Lettuce Eat Locally
“Would you like room for milk and sugar?”
This seems like a simple enough question. Do you stick with a simple black coffee? Or do you choose to indulge and grab a small, pink, innocent-looking bag of sugar? You did your research, and you know that the coffee beans were roasted locally, instead of having traveled from Kenya. But you also know that the sugar packet, small enough to fit in your pocket, has traveled through more states than you have in your life. Grown and processed in Hawaii, refined at the C & H Sugar Refinery that is not far from San Francisco, packaged in New York, and sent back to your Berkeley cafe. You traveled one mile for your favorite coffee, but your sugar traveled 10, 000.
The idea of eating locally can be a daunting one- how many locally produced, packaged, and sold sugar brands can you list off of the top of your head? Moreover, eating locally is by no means the solution to all of the environmental problems associated with our current food system. A study published by the Environmental Working Group indicated that food miles can account for less than 10% of the fossil fuel use that goes into food production!
The decision to begin eating local foods becomes more worthwhile and less intimidating when you consider the four main benefits. Eating locally helps decrease fossil fuel emissions, allows communities to have access to fresh produce, is a more nutritious option, and may lead to you enjoying your food more than ever.
According to Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, the average American meal has traveled 1,500 miles before reaching a plate. In other words, you might have eaten 1,500 miles of carbon dioxide emissions for breakfast this morning. In fact, it is estimated that nearly 10 calories of fossil fuel energy is required for every 1 calorie of energy we obtain from our food. Not only is this an unbalanced system, but it an indication that fossil fuels are a main ingredient of our meals, which sounds like a recipe for disaster. How do we decrease that environmental impact?
A simple way to combat this system is to choose food that was produced locally. Take for example, the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s market. A significant amount of produce in America normally makes its way to the “terminal market” in Chicago before being distributed to restaurants and stores across the country. An apple from the Chicago market travels an average distance of 1,555 before being eaten. But an apple from the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market travels an average distance of 105 miles.
By buying locally, you can save 1,450 miles of carbon dioxide emissions during just one meal.
Of course, solutions to environmental problems such as our current food system are not often that simple. Measuring food miles, or how far a product has traveled, is a controversial method of measuring the environmental impact of food for several reasons. For example, 1,000 miles traveled by truck releases a significantly larger amount of carbon dioxide than a ship traveling the same distance does; a plane produces even more emissions: 50 times as much as a ship. Therefore, eating sustainable foods is not a simple question of where it was grown; it is also a question of how it traveled to your plate.
You also have to ask how your food was produced. For example, in Britain, it is more environmentally friendly to grow tomatoes naturally in Spain and transport them than it is to heat a glass house in the colder British climate. A farm that is a little farther away may have significantly healthier farming techniques than one that is closer to you.
Finally, it has been noted that far more carbon dioxide is released during production of your food than the carbon dioxide that is released during transportation. Does this mean that monitoring your food’s travel miles is a useless practice? You have to consider the fact that if ten percent of your meal’s emissions are a result of it being shipped across country, then you have the opportunity to decrease your meal’s emissions by at least ten percent when you eat locally.
Even though measuring food miles is a controversial topic, the main advantages of eating locally rest on the fact that you, as a consumer, have more power to change the food system when your food is grown closer to home. It is far easier to monitor whether or not your local farmer uses sustainable practices, such as cover crops, crop rotation, or minimal use of pesticides or herbicides when she or he lives closer to you. And, as a result of that closer connection, it is much easier to make sure your local farm follows practices that are important to you.
The modern consumer has the power to change the current food system simply by buying products that reflect his or her values.
When a consumer makes decisions that reflect her interest in sustainability, that can also effect a community as a whole. Consider a community where a neighborhood garden is heavily relied upon. This would encourage more green spaces throughout the entire city to reflect the values of its citizens. As a result, more people would have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, more people would have a place to spend time outside with their community members, and the community would have access to a productive, healthy way to spend free time. At the same time, the more farms that are freed from heavy competition with larger producers, the more free they are to reflect the values of their local community.
Nutrition and Enjoyment
According to a report released by Michigan State University, there are several nutritional benefits to eating locally. For example, when food has to travel a significant distance to reach your plate, it cannot be picked at its peak ripeness because it has to travel well. Locally produced fruits and vegetables, however, are typically picked in perfect condition less than 24 hours before they are sold on the market. Not only that, but as food travels, it will begin to lose some of its nutritional value, and it has far more chances to become contaminated the farther it is transported.
With respect to local foods being more enjoyable, compare two pieces of fruit- one grown in season, and one imported from another state. There is a tangible, tasteable difference.
Though it may seem like a challenge to give up your favorite fruits and vegetables when they are not in season, California is certainly the place to start- something is always in season. You may even discover new foods at local markets that aren’t as popular in stores.
Eating locally may help you to appreciate your food more than ever.
How to Eat Locally!
The easiest first step for eating locally is to simply check the label. If you want to be sure about how sustainably it was made, packaged, and transported, take the opportunity to improve your researching skills! Check out some food miles calculators, visit a local farm, or review their farming techniques online. Here at UC Berkeley, we are also fortunate enough to have several community gardens, locally sourced restaurants, and farmers’ markets available to us. The Clark Kerr garden, the Gill Tract Farm, and the Student Organic Garden are always open to students and the community. Berkeley also hosts farmer’s markets, such as the Center street Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, the Farmers’ Market on Shattuck and and Rose St. each Thursday, and the Adeline market each Tuesday.
If you have any positive experiences with trying to eat locally that you would like to share, leave a comment!