Is It Really Possible to Eat Locally?

Potatoes and Onions

[social_buttons] Is it really possible to eat locally? Three of the most common criticisms I see of eating locally are that it can only be done in areas of high agricultural concentration, like California, only in the summer when produce is abundant, and that nutrition will suffer for eating only local food. Well, in the first week of April, a teenager in Minnesota decided to try eating locally and blogged about it. This time of year is still quite cold in Minnesota and most fruits and vegetables haven’t started producing. Could she eat a nutritious diet in Minnesota in winter?

Eating Locally

Nicole defined eating local as her own state and the four surrounding it. After some research, she identified local providers of meat and dairy, some honey, pasta, granola and other things, and suppliers of twelve vegetables.

The first few days were difficult, she wrote, as she got used to cooking most of her own meals – few convenience foods are locally grown and packaged – and planning ahead. I think most of us can sympathize there. Cooking from scratch takes time. Stuff is always coming up at the last minute and we have to change our plans. Later, as she grew used to the challenges, she said it got easier.

Nutrition on a Local Diet

One thing she mentioned was that she felt she was lacking in vitamins on her local diet, particularly vitamin C. However, of the twelve vegetables she listed, parsnips, spinach, potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, and tomatoes have good amounts of vitamin C. If the beets and turnips she listed came with the greens still attached, then there’s even more vitamin C. Any combination of two cups of those vegetables would give a person a full day’s vitamin C, quite a bit of vitamin A, and several minerals.

Her Findings

She followed up on her local eating with a week of eating only foods purchased from Target. She said it was good to be eating fruit again, but that much of the food tasted odd after a week of locally-grown foods. The Lunchables tasted greasy; the bread tasted sweet and fluffy.

Nicole also summarized her findings for us. Her biggest complaints about eating locally were: time spent preparing the food, cost, and difficulty in sourcing the food. Her favorite things: eating fresh food, helping the local economy, and helping the environment. In the future, she says she plans to eat a mix of local and not-so-local.

My Experience Eating Locally

My own experience has been similar to hers, although not exactly. In Texas, local food is easy to come by. Agriculture is one of the state’s main industries. Finding purely local sources took a bit of research at first, but now that I know where several sources are, the amount of time I spend shopping local is the same as the amount of time I used to spend just stopping by Target. (I still do shop at Target sometimes, but our local Target labels local food.) It helps that the state of Texas has its own β€œbuy local” initiative called goTexan.

Her experience with the price of local food is the opposite of mine. It’s cheaper here to buy local produce than to buy produce shipped in from further away. Texas beef is conventionally-raised, grass-fed with no unnecessary interventions, and organically-raised, with the price differences inherent in the production methods. When local suppliers have a dependable market, the cost goes down, so perhaps that will change in Minnesota over time.

How have your experiences with buying local been? What sort of obstacles have you found and how did you overcome them?

Written by Heather Carr

17 Comments

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  1. I’ve been trying to eat as locally as possible as part of my blog experiment, and have found that while it’s difficult to eat 100% local, it’s fairly easy to eat mostly local. Not sure if that makes sense. I think for most people, just eating as local as possible can make a big difference. I’m running a blog series called the Food & Faith Challenge where we explore the issues like time, cost, health, and environment. http://thelocalcook.com/food-faith-challenge/

  2. What an interesting experiment!

    The approach I take is to get a CSA box, eat locally during the summer, and freeze tons of produce while it’s available to save for the winter.

    I use EatRealGood’s CSA meal planner (http://mealplanner.EatRealGood.com) to make sure I use all my produce, and can freeze what I’m not going to use the day I get it, to preserve the nutrients.

    Eating fresh and local can be expensive, but meal planning helps keep that in check. And it’s worth it for the health and well-being of my family.

  3. Yes, that makes perfect sense. Mostly local is what I aim for, too.

    I like your blog. “Kneading by hand is more natural”. Ha! Your husband and mine should get together sometime.

  4. There are foods that make sense to source locally and foods that don’t make sense to source locally. If people fixate on this as a new type of asceticism, their losses in terms of nutrition and enjoyment are their own responsibility.

  5. Steve, I don’t think it’s asceticism at all. At least for me, eating local is about supporting the local economy and doing my best to eat sustainably-produced foods from farms I know and feel good about supporting.

  6. Becky,
    I think all your motives are noble. It is just that you can’t assume that locally grown food is the most sustainable option. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. The relative productivity of crops can differ by region by huge amounts. The transport “footprint” can often be overcome by production efficiency between places where crops do very well and where they don’t.

    Besides that, this all depends a great deal on where your “local” is. I live in a place where many crops can be grown much of the year (mostly with unsustainable water sources), but there are many people who live in places where something like fresh produce are really only local options for a couple of months. Even though I live in San Diego where we grow wonderful strawberries, there are only a few months where the supply is local. Does that mean that I shouldn’t buy them through the rest of the year as the production moves up to Orange County, Oxnard, Santa Maria and then Monterrey?

    I’m just saying that the idea that “local is best” is naive from a true sustainability perspective.

  7. Yes, that makes perfect sense. Mostly local is what I aim for, too.

    I like your blog. “Kneading by hand is more natural”. Ha! Your husband and mine should get together sometime.

  8. Don’t be such a douche Steve. Eating locally is obviously a better choice, when available. And no, the transport costs are not otherwise made up by growing in certain areas of the country. Don’t be a dumbass.

  9. Steve, I do appreciate your point of view, but I think your argument misses the mark.

    While I’m not an advocate of depriving yourself just for the sake of doing so, I think you’re getting away from the point of local food. When folks talk about food miles, they don’t mean Orange County to Santa Monica. It’s more like….Orange County to Augusta, Maine.

    There are certainly different definitions of local, sure, and I think that’s a very important thing to keep in mind. For some, it’s 100 miles or 250. For others, it’s within their home state. I think no matter how you define it, it’s remarkable and applaudable that folks are putting that sort of thought into their food’s origin.

    I know you’re a big believer that scale can do wonders for efficiency, and I totally agree in some respects. However, I think supporting the local economy, dealing directly with farmers, and finding fresh, local food to eat has benefits that just can’t be argued away.

  10. Becky,
    I guess when I see a local food advocate that has done the math to support their position, I’ll be convinced. Every specific case I’ve seen where a full LCA (life cycle assessment) has been done has favored productivity over distance (I’ve seen a lot of these). It is counter-intuitive and not what people want to hear.

    Also, “Food miles” tells us very little. The difference in energy, GHG emissions etc between different types of transport are huge. Now if someone is airfreighting strawberries from Orange County to Maine, that is ridiculous, but it would also be extremely expensive.

    If I lived in Augusta I would “you-pick” a bunch of local blueberries in the summer and freeze them in an efficient, chest freezer for winter fruit. That is a logical local option I used a lot when we lived in Delaware. I did the same with tart cherries in Western Colorado. As I’ve said, there are local foods that make sense.

    But these are amenities. If you look at what gives us most of our calories (grains, oils, potatoes…) this is not stuff you source locally for most people. Do you know people who source their wheat flour locally?

  11. Great point about preserving seasonal food! I think freezing and canning are key in places that don’t have long growing seasons.

    As for wheat flour, I actually do! The CSA that delivers to me offers local, organic wheat flour, cornmeal and other amenities as well.

  12. Yes, that makes perfect sense. Mostly local is what I aim for, too.

    I like your blog. “Kneading by hand is more natural”. Ha! Your husband and mine should get together sometime.

  13. Steve, I don't think it's asceticism at all. At least for me, eating local is about supporting the local economy and doing my best to eat sustainably-produced foods from farms I know and feel good about supporting.

  14. I am currently working on moving the eating for my family to “mostly local.” I’m lucky to live in California, where I do have agriculture and dairy. I’m also debating vegetarianism, but that’s a different store πŸ™‚ What eating “local” will really do for me is force eating seasonally. While I think produce from bordering states is really fine, as the travel time can still be small, what I don’t want to do is eat out of season, because that means I’ve had to buy foods flown from other climates.

    My goal, however, is to do this on a budget. I just started my blog about that, and the next few weeks will see if my personal hypothesis (that I can do it!) is correct or not.

    I find it fun, the trying!

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