By Elaine Cranford
All around the world people are rediscovering local flavor and recognizing the benefits of buying locally. What could have once been deemed as a trendy “thing to do” is now much more. Unlike food fashions that disappear with each passing season, local foods are here to stay and gaining momentum.
Within the past three to five years there has been an explosion in local foods. The evidence for this is all around us. Simply turn on the television and count the number of food channels offered through cable networks, and then count how many of those channels have shows that specifically address buying local, fresh foods to cook with. There are also growing numbers of celebrity chefs who are incorporating the various aspects of local food into their shows, cookbooks and more. This growth is also evident in the numbers of farmers’ markets. In 1994 the USDA accounted for 1,755 farmers’ markets in the nation and as of 2006 there were 4,385. Here in metro areas of Nebraska we are seeing one to two new markets opening up each year.
National magazines are catching on to the local food movement as well. Time Magazine
’s March 12, 2007, issue touted buying local as being better than buying organic. Our University (UNL) started incorporating local, sustainably produced foods into one of their dining halls two years ago, and each year since they have expanded into additional dining halls. If you attend a Good, Fresh, Local (GFL) meal at UNL, you’ll be impressed with the numbers of students who line up to eat, and the staff who has been heavily involved in the development of the program. We are in the midst of an exciting time where the growing interest and demand for local foods is leaving some to wonder, where will it all come from?
According to Dr. John Ikerd, agricultural economist, at the turn of the 20th century, America was still an agrarian country—about 40 percent of its people were farmers and well over half lived in very rural areas. These numbers have fallen drastically and are continuing to drop. Today, less than 2 percent of Americans identify themselves as “farmers.” More than half of “farmers” report a “principle occupation” other than farming and farm households earn about 90 percent of their income from something other than farming.
Collaborative programs such as Buy Fresh, Buy Local Nebraska are increasing the accessibility, visibility and viability of a locally based food system. The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society promotes agriculture and food systems that build healthy land, people, communities and quality of life for present and future generations. With the demand in local food rising and the decline of family farms, NSAS has been instrumental in bringing Farm Beginnings to Nebraska. This program equips and mentors new and transitioning farmers with the knowledge and skills they need in order to meet the demand for local, sustainably produced foods.
The University of Nebraska has also been a leader in local foods through the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center, Dining and Housing Services, Food Processing Center, Rural Initiative and more. State and federal entities have also played a major role in helping to secure funding and programs that provide opportunities for farmers, ranchers and other food entrepreneurs to receive seed money for their businesses.
Here are just a few reasons why people are choosing to buy local.
Multiply your dollars close to home.
On average, U.S. farmers receive only 22 cents of every dollar spent on food. The remaining 78 cents is devoted to packaging, labor, transportation, depreciation and marketing (Jones, 2003). One dollar spent locally generates nearly twice as much income for the local economy. A great example of this comes from Brian Halweil’s book, Eat Here: Reclaiming Home- grown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket
. The farmer buys a drink at the local pub; the pub owner gets a car tune up at the local mechanic; the mechanic brings a shirt to the local tailor; the tailor buys some bread at the local bakery; the baker buys wheat for bread and fruit for muffins from the local farmer. When these businesses are not owned locally, money leaves the community at every transaction.
Reduce transportation costs.
Recent estimates indicate the average fresh food item travels 1,500 miles from production to final purchase. A study conducted by the Leopold Center in Iowa found that conventional semitrailers consume far more fuel than vehicles used by local and regional food systems. A small institutional truck uses more than four times less the amount of fuel than a conventional semitrailer. Energy used for this transportation relies on nonrenewable fossil fuels and adds to air pollution. A small local institutional truck contributes approximately 5 times less the amount of carbon dioxide, compared to the pounds emitted by conventional semitrailers.
Freshness and uniqueness you can taste.
Foodroutes Network lists several attributes to buying local which include freshness, uniqueness and taste. Most fresh fruits and vegetables produced in the United States are shipped from California, Florida and Washington. Fruits and vegetables shipped from distant states and countries can spend as many as seven to 14 days in transit before they arrive in the supermarket. Most fruit and vegetable varieties sold in supermarkets are chosen for their ability to withstand industrial harvesting equipment and extended travel, not taste. This results in little variety in the plants grown. Locally grown fruits and vegetables are usually sold within 24 hours of being harvested. Produce picked and eaten at the height of ripeness has exceptional flavor and, when handled properly, is packed with nutrients. Local farmers often grow a large assortment of unique varieties of products to provide the most flavorful choices throughout the season.
You know your doctor… Do you know your farmer?
Included in Dr. John Ikerd’s top 10 reasons to buy local are relationships. The industrial food system was built upon a foundation of impersonal economic relationships among farmers, food processors, food distributors and consumers. Relationships had to be made impartial and impersonal to gain economic efficiency. As a result, however, many people today have no meaningful understanding of where their food comes from or how it is produced. By eating local, people are able to reconnect with local farmers, and through local farmers, reconnect with the earth. Many people first begin to understand a need to reconnect when they develop personal relationships with their farmers and personal knowledge of their farms.
Take It Slow.
Slow Food USA believes that pleasure and quality in everyday life can be achieved by slowing down, respecting the convivial traditions of the table and celebrating the diversity of the earth’s bounty. From the spice of Cajun cooking to the delicious simplicity of produce at a farmers’ market; from animal breeds and heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables to handcrafted wine and beer, farmhouse cheeses and other artisanal products; these foods are a part of our cultural identity. They reflect generations of commitment to the land and devotion to the processes that yield the greatest achievements in taste. These foods and the communities that produce and depend on them are constantly at risk of succumbing to the effects of the fast life, which manifests itself through the industrialization and standardization of our food supply and degradation of our farmland. By reviving the pleasures of the table and using our taste buds as our guides, Slow Food USA believes that our food heritage can be saved.
Another aspect of eating locally that made it on Ikerd’s top 10 is that more than one million acres of U.S. farmland is lost each year to residential and commercial development. We are still as dependent upon the land for our very survival today as when all people were hunters and gatherers, and future generations will be no less dependent than we are now. Our dependencies are more complex and less direct but certainly are no less critical. Eating local creates economic opportunities for caring farmers to care for and retain control of their land, while valuing their neighbors as customers. Farms that don’t impose environmental and social costs on their neighbors can be very desirable places to live on and to live around. Eating local may allow new residential communities to be established on
farms, with residences strategically placed to retain the best land in farming. New sustainable communities could be built around common interests in good food and good lifestyles.
There are still challenges facing the local food movement. Many people are accustomed to eating a variety of foods all year round, and there are limitations to what can be grown in the middle of a Nebraskan winter. Farmers are extending their seasons with hoop houses, and others are finding ways to store foods traditionally for the winter months. Because more and more people are recognizing the value of buying local, some of the biggest obstacles, such as distribution, that once seemed impossible are now possible. For instance, the Nebraska Food Cooperative is an online, year-round farmers’ market, which has stepped out into the local food scene to bring fresh, local foods directly to you. Shopping online is increasingly the way to shop for everything; why not local food, too?
Local food is almost the opposite of trendy; in a sense, it’s becoming mainstream.
To find out where you can buy local foods and for more information, visit these web sites:
Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska
Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society
Nebraska Food Cooperative
Nebraska Cooperative Development Center
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Photos for this article are by Matthew Cranford.