Local Food for Sustainable Living
By Michael Caduto
Winnie the Pooh had it just about right: Find the honey tree in your own backyard and eat to your belly’s content. Of course, what with bee stings and rabbit-sized jars of honey, getting his fill wasn’t easy. But as time went by, Pooh ate so much honey that he grew to be shaped like a big, round honey pot. As it turns out, honey is one of the best sources of energy, is full of vitamins and minerals, helps to keep a wound from getting infected and even promotes healing.
We ought to listen to bears more often. In the past 70 years nutritionists have come to understand that we become what we eat—that we can help our bodies to stay healthy by eating good, nutritious food that is grown fresh locally. Science has proven that the choices we make for our diet also have a huge impact on the health of the planet, including climate change, because of the vast global food market.
Let’s start with the choice of where our food comes from. On average, the food that makes it onto our tables at mealtime has traveled 1,600 miles to get there. How far is that? By traveling that distance you could go from the Upper Valley to the southern tip of Greenland, to Arizona or to Nunavut and the Northwest Territories (Canada).
Apples, cabbage, corn, tomatoes and eggs, for example, may come from local farms, but other foods are shipped from around the world. Grapes may arrive at your local market from Chile, nuts from Brazil, olive oil from Turkey, kiwifruit from New Zealand, bottled water from France, gingerbread cookies from Germany and rice crackers from China.
According to Worldwatch Institute, the amount of food shipped from overseas that appears on our tables has quadrupled since 1961. Some 30% of the fresh vegetables and over 50% of fresh fruit now purchased by US consumers are grown in other countries. The USDA projects that the US will be importing almost half of our vegetables and 75% of our fruit by 2027.
What difference does it make that our food travels a long distance before we eat it? The more energy it takes to transport food to our tables, the more greenhouse gas emissions are generated, which increases global warming. For example, fuel is burned when food is moved by trucks, trains, and planes; plus, energy is needed to store many foods in refrigerated cars so that it doesn’t spoil. Food from far away also requires more packaging to keep it from spoiling. It takes energy and resources to make that packaging. Trees must be cut to make paper packaging. Plastic and Styrofoam are made from petroleum oil. And don’t forget: factories that make any kind of packaging run on electricity and other kinds of carbon-producing power.
According to research findings reported in Nature Food magazine, shipping food generates 20% of the total carbon footprint generated by our current food system. Roughly half of these greenhouse gas emissions are created by the wealthiest countries, even though they make up just 12% of the world’s population. A United Nations study found that one-third of ALL greenhouse gas emissions results from growing, processing and packaging food.
Of course, it’s not always simple to figure out what’s best to buy for food, especially given the short growing season in the North Country where fresh local produce can be challenging to source during the winter. Still, in addition to eating locally grown foods as much as possible, it’s good to eat foods that are in season and those that are easy to store. You know, like honey.
The carbon “foodprint” of protein derived from eggs laid by locally-raised free-range chickens is 3,250 times smaller than that of beef produced on distant, energy-intensive livestock operations. Photo: Michael J. Caduto
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
- Being a localvore means eating foods that are grown within 100 miles of your home in any direction. So your home sits at the center of a localvore circle that is 200 miles across. Using a state map (or two), draw a circle with a 100-mile radius around your house. Identify farms and market sources of local-grown and raised foods that fall within this 100-mile radius. Purchase as much of your food as possible from these providers.
- Start a Localvore Journal. As you begin to learn about food supplies in the area, keep a running list of places you can go to get locally-grown food, the kinds of local foods available at each place and the specific foods available during each season of the year.
- Look for recipes that use the foods raised within your localvore territory. See if you can match the specific seasonal lists of ingredients in your Localvore Journal, with the ingredients needed in the recipes you’ve found. Turn your newfound knowledge into a list of recipes that can be made in specific seasons using locally-grown ingredients. Pick up some of the fine cookbooks that offer recipes for delicious meals made with locally-sourced foods, such as Eating Local: The Cookbook Inspired by America’s Local Farmers by Janet Fletcher, and Sustainable Kitchen by local authors Heather Wolfe and Jaynie McCloskey. (Please support your local bookstore!)
- Ask for local. Encourage your local food stores to sell local produce, dairy, meat and other local food products.
- Order local. Encourage the owners of local restaurants to serve meals made from locally sourced ingredients. Remind them how this will support local farmers, feed the local economy, fight climate change and attract customers who value living sustainably.
- Read Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, and Anna Lappé’s Diet for a Warm Planet.
* This is part 1 of a 2-part article.