In search of the ripe stuff
Supermarkets today are stocked with choices galore. But some shoppers are questioning dependence on produce from far away.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.