You’ve probably noticed an increasing variety of “locally grown” foods in the marketplace these days. But why are local foods trending, and what benefits accompany their purchase? EN takes a look at some shortfalls of our increasingly globalized food system, and compares it with the numerous benefits of local foods. While there is no agreed upon definition for “local food,” it generally describes food produced within the consumer’s region.
Environmental Impacts. Our current global food system is extremely resource intensive. According to a recent report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), growing food consumes three-fourths of the world’s fresh water supply, contributes to one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and is the leading contributor to biodiversity loss. Additionally, food is being imported from all over the world, which dramatically increases food miles, or the distance food travels from farm to plate. The types of foods grown, inputs involved, and distance it travels are all intimately linked to both environmental and personal health outcomes.
Personal Health Impacts. Today’s food system often focuses on quantity over quality, resulting in a large amount of inexpensive food, void of many essential nutrients. Most of this cheap food arrives from a complex global agriculture system stemming from only a few varieties of food, namely corn, soy, and wheat. A recent study found that these dietary shifts towards a calorie-rich, nutrient-poor food supply greatly increase the incidence of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and other chronic diseases that lower life expectancies (Nature, 2014). These impacts are felt around the world, including previously undernourished countries.
Of all foods available, ultra-processed foods are among the biggest health concerns. Ultra-processed foods, such as sugary cereals, chips, or white flour have been stripped of valuable vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients during processing, and are usually high in fat, sugar, and/or salt. These shelf-stable, nutrient-poor foods make up a significant portion of our diet, and promote both overweight and undernourishment—a paradox known as “the double burden of malnutrition.”
Take Action. At first glance, these problems seem large and unruly. However, as we dig a bit deeper, it’s clear how powerful our individual actions can be. Not all food bears the same personal or planetary footprint. Research indicates that there is significant overlap in diets that are both healthy and sustainable. There are many things we can do to create a more sustainable food supply, including reducing the amount of food we waste, placing a preference on plant-based proteins over animal-based proteins, and eating locally grown foods.
Supporting Local Foods. Local foods are not a silver bullet to all of the issues in our food supply, but including them in your diet does have numerous personal and planetary benefits. “Local foods are a necessary and important part of our food system,” says Irana Hawkins, PhD, RDN, LD, contributing faculty member at Walden University and sustainability expert. “They can help regenerate the soil and use seeds that have naturally adapted to the local landscape to grow whole plant foods that aide in promoting biodiversity, mitigating climate change, and improving human health.” Local foods also support the incomes of local farmers and improve personal and planetary health.
Local foods are abundant, from farmers markets, grocery stores, and even home delivery services. Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a great way to go local. A CSA is a model in which consumers subscribe to the harvest of a certain farm or a group of farms, which typically deliver fresh, local food weekly to meet a wide range of dietary preferences and household sizes. To find a CSA, visit https://www.localharvest.org/csa/.
—Chris Vogliano MS, RDN
Top 4 Reasons To Choose Local Foods
- Aim for Flavor. Local foods tend to be fresher, as most fruits and vegetables have been picked within the last 24-48 hours and have not travelled far to reach the point of purchase. Local foods tend to be available seasonally, which means they are picked at peak ripeness.
- Harness Nutrients. Fresh-picked produce tends to have more phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals. A review of literature published in Science of Food and Agriculture in 2007 found that once fruits and vegetables are harvested, they begin to undergo quality and nutrient degradation, which results in lower vitamin content. Since local foods generally have a shorter journey from farm to plate, they tend to have a higher nutrient content.
- Support Small-Scale Farmers. When purchasing local foods at a farmers market, we often talk directly with farmers, offering an opportunity to build relationships and understand each farm’s growing practices. The farmer benefits too, as selling locally allows them to skip the middleman and gain more profit from each sale. This helps stimulates the local economy and encourages money to stay within local communities.
- Promote Ecology. Unlike large-scale farming that focuses on a single varietal of food, or monoculture farming, local foods are often produced on smaller scale plots with multiple varietals of food. This method helps promote a healthier ecosystem, often resulting in reduced chemical inputs.