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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Madison is encouraged by progress made in recent years, which she says is evident by the growth in farmers' markets. According to the USDA, there were 1,755 in 1994, when the USDA began tracking them. In 2002 they numbered 3,137.

The definition of local is one that many food professionals wrestle with, especially given the differences in climate from region to region. But some say the ideal is to eat food raised no farther than a 50-mile radius from where it's purchased.

A backyard kitchen garden is the ultimate source; nearby farms, ranches, and farmers' markets take a close second; and stores such as Whole Foods, which sell as much local food as possible, are next.

Others have a more amorphous idea about what's local. Mark Lattanzi, campaign director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in western Massachusetts, cautions against a definition that's too rigid. "Eating local is really about appealing to [people's] sense of place, to their senses, and what excites them."

Nutritionist Joan Dye Gussow says that local should be "within a day's leisurely drive of our homes."

Stevens says, "Local is about knowing the farmer you are buying food from, or recognizing the name of the farm as a place you can locate and that you can see or visit."

In her agriculturally rich state of Vermont, Stevens can easily make these connections. And they aren't limited to those who grow the asparagus she eats.

"People think locally grown is all about produce," says another Vermonter, Robin Schempp, a restaurant owner and food consultant. But it's more than that.

"In Vermont," she says, "we always have something going on. We just finished [maple] sugaring season, it's now lamb season, and we are a dairy state, so we always have great cheeses."

Ms. Schempp is also a board member of Vermont Fresh Network (VFN), an organization that connects farmers to chefs, who commit to buying only food raised on local farms. It was founded in 1996 by the New England Culinary Institute and the Vermont Department of Agriculture and has become a model program for other US states.

Economics of farming

An arrangement like VFN's provides an economic boost to farmers, who, many sources say, make only 9 cents out of every dollar spent on their crops.

Farmers' markets, which are popping up all over the US, allow growers a direct-marketing opportunity. A study done by the USDA in 2000 showed that 35 percent of farmers' markets make less than $1,000 per market day; 20 percent make more than $10,000 per year, and 1 percent makes more than $50,000 annually.

Another way growers are attracting business is by becoming what's called a CSA farm. Community Supported Agriculture is a program hosted by farms that invite members to buy a weekly "share" of food (typically about $500) produced during the growing season. Some CSAs ask that members work on the farm for a handful of hours, picking beans or ears of corn, for instance.

The CSA concept originated in Japan 30 years ago. There, it is called teikei, which translates to "putting the farmers' face on food." The first CSA in the US started in 1985, and today there are more than 1,000 CSAs across the US and Canada.

A CSA allows consumers access to farm-fresh products at lower than retail prices, and farmers gain a reliable market.

A CSA might be the least expensive way to eat locally grown food. But it's difficult to say if local food is generally more expensive, as the cost of food varies from region to region and market to market. Still, advocates of the "buy local" concept insist any extra expense is worth it.

"It's a known fact that the quality is better," says Nichole Holley of the USDA. "No one will dispute that."

The longer shelf life of local food is also worth considering in the cost equation.

"It might last a week in the fridge, whereas one that has traveled might last only two days since it has aged," says Hugh Joseph, who is with the Agriculture, Food, and Environment Program at Tufts University.

But Mr. Joseph also says that the quality of trucked produce has come a long way, and its quality can give locally grown food some "stiff competition."

In winter, that competition is nil in some parts of the US.

"Eating [locally] is not for everyone," says John Lee, general manager at Allandale Farm in Brookline, Mass. "During the winter, you choose quality where you can find it. If it's local, that's great. But we're not all going to eat stored carrots and parsnips."

Still, during peak growing season, Mr. Lee says, it just makes sense to seek out fresh local fruits and vegetables. Thankfully, for him, many Bostonians agree.

At his 30-acre farm a short drive from downtown Boston, business has been especially brisk in recent years - evidence, he says, of the increasing trend toward buying locally.

"The global [political] condition has contributed to people staying home more," Lee adds. "At the same time, they are more aware of the quality of their food, and they are eating better."

"I will put my beans up against those that have traveled," he says. "Anyone who tries them will see for themselves which has more flavor."

Not for everyone

Some people still wouldn't be convinced. They would rather not wait until summer for green beans - or any other food for that matter - and they don't see why they should if these foods are always available and affordable.

Other consumers might want to pass up only one or two ingredients, waiting, for instance, until August, when they can get heirloom tomatoes that have been ripened on a nearby vine, picked just minutes earlier, and are bursting with flavor.

Still others might try shopping at farmers' markets (see www.foodroutes.org/localfood). Or, if they are really committed to the concept, they can join a CSA. (See www.csacenter.org/statesfr.htm.)

Either way, proponents of this burgeoning movement would urge consumers to realize their potential to make a difference - not only on their plates, but also on their planet.

Eating locally in New England

I had good intentions. For two weeks in early April, I would eat only foods that were raised as close to my home as possible. But there was one small glitch: I live just outside Boston. April is not typically a month of abundant harvest here, but this year, it was colder and bleaker than ever.

The fresh produce section at my local supermarket was chock-full of foods hauled from long distances: rhubarb from the Netherlands, mangoes from South Africa, and grape tomatoes from Chile. When I asked the produce manager if he had anything that was grown in New England, he stared at me blankly. Then his face lit up and he led me to the "Boston lettuce." Alas, the small print on the cellophane wrapping revealed those heads were actually grown 3,000 miles away in - where else? - California.

I headed to a store that sells organic foods, many of which are cultivated on New England farms and, during the winter, in greenhouses.

There, I resisted buying the precut pineapple chunks from Costa Rica, bananas from the Dominican Republic, and garlic from Florida - all foods I might have scooped up without a second thought had it not been for my experiment in eating locally. As I glanced at the sugar snap peas, mesclun greens, and nearly fist-sized strawberries, all from California, I grew increasingly envious of my colleague in Los Angeles, who had also set out to eat only local foods for a week.

Just then a round, red sticker caught my eye. It shouted "locally grown" from a few bins in the produce section. But a closer look showed that it marked beets and parsnips from Vermont, Macintosh apples from upstate New York, and shiitake mushrooms from - aha! - Massachusetts. I bought some of each, realizing that a New Englander's definition of local in early April had to be more liberal than in July or August. And certainly more liberal than a Californian's.

Buying local seafood, cheese, and meat proved to be a simpler task. At the seafood counter, I bought fresh cod that had been swimming in waters off the Massachusetts coast the night before. I also put a wedge of Great Blue Hill cheese into my cart. It's an outstanding raw-milk blue cheese from a family farm in Marion, Mass., 50 miles south of Boston.

The next day, I visited an organic livestock farm just five miles from my front door. I bought ground lamb and that night made grilled lamb burgers, sautéed shiitake mushrooms, and a beet salad.

But the experiment quickly grew old. Certain foods, such as berries or tomatoes, I seldom buy out of season. But I wasn't used to such a limited diet. When Kevin Higgins, a buyer for Bread & Circus markets in the Northeast, told me that to undertake such an experiment during early spring in Massachusetts would only leave one "really bored and really hungry," I felt like less of a failure.

I didn't make it to the finish line, but I learned a few things - to pay more attention to the source of my food, to study labels, to ask lots of questions, and to think more deeply about why all of this matters.

And just last week, I signed up for a CSA in my hometown, a Community Supported Agricultural farm, that will supply my family with an abundance of truly farm-fresh berries, herbs, vegetables, and flowers all summer long.

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