What is local food, anyway?

This blog post from last spring set me to thinking (again) about how we define local food.  Various books and documentaries and such have been written about 100-mile this or my-state that, but since the dawn of civilization we have had global trade.  Nothing on the scale of the modern era, but the rich English ate citrus grown in southern Europe and the Asian-Mediterranean spice trade practically defined the Ancient World.

So if your goal is to foster sustainable, locally centered food systems, eliminating everything that isn’t local from your diet isn’t truly necessary.  You can have your black pepper and eat it, too.  But that doesn’t mean that encouraging and participating in robust local food systems isn’t an option you should consider.

For a blog that focuses on cost-effective food solutions, it may seem odd to advocate purchasing local food that may cost more than the local mega mart grocery chain. If you are truly living on a very tight budget, then I say you should purchase fruits and vegetables wherever you can get them at whatever price you can afford; eating them outweighs the downsides.  Global trade is a GOOD thing.  Sometimes it brings unpleasant things like the latest influenza virus, but delivering fresh foods at a cost-effective price is one of the great achievements of our era.

However, if you are focused on living frugally, or interested in self-sufficiency, local foods may be more affordable than you think.  Those globally produced foods come with a hidden price tag.  I don’t need to belabor the point since numerous blogs and articles will tell you how awful global shipping is in terms of carbon footprint and petroleum depletion and human rights and personal health.  On a more immediate level, what seems expensive — $11 for a basket of peaches! – may be the same price as the “sale” peaches at the local mega-grocery.  Only riper, and fresher and you get to pick the variety of peaches you prefer.

But what is “local” anyway?

I don’t think we can put a number on it/ I think “local” is a decision that has to be made at the, er, local level.  For you, it may mean supporting historical networks of trade.  It might mean a county or a city boundary, or a regional designation.  For example, I live in the “Tennessee Valley,” which encompasses more than one state; the political boundary of the state line is meaningless in terms of climate and culture.  If you have many local farmers, brews, orchards and other providers, you may feel like you live in a smaller – or larger – region.

For myself, I think of expanding circles.  Grow it, if I can.  Locally if I can get it.  Regionally if it’s not available locally.  If it’s not available regionally, I ask myself if I really need it.  (Or in the case of bananas and avocados and coffee and chocolate, if I really want it.)  Is it something which stores and ships well, like rice, wheat or potatoes, with minimal if any loss of quality?

If you are ready to take the plunge into sourcing your foods locally, I suggest starting small.  Maybe it’s something as simple as buying only produce grown in your country at the mega-grocery.  Maybe it’s one meal a week from the farmer’s market.  But start small and set yourself up for success.  Bigger changes can come later when you are ready for them.

(By Nicole Castle)

One thought on “What is local food, anyway?

  1. Since making a concerted effort to eat as locally as possible, I have found that cooking is actually more fun. It can be challenging, but so much more rewarding. And as a result, I find myself needing fewer of the exotic ingredients, although I know I will always rely on a few, like pepper and chocolate, sometimes together.

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