“Food system” is no longer an unfamiliar term to most of us. In the days after the pandemic started it was hard to miss headlines, notices at the grocery store, or conversations with friends about how much our routines around food changed—and how much of it wasn’t temporary.
From more conventional livestock farms no longer having outlets to sell to, to staples missing from the grocery store shelves, the food system was starting to show its weaknesses. As we dug deeper, questions about why it was so hard to pivot from selling to restaurants to selling directly to consumers filled the national conversation.
But among smaller local food systems, like ours that the Countryside Farmers’ Markets are a part of, people were asking different questions.
Why did it come to this?
How can we share the importance of local food with more of our neighbors?
Can we change the system?
Like any system, when it breaks down the impacts are far reaching. But reversely, the positive impacts of something like a local food system on a community can also be meaningful. So let’s explore why local food systems are worth supporting.
What is a local food system?
Maybe we start with an example of what is and isn’t local food.
Typically, food in our grocery stores, outside of that one small “locally grown” end cap, comes from outside our region (California, Florida, Mexico, etc.). But local foods are often grown or raised nearby, within 100 miles of where they’re purchased typically. Knowing that, a local food system refers to the geographic context in which food is produced, marketed, and consumed and all other supply chain steps moving food from farm to table. (Martinez, et al, 2010)
Generally, a local food system refers to the geographic context in which food is produced, marketed, and consumed and all other supply chain steps moving food from farm to table.
So that means most food we encounter daily comes from pretty far away. Don’t get us wrong, variety is the spice of life and balance is important in all things, but we simply can’t grow certain food in our region. But because we can see kiwis and avocados on our grocery store shelves year round no matter where we live, most of us have forgotten about seasonality and lost a connection to cherished varieties that aren’t easy to ship or don’t fit the grocery store mold. All of that comes at a cost.
The global system has taken local, fresh, nutritious foods out of day-to-day food routines for most of us. It has made chemicals, mass production, added ingredients, shipping, plastic, and bland, nutritionally void foods normal.
You see, generations ago we started eliminating local food grown and raised right in front of us by people we most likely knew in an effort to grow more, feed more, make more profit. But we never evaluated the impact on little things like the economic impact on farmers-and-small businesses in the local food system, consumer nutrition, and generally knowing where our food comes from. And we never came up with a back up plan in case the system failed one day.
But the local food system is powerful, even if it exists in the shadow of big box stores with squash on the shelves year-round. At the Countryside Farmers’ Market, which is a producer-only farmers market, the farmers grow on small farms (itty bitty farms in some cases!), and sell that food directly to consumers at the farmers’ market. That food is purchased by you directly in your community very near where it was grown, and you take it home and you eat it. Simple, just as a food system should be.
Generally, local food skips over 1,000 miles of transportation, distributors and middle men, packaging, waxes, gasses, bruising, and typically generic looking and tasting food.
You may be thinking, “So that sounds like a good thing, but does it really matter?”
Why do we need a strong local food system?
Local food made a trendy comeback in recent decades, and after the 2008-2009 recession more restaurants around the country started popping up with “farm-to-table” menus. Phrases like urban agriculture and “food desert” made their way into our vocabulary, and we were more likely to find a farmers’ market nearby where we lived.
Because of this progress, society started to understand more about where their food came from, and topics on how it was grown and raised became better understood. But the trend still hasn’t taken hold—we’re consuming local food like it’s a fun thing to do on the weekend and not a lifestyle. If we want to strengthen our local food system and insulate ourselves from the chaos of the global food system, we need to be more consistent at best.
Being able to shop locally for fresh food is important to our community and our personal wellbeing in several ways. Let’s explore how.
#1 A local food system contains nutritionally rich foods.
Real local food is full of flavor and nutrients, but don’t take our word for it. Have you ever said, “This tomato tastes like a real tomato!” with all your heart? The food you’ll find from local sources is typically picked a day before you buy it when the fruit is already ripe and full of all its possible flavor and nutrients. Alternatively, typical grocery store experiences include shopping for produce picked days before it’s ripe in order to ship it in time to ripen at the store or on your countertop. These are the sad, pink tomatoes that are a little mushy that come in a plastic box or bag.
Many things can impact nutrients, from the variety of the vegetable, to harvest and transportation time, to the soil quality (which generally is horrendous across the planet thanks to the impacts of modern agriculture, but that’s another topic for later). But, when food is allowed to vine ripen (and that’s more likely with local food) it will contain even more nutrients. For example, the moment a piece of produce is picked its enzymes begin decomposing and feeding on its own nutrients…yeah, it’s a little weird, like Veggie Tales meets The Walking Dead all inside your bell pepper.
Researchers have found that the vitamin C content of broccoli was cut in half when it was shipped from out of the country compared to when it was sourced locally (Montclair State University). And if that doesn’t rattle you and you’re thinking you can get by on half the nutrients, don’t be so sure. For years the CDC has been warning that we aren’t getting enough vitamins, so much so that we’re starting to see this called “hidden hunger.” We feel full, but we’re not healthy in terms of getting enough nutrients. Which leads to snacking and filling those gaps with salt and sugar products to satisfy ourselves, and we can guess where that leads.
All in all, the more nutritionally dense local fresh foods we can add to our diets, the better.
#2 The economy is local, so why shouldn’t our food be too.
When you buy local food, your money is likely to continue to circulate within the local economy. Some studies suggest that local food has a multiplier effect. According to the USDA, more than 150,000 farmers, ranchers, and agricultural entrepreneurs are selling quality products directly to consumers in the United States. These direct sales at farmers markets exceeded $1.5 billion nationwide in 2015.
But farming is a business, and not many people want to do it. In order to get more fresh foods into our local food system, we need more market and direct-to-consumer farmers. The best way consumers can help with that is shopping locally now.
Remember these numbers: $0.17 vs $0.90.
The Farmers’ Market Coalition and the National Farmers Union reported that American farmers receive only 17.4 cents of every dollar American’s spent on food. At farmers markets, farmers head home with upwards of 90 cents on the dollar. That’s local economic impact, and that creates a stronger local food system when value is balanced all along the food chain.
If we create a strong market within our local communities and the wider local food system, we can help encourage more farmers to get into or stay in business and that means the system remains valuable. That’s worth fighting for.
#3 The environment isn’t an afterthought.
Lastly, the production of food accounts for 83% of emissions, and can vary according to how the food is grown. Small farms more readily adopt environmentally friendly practices. They often rebuild crop and insect diversity, use less pesticides, enrich the soil with cover crops, and produce tastier food (Columbia Climate School). And by purchasing locally grown foods you help maintain farmland and open space in your community, which helps lower carbon dioxide levels.
You may expect to read about transportation costs here, but there are a lot of variables to food transportation costs to consider when comparing local and global food systems. Depending on the definition of local, transportation of local foods can be as impactful per unit environmentally as food shipped through traditional means. This isn’t always the case and probably not a deal breaker, just another reason to get to know your farmer to make the best decision for you and your goals. If in doubt, remember, the longer your food is on the road, the more nutrients your food loses, and that may help you decide where to shop.
If we want to truly impact any of these areas, we need to take a different perspective because local food isn’t mainstream anymore—it’s not part of the global food system and therefore requires more effort to support than our weekly shopping routine probably allows for now.
We still have a ways to go
While local food isn’t an oddity in our region, we have to remember that local food isn’t accessible to everyone. Shockingly, or maybe not depending on where you’re from, rural communities suffer from an alarmingly high rate of food insecurity and generally lack of access to fresh foods outside of distant grocery stores. That’s in addition to urban communities and those impacted by climate change disasters which we more commonly hear about regarding this topic.
Plus, it’s no lie that local food can be more expensive than grocery store food. Even before our current economic situation many people couldn’t budget to shop weekly at some farmers’ markets, making it hard for local food to become part of their weekly menu.
When buyers are faced with the true cost of food raised by small-scale farms using environmentally friendly methods they often pause. The economies of scale of the global food system has many efficiencies that lower consumer prices. However, it can do that in part by passing on costs like health care from diet-related diseases, water clean-up from fertilizer runoff, or tax subsidies.
These are all real costs that someone will have to pay for eventually, but because these costs are not figured into prices at the grocery store, food prices there are often lower than at farmers’ markets where farmers intentionally grow sustainable foods. Sustainable farming practices are more likely to take into account the fair wages of labor, natural or chemical free pest management, animal welfare, crop loss (because they aren’t blasting them with chemicals to keep them alive at all costs), and many other tasks that the global food system skips, automates, or gets help funding or insuring.
While there are several truly amazing nutrition assistance programs available to farmers’ market shoppers, equity is still a top-of-mind issue that needs to be addressed in most communities before local food can make it mainstream.
How can you support your local food system?
Eat Locally & Seasonally: Shop at a farmers’ market or from local farms as often as possible.
It’s easier to eat locally if you strategize to eat as seasonally as possible. Shopping a producer-only farmers’ market (they grow the food and don’t ship it in) is a great habit to start with when changing your perspective on local food.
This will also help reduce food waste since part of shopping at a farmers’ market requires you to plan your meals ahead. Plus, you’ll want to eat every last berry because they’re scrumptious.
And winter farmers’ markets are a real thing so you don’t have to retreat to the grocery store when it starts to snow! Local farms still produce some items, mostly greens, under cover at the very end and very beginning of the season. Plus, there are root or stored crops, and heartier foods like beans, squash and potatoes that we all crave in January anyway—so it’s a perspective of thinking more like stews, not fruit salads. Don’t think of this as deprivation, but as appreciation. You will appreciate a fresh local watermelon more in July than a store-bought fruit in February. So again, think about quality and the benefits local food has on you and your community.
And lastly, the 2023 Farm Bill is coming up and will shape national strategy on everything to do with food. Tune into the conversations happening now and learn more about the policies that will impact your local food system.
Until then, we hope to see you out in your local food system at a farmers’ market.