From Maine lobsters to New Orleans gumboto Santa Fe chiles to Memphis barbecue, each part of the country—and the world for that matter—has its own allure when it comes to food that is raised and freshly prepared with respect to the region’s culture and traditions.
Where I live, in western North Carolina, we often spot cars sporting a bumper sticker that says LOCALFOODS, because Appalachian-grown foods are a big deal around here. Until recently, many of the mountain residents were nearly self-sufficient in terms of food, and they have a different outlook about eating than other people in the country. As an Appalachian friend once told me, “It never occurred to me to marry a man who wasn’t a good hunter.” She and her husband still can smoked apples, pickled ramps (wild leeks) and dine on squirrel. Since I’ve been here, I’ve tasted the smoothest moon-shine, eaten creamy goat cheese from a friend’s farm and savored the succulent local grapes and juicy apples. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know where your food actually comes from and the person who grew it? The other day I was getting my hair cut and a farmer came into the salon with buckets of strawberries he had picked that morning. Needless to say, my tummy was soon filled with sweet, ripe berries. There is an indefinable sense of connection and joy from procuring and eating fresh foods. There’s also a number of health, economic and even spiritual reasons to eat local. (See sidebar, p. 36.)
support your local farmer
Studies show that for every 1 percent of food that is grown and purchased locally, there is a 5 percent increase in a farmer’s revenues. On average, a farmer gets only 19 percent of the food dollar, so buying directly from him or her would help substantially. Nationally we’ve lost 4.7 million family arms since the 1950s. Wouldn’t you rather buy from your neighbor than a corporation, especially if that food tasted better, cost about the same and stayed fresher longer?
If this appeals to you, support farmer’s markets. It’s not only fun, it can be a time to reconnect with old friends, make new ones and discover new foods. The vibrancy of the food thrills the senses. Farmers who don’t need to ship foods for long-distance travel have the luxury of planting a more delicate and flavorful variety of fruits and vegetables. Typically local farmers take better care of their soil than massive a grifarms by rotating types of plants and using more organic fertilizers and composting to enrich the soil. This yields more nutrients and enzymes in the food.
On top of that, many foods will have flavors that you’ve long forgotten or maybe never even tasted. You might find loquats, figs, flavorful thick-skinned grapes, heirloom tomatoes, artisanal cheeses, eggs, fresh herbs, arugula, potatoes, chard, kale and all kinds of lettuces. When I lived in Hawaii, I was introduced to leaf beans, rambutans, mountain apples, purple yams and small orange limes. You’ll be surprised to find what is grown locally. According to a study done at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, our food typically travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles from the farm to our plates. And that’s just in North America. The average meal contains foods from six countries. We’ve become used to having peaches, plums and melons in the winter and asparagus from various parts of the world all year long.
Last year I heard about Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, two environmentally oriented journalists and the authors of Plenty (Harmony Books 2007), who decided that for one year they would eat only foods that had came from within 100 miles of where they lived in Vancouver. Inspired by a meal they had prepared entirely from the wild while homesteading in northern Canada, the couple wanted to see if they could live on only local foods.
The beginning was rocky, but soon bread made from turnips replaced wheat bread; honey replaced sugar; butter replaced cooking oils. Gone were cocoa, beer, coffee and wheat; in came wine, salmon, honey, eggs, local cheeses and mushrooms. Smith told me she’d never liked melons until she tasted the different varieties of locally grown orbs. Smith and McKinnon were eating a richer variety of foods than ever before while having a more intimate sense of place and the seasons. They found a deep, intrinsic pleasure in their new lifestyle (to read more, visit100milediet.org).
Today our foods primarily come from huge corporate conglomerates whose primary motivation is producing an abundance of food cheaply to reap the largest profits. Sandor Katz, who teaches cooking workshops and food environmentalism and authored The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved (Chelsea Green, 2006), says that we pride ourselves on the fact that only 1 percent of our population is involved in farming, and that that’s actually a plan for future disaster. He’s not alone in his conviction that we must broaden our outlook and investigate the real costs of cheap, globalized commodity food.“These products are poisoning us with pesticides, hormones, engineered genes and irradiation (not to mention the lost nutrients in processing). They increase our health crises and decrease our average life expectancy. Perhaps even more profoundly, we are ruining the earth with mono-cropping, destroyed forests, soil erosion, concentrated factory farming and fish farming, and killing rural economies in developing nations as well as our own.”
To eat more healthfully and do your part to keep farming alive in our country, start regarding yourself as more than a consumer. Think of yourself as someone who helps shape your local community. By making conscious choices about what you eat, you have the opportunity to feel a deeper connection with the natural rhythms of the land, seasons, plants, animals and your neighbors, and to help your local economy grow. In today’s world, environmentalism is in the details.
How to find locally grown foods
-Discover your local producers and farmer’s markets
There are national Cooperative Extension System offices (
) that provide information aboutlocal farming. Many communities have informative booklets about regional foods, which can be picked up in health food stores.
-Ask the produce manager at your grocery store which products are locallygrown and produced
Inquire whether local eggs, meat, fish, poultry and dairy products are available.
Basil, rosemary, parsley, thyme, chives and others are easy to grow almost anywhere—on a window sill, in a pot or in your yard.
-Start your own garden
This can be as small as a pot or two of tomatoes or a community plot.
-Learn more about the natural growing seasons of foods
Use more foods that are currently in season. A great resource is chef Jessica Prentice’s book Full Moon Feast (Chelsea Green, 2006). This will help attune you to the rhythms of the seasons.
-Request locally grown foods at your favorite restaurants
Encourage the chefs to find more local and regionally grown foods.
-Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program
CSAs are farms that you join as a member and pay a fee to receive a box of fresh produce every week or two of the growing season. Some also have eggs, dairy products, poultry and meats. l Call or visit local farms to see what they offer. Take a “field trip” to pick fruit.
-Freeze and/or can fresh foods
Each year I arrive home with crates of cucumbers, berries, tomatoes, apples and peaches and begin my canning extravaganza. Throughout winter, my homemade pasta sauce,salsa, peach butter, applesauce and pickles add zest to simple meals.
-Make your own sauerkraut and kimchi, a fermented Korean pickle
You can find recipes in Katz’s book Wild Fermentation (Chelsea Green, 2003).
-Take a class on foraging for foods
You might surprise yourself by finding delectable local mushrooms, picking greens from your yard, making pancakes with catnip pollen or gathering a windfall of walnuts.
|Benefits of buying locally grown produce:
-You are supporting family farming as a way of life—and the local economy.
-It’s environmentally cleaner.
-Food is fresher since it typically gets from field to plate in less than 24 hours—and is likely to
deliver more nutrition.
-Food lasts longer in your fridge.
-Farmers can grow a larger varietyof produce because they can choose varieties for flavor rather than for how well they withstand packing and travel.
-When you know your food source and farmers know you might stop by, a connection develops between you and your farmer, which leads to healthier practices for the soil, animals and humans.
-You are saving fuel.
-Farms keep our country looking like, well, country.
Liz Lipski, Ph.D., C.C.N., is a board-certified clinical nutritionist andauthor of Digestive Wellness andDigestive Wellness for Children andthe founder of Innovative Healing and Access to Health Experts.