around November with the final harvest and the storing of root vegetables through the winter.
Some might call it "sacrifice" to not be able to eat whatever you want whenever you want. But I'm starting to realize that it's just good taste.
The roller-coaster ride of belonging to a CSA
I have to admit that I'm an out-of-touch city girl who didn't really know the first thing about vegetables outside the ten or so I grew up eating. One of the ways that I've gotten better acquainted with the vegetable kingdom is through participation in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
But what I started to realize is that I'd been doing it all wrong. Food comes in very distinct cycles. And certain things taste really good together because they grew up together. Good-bye mealy grocery store tomatoes; hello farm fresh, heirloom tomatoes.
Remember why Thanksgiving is so important to us Americans? Something about how hard it was for the first Americans to sustain themselves through an entire year. Certainly, we're not Pilgrims struggling to grow our own food in a foreign land, but in some ways we are pioneers, re-learning how to live off the land. Here are some things that I've learned after my first year of eating semi-seasonally:
- Don't eat it all right away. Some stuff you should eat right away, like lettuce. But many things you can either freeze or can and save till winter. Greens are really easy to blanche and freeze. Tomatoes, fruits, and pickled vegetables are easily canned in a water bath canner. You can also save soups and all sorts of other vegetables by using a pressure canner. All you'll need to do is make sure you have enough pantry space that has little to no light and stays relatively cool.
- Be the mindful ant and save for the winter. In most places, there's nothing naturally growing in the winter. So unless you've saved during the rest of the year, you'll have to abort the local mission and buy stuff shipped from California. In addition to freezing and canning, you can also take advantage of storage vegetables. There are a mind-boggling amount of vegetables that are harvested at the end of the growing season. And when stored properly in a make-shift root cellar, they will keep for months.
- Compromise. There are many things I just won't give up. For example, having grown up in Florida, I think citrus must be a part of my blood supply - I just don't think I could live without lemons. While the basis for many of my meals may come locally, I accent many meals with foreign flavors like jalepenos, lemons, or ginger.
Some other resources: