I think it’s funny that this is a conversation people need to have. (And we do need to have it) In all of human history people ate mostly locally because that’s what was available to them. With some things reaching them from far-flung exotic places, like spices and other dried goods, there was certainly some access to imported goods but this wasn’t something people indulged in on a daily basis. Of course, in the earliest days we were more nomadic and sometimes traveled to our food rather than it traveling to us. Even so, we burned our own fat doing it, we built muscles hunting for our food and relocating on foot. If we had to do that now there would be no obesity.
Here we are now. We have become so used to everything in the world coming to our home town without the least inconvenience we actually have to work hard to figure out what is being grown and produced in our own regions. I think it’s fantastic that people are rediscovering their local industries and economies but it’s surreal that those who do so are sometimes considered extreme or hoity toity for wanting to only eat apples grown locally. I’ve heard the local eating movement spoken of derisively as though it’s some precious elitist activism and to me that’s really twisted.
There are a lot of reasons to eat what you want when you want it wherever it comes from. It often costs less, it’s right in front of your face – so why not? You want what you want and all your life there’s been no shame in eating tomatoes in the winter so why are people getting up in your face about it now?
What’s less apparent to people are the reasons why they should go out of their way to seek only locally produced foods. If it’s more expensive and they actually have to work to find stuff and also not eat things that aren’t grown in their region what possible motive could they have for doing it?
- The colossal use (and waste) of fossil fuels in the transportation of food across the world.
It’s a big reason to reduce the miles between you and your source of food. A huge reason. A reason with layers. First of all, our unrelenting use of fossil fuels is polluting the planet. Plain and simple. I know some people still don’t believe in global warming or environmental pollution (I can only assume they’re being intentionally blind to smog and landfills and the plumes of exhaust being released in the air even from well regulated trucks on the road) but the fact of the matter is that our use of gasoline to ship produce and packaged goods creates a lot of pollution. The more we truck food across the globe the more packaging we require and most of that packaging is either made from petroleum or uses a lot of it to fuel the factories that produce the packaging (factories that produce paper products usually run on fossil fuel).
Our incredible hunger for convenience, packaged goods, tomatoes in winter, and treats from around the world is so great that we are burning through crude oil as though we will never run out. But whether we do it in our lifetime or the next doesn’t matter in the debate. We will run out. When we do, without much expense or effort going into alternative sources of safe power- where are you or your children or their children going to get your food when that happens? Every time you buy apples that came from New Zealand you keep it from the pockets of local growers. If enough local growers stop growing because they can’t compete in the global food economy, who’s going to feed you when the global food economy crashes and you have to eat what you can find around you? It’s big, it’s important, and I know a lot of people sleep well at night believing it’s never going to happen in their lifetime. But we don’t actually know when it will happen. Only that it will. So a really important reason to reduce the miles between yourself and as much of the food you eat as possible is because we need to reduce the rate at which we consume crude oil as a nation and we need to make sure that we build very strong food security close to where we live so that if a day comes when getting olive oil from Italy is no longer possible, we’ll know where to get fats to saute our food in.
- Strengthening your local food security.
If your community is ever cut off from shipments of food from other places, what are you going to be left with? Does your community have a good source of potable water? Does anyone in your region grow grains? Can you even get your hands on them or are they all being exported to other communities? Oregon produces a tremendous quantity of beet sugar but we export most of it. This means it’s actually more likely that you can buy sugar that was produced in Oregon on the East Coast and in Russia. Does your community have a grain mill? Do you have a solid quantity of farmers growing a decent variety of produce? And if so- how well supported are they by their own community? Are YOU supporting them? A strong community is one that is self supporting. The basics of being self supporting (in any context) is being able to provide yourself with your basic needs for survival. Food, water, shelter, and coffee*.
- It tastes better!!
When it comes to produce this is unequivocally true. When you stop eating non-local produce you will almost automatically be eating more seasonally. You won’t be eating apples from New Zealand in spring and summer. You won’t, most likely, be eating apples after winter because even good (local) storage apples begin to decline sharply in quality by spring. Just ask my son who is an extreme picky eater- texture is hugely important to him and there’s not an apple that can last until spring and still be good quality. Eating seasonally means you’re going to taste produce at it’s peak. This sounds like a smug little sentiment. It reeks of cozy cliches but I promise it’s true. Not only does food eaten in season taste better, a lot of farmers who are growing for their local community don’t have to grow varieties specifically best for shipping long distances which means there is a resurgence of produce amongst farmers that is grown specifically for taste. If you’re eating local produce it also doesn’t have to be picked early – if you’re buying from farmer’s markets and the produce is actually grown on a local farm it has often been picked that same day you bought it.
- You get more in touch with the seasons.
So eating more seasonally will also get you in sync with your seasons in a way you may never have experienced before. If you don’t eat fresh tomatoes that aren’t local, you’ll only be eating them as long as your local farmers (or you!) have them available in the fields. Fall is marked by the end of the tomatoes, and for some of us it is marked by the frantic canning of as many of them as we can get our hands on. There will be no more for months. At first this seems like a huge deprivation. No tomatoes on salads for nine months. No tomatoes on sandwiches for nine months. Sometimes longer. That’s hard if you love tomatoes like I do. The first year it seems like a sacrifice. However, when the next tomato season rolls around you will look forward to and appreciate those fresh tomatoes in a way you have never done so before. Your late summers will be more poignant for what you’ve been looking forward to eating and have missed. All your seasons will be punctuated by different foods. No longer will you eat all the same foods all year. Every season will bring special delights. Late spring brings asparagus and the season is very short. You will notice the blessings of each season more and you will have more to look forward to with each season. It may seem, if you haven’t experienced this for yourself, such a small matter that there’s no way it can really change your life. But it will. For the better.
- It will make you a better and more resourceful cook.
The average person shops on whim. If they want sauteed summer squash they put it on the grocery list and buy it. Doesn’t matter if it’s mid-winter. If they see a recipe in a cookbook and they want to try it right now, they go and buy what they need and make it. If you’re eating locally then you’re eating more seasonally and you’re not going to be able to make whatever recipe you see in your cookbooks until those things become available locally. So you have to learn to cook with what’s in season. In some ways this brings things more into balance in your diet. Foods that grow together go together. You know what I’ll never see on a plate together in my house? Asparagus and fresh tomatoes. Which is fine because when I’m eating fresh asparagus I don’t crave tomatoes anyway. Different regions will have some big differences in what comes into season when so in the south you might be getting your first tomatoes in at the same time you get local asparagus (if your region even grows asparagus). I don’t live in the south so they’ll never appear on the same plate in my house. Maybe this sounds limiting but being limited can spark a lot of creativity. The produce I eat in the winter is definitely much more limited in variety than what I eat in the summer but I don’t feel limited. I get more creative with what I’ve got on hand. If you’re not used to cooking seasonally then you may want to check out some seasonal cookbooks from the library for some guidance. More and more seasonally arranged cookbooks are being published.
- Supporting your local economy.
I mentioned this earlier but I can’t mention it enough. This is vitally important. For a community to be viable it needs to be producing commodities, it needs to provide jobs for the people who live in it. Even though it may seem like commuting to other communities for work is a great idea, it won’t be as gasoline becomes increasingly more expensive (which it will) as it becomes increasingly scarce. You want to be buying milk from the local dairy rather than the one that’s 600 miles away because the money that goes into that dairy’s coffers will then go back into your community via paychecks for jobs in the dairy, and local taxes from their business that help pay for things the community needs, and it will flow back through local restaurants and other businesses the people running the dairy will use. Every dollar you send out of the community stays out of the community.
- A stronger connection to your community.
The more you know about who is growing and making your food the more connections you’ll be making to your community. It happens slowly and it’s subtle but it’s absolute. To eat mostly locally you will have to do some sleuthing, box checking, talk to people, and you will get to know the people who grow your food. You will go to the farmer’s markets and you will talk to your grocers, you will probably spend more time shopping at smaller markets that buy more predominantly from local producers. This will connect you to people. You will get to know more people and feel more connected to what’s going on in your own community. You will care more because you will become more dependent on the welfare of local producers and artisans. The more you support your local producers and economy the more you will also be a value to your community. People notice. People care. Nothing has made me more connected to my community than doing my ten month local eating challenge which turned into a lot of permanent changes so that I remain a strong supporter of local dairies, farmers, and craftsmen. While I was already a firm supporter of buying from the local farmer’s market, I now put a much larger proportion of my food budget into my own community and also into my own state.
- The more a community supports it’s local food producers the more accountable they will be to their community in their practices.
If you get to know your local food producers you can raise concerns with them, let them know what’s important to you as a consumer. You can visit their farms and their facilities to see how clean they are or if they’re being honest about pesticide use. When both the consumer and the producer know each other, business becomes more personal. It’s much harder to be an anonymous irresponsible business when you’re being supported by your community. Food producers should not be able to hide behind corporate shields from responsibility. I personally know most of the people who grow the produce I eat. I can raise complaints and questions and make requests and I am more likely to be heard by them than I will ever be heard or considered by a corporate farm two states or a country away from me. Local producers will feel consumer pressure and respond to it much more quickly than international ones will. This gives the consumer more control over the food being produced and the practices used to produce it. But it also gives the producers more power to create a business that’s supported and revered by the people it serves.
Eating locally isn’t a fancy food trend to amuse ourselves with. Eating locally is a fundamentally important way to strengthen our communities and our connection with the earth that we depend on to keep us alive and healthy. I think the habit of wild and wanton global eating was the fancy trend that’s made us forget the importance of nurturing what’s right under our own two feet.
*Haha. That’s what I need for survival anyway. I don’t even need much caffeine in it. This is one of those imported goods I don’t ever want to live without.