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Buy local

February 6, 2012
John Vahedi-Faridi, Senior at Norfolk Academy

(Editor's Note: John is a Senior at Norfolk Academy, and presented this paper as part of his senior year coursework.)

You stroll into the supermarket in January, head towards the produce section and casually pick up various fruits and vegetables in order to prepare a fresh salad later that day. Little do you know that the apples you just bought are from New Zealand, the bananas from Ecuador, the mangoes from South Africa, the grapes from Chili, the cucumbers from Mexico, and the avocado from Israel. Collectively, these produce items have traveled thousands of miles to reach your plate. Most of these food items were harvested a minimum of two to three weeks before they reach the supermarket shelf. They very likely have spent another few days lying untouched on the shelf until you came by. Great effort goes into maintaining the illusion of freshness through food irradiation and the addition of preservatives or practices like waxing apples. Remember to remind your guests of this when they enjoy your “fresh” salad later tonight.  No wonder many Americans today are joining the growing local-food movement. Aside from the superior taste of truly fresh produce, there is a clear economic and societal incentive for buying locally. Opponents of the local-food movement claim that it is too expensive, offers less variety because foods are only grown seasonally, and that the local agriculture cannot supply sufficient amounts of food. Though, what is the point of great quantity if your food lacks in nutrients and taste. When we get great deals on produce that is grown with factory farming we pay a great environmental price and weaken our local economy by putting our community farmers out of business. I am advocating that we buy locally to help us live healthier lives, reduce CO2 emissions and stimulate our local economy thereby creating strong communities.

The shorter the way from farm to fork, the more nutrient rich our food is. Gretel H. Schueller in her 2001 article titled Eat Locally (Think Globally) states that “a typical morsel of food journeys 1,400 miles before it reaches a mouth--50 times farther than it did 20 years ago--changing hands at least six times along the way.” The more recent and most cited statistic is that food travels on average 1,500 miles from farm to consumer. This figure comes from the work led by Rich Pirog, the associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. Pirog and his team analyzed the journey of 28 different fruits and vegetables and calculated that conventional produce traveled on average 1518 miles while locally sourced foods traveled an average of merely 44.6 miles to Iowa markets. These statistics are known as food miles. Food miles refer to the distance food is transported from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer. Food miles are a factor in the environmental impact of food because at the most basic level, fewer transport miles mean fewer emissions. The before mentioned team led by Pirog found that the conventional food distribution system emitted 5 to 17 times more CO2 than the local and regional systems. This is due to the energy consumed transporting the food, but also due to increased use of pesticides and fertilizers employed in factory farming and their production cost. A similar study conducted in Canada estimated that replacing imported foods with the equivalent of locally grown foods in the Waterloo, Ontario, region, would reduce transport related emissions by 50,000 metric tons of CO2, or the equivalent of taking over 16 thousand cars off the road. In order for foods not to spoil during the lengthy transport, they are subjected to numerous chemicals and additives. Irradiation is used to increase the shelf life. The processing method of food irradiation has not been properly tested for safety and it depletes the vitamin content of food. Much of the foods we purchase in today’s supermarkets contain high amounts of food additives. These substances are used to alter the color and taste of food and replace vitamins and minerals that were lost due to the long time traveling. Farmers who market locally tend to employ sustainable farming practices as their farms usually are smaller and use practices like crop rotation and the integration of crop and livestock production. Those who buy locally produced food can also appreciate the shorter more direct link between producer and the consumer. Sara Terry, in her article A Shopper’s Experiment: Can She Really ‘Eat Locally’?,  states another joy of eating locally is the “very real pleasure that comes from buying your food from the person who grows it. I got the opportunity to ask about production and flavor--even cooking tips--from the people who have had their hands on the food.” This adds a personal and community dimension to the shopping experience and leaves both sides feeling content.

Not only does buying locally help us live more healthily, it stimulates our local economy thereby strengthening the communities we live in and improving living conditions for all. There is a tangible economic benefit that comes from supporting local food producers and keeping our dollars in the region or community. The Hampton Roads Buy Fresh Buy Local organization declares on its website that “if every area household spent just 10 dollars a week on local foods, it could generate 384.2 million dollars annually in southeast Virginia and 1.65 billion dollars statewide.” We are spending ridiculous amounts of money and energy transporting goods because our food transportation system is inefficient. In the United States it now takes on average up to 15 calories of energy to deliver a single calorie of food to a consumer. For example, a head of lettuce requires 2,200 calories of energy to produce and deliver to the table when it is grown in California and eaten in New York, yet it only provides 50 calories of energy to the consumer. This is horribly inefficient when compared to local communities who only use about 4 calories of energy to produce a single calorie of food. Transportation is a huge cost when it comes to food. It costs 5 to 6 thousand dollars to transport a single truck with strawberries to its destination. By ending these unnecessary transactions and choosing to purchase locally, we put those dollars directly into the local economy. This money can be used to support endangered family farms that are disappearing rapidly from our state. Between 2002 and 2007, Virginia lost more than 500,000 acres of farmland. Large companies now handle almost all agricultural processing and production, from seed to supermarket shelf. About 65% of all the money spent on food goes into packaging, delivery, and marketing; 30 % goes to the companies that make fertilizers and pesticides; and only 5% goes to the farmers.

Norfolk Academy has recently made the easy transition to serving food purchased locally with the help of our new food provider, Meriwether Godsey. All of us have the great pleasure of enjoying sustainably managed food from local sources every day. Many of us have noticed the improved taste and quality of the food that came with the transition and we do not seem to be missing out on any of our favorite food items.  Another perfect example of local food production is Norfolk Academy’s garden project. Many faculty members of Norfolk Academy have commented on the terrific taste of the vegetables coming from our school garden, and all the money generated from the garden is put back into the local food bank. It does not get any more local than that!  As Tanya Hipp the Meriwether Godsey Food Director here at Norfolk Academy states quite plainly during our interview: “Eat local, that’s all there is to it.” So what are we waiting for?  

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