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In search of the ripe stuff

Supermarkets today are stocked with choices galore. But some shoppers are questioning dependence on produce from far away.

By Jennifer WolcottStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2003

Your grocer posts "locally grown" labels beside bins of potatoes. A city bistro credits suburban farmers for the beets, radishes, and baby leeks on its menu. And a farmers' market has set up shop in your neighborhood.

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Welcome to the "buy local" movement, about which word is spreading faster than a patch of mint in a kitchen garden.

The informal movement has sprouted in the past five years in response to a food supply that has become increasingly global and sprawling. It's now possible for supermarkets to stock almost any food from anywhere at any time.

While many see this explosion of choices at the grocery store as a good thing, others are concerned about this "global vending machine," as Brian Halweil of Worldwatch Institute calls it. They worry about its impact on local economies, the environment, the distinctiveness of regional cuisines, the face-to-face connection between farmers and consumers, and especially, the flavor of food.

Of course, shoppers generally snap up whatever appeals to them, no matter where it's from. But champions of the "buy local" cause, many of whom are passionate about good, wholesome food, say not so fast. They insist that the taste of fresh, locally grown carrots, for example, is far superior to carrots that have been hauled from another coast or continent.

Or as Molly Stevens, a food writer from Vermont, puts it: "There's a tragic loss of quality when fresh food travels halfway around the world."

And travel it does. Within the US, "fresh" food is typically hauled an average of 1,500 to 2,500 miles from farm to table, 25 percent farther than in 1980.

Romaine lettuce typically travels 2,055 miles from farm to store. The figure is 1,788 miles for celery, and 1,675 miles for onions. Tomatoes are grown 1,369 miles from where they're sold at a retail market.

The produce that travels farthest, according to a study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, is grapes. The study found that grapes log an average of 2,143 miles from vineyards in California to markets in Chicago.

It takes a week for US-grown food to travel from a field on one coast to a store on the other.

According to Kevin Higgins, a buyer for Bread & Circus stores in New England, food imported into the US - grapes from Chile or cucumbers from Mexico, for instance - takes one to two weeks to travel, including time for USDA inspections.

At the end of the journey, the produce may sit on the shelf for several days before being purchased.

Counting the costs

Hauling strawberries across the country costs $5,000 to $6,000 for a truck carrying 1,200 boxes of strawberries.

The cost to the environment, including fossil fuels and the carbon-dioxide emissions that result from burning them, is harder to quantify.

However, the Leopold Center compared what it takes to haul food from other states into Iowa via large semitrailer trucks versus what it takes to haul food within the state in small light trucks. It found that growing and transporting just 10 percent more food within Iowa would result in an annual fuel savings ranging from 294,000 to 348,000 gallons and yearly emissions reductions ranging from 7 million to 7.9 million pounds.

Shoppers in other states might also see similar or greater savings if they waited until peak season for strawberries in their areas, for instance, instead of gobbling up the California berries that arrive in early spring.

The decision to buy local is not only about pleasing the palate or contributing to a cleaner environment. There are also more basic issues, such as the vulnerability of the food system.

According to Mr. Halweil of Worldwatch Institute, many US cities have a limited supply of food on hand. "That makes those cities highly vulnerable to anything that suddenly restricts transportation, such as oil shortages or acts of terrorism," he writes in his book "Home Grown."

Food writer Deborah Madison, whose latest cookbook "Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America's Farmers' Markets" just won a prestigious James Beard Award, cites other reasons for buying local foods: This choice puts dollars directly into the local economy, she says. It also supports endangered family farms, helps to preserve the beauty of the natural landscape, and allows consumers to have a direct connection with growers.

Such face-to-face contact, she says, is key. It allows the consumer to ask questions - for instance, about a farmers' philosophy, whether pesticides were used and to what extent, or if cows were given growth hormones and antibiotics.