Introduction: Eat Locally, Save Energy - a How-to Guide
About 5 years ago I made a commitment to myself that I would do something about the environmental issues I care about. With work and two young kids, I didn't have a lot of bandwidth, but I had determination. I decided to do research and write a blog (the link is above). My idea was to break down the overwhelming task of energy conservation and good environmental stewardship into family-friendly, easy-to-follow steps, one week at a time. And I didn't just write. I followed each step to the best of my ability.
For this instructable I am updating one of my favorite weeks and sharing what I've learned in the past half decade about eating locally. The week I was a locavore made a big difference (and still does) in how I shop, prepare for and plan meals. I hope you find this information as useful as I do in helping to lower your carbon footprint.
Step 1: What Is a Locavore?
Locavore.Oxford American Dictionary word of the year for 2007.
It means a person who eats locally grown and produced food. This food can come from home or community gardens or from local commercial farmers. Since the point of eating locally is to encourage sustainable food practices and enjoy healthier, tastier food, locavores generally care about how food is grown and prepared. Most people want to buy from growers who use no or minimal pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Which is also better for both our planet and our bodies.
While there are many really good reasons to be a locavore, the one that got me to try it is the tremendous cost to the environment of moving food around. Food transportation has become one of the biggest and fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The average food item on an American plate has traveled almost 1500 miles. Even foods grown close to home are often shipped hundreds of miles to be processed and distributed and then returned to where they started. (Also, local food doesn’t need to be packed to travel, so forget those big plastic clamshells.)
Exactly what makes someone a locavore is open to some interpretation. Most locavores try to keep their food sources to a 100 mile radius. Though, while this might be fine where I live in California, locavores in regions without much agriculture usually expand their areas. Also, some people pick a just few items to eat locally, at least to start.
In general, I try to eat as locally as I can as much as possible. I try for the 100 mile radius and to stay conscious of where my food comes from when I shop.
Step 2: Why Be a Locavore?
To start with, local food tastes better. Fruits and veggies can be picked ripe and are often picked only hours before you buy them. Also, tastier varieties are grown when a farmer isn’t trying to maximize for travel durability. Eating local foods has actually forced more variety into my family’s diet. If I don't buy that New Zealand apple, I might try a local purple cauliflower. And there are also local, healthy choices for bread, milk, honey and cheeses, which are pretty tasty too. You'll have to find out what is local to your community - it may surprise you!
And, as I mentioned before, less travel for food means lower CO2 emissions and less packaging. A study in Iowa found a regional diet requires 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet based on food shipped across the country.
Step 3: A Change of Mindset
I am fortunate enough to live in northern California, where some of the best produce in the world is grown. So I figure, why do I need cherries from Chile in January? When I was growing up I had no expectations of getting watermelon in the dead of winter. I got food in season. Fruits, vegetables, fish, even some meats had a season. We waited for peaches, zucchini, apples and snapper. We ate canned and dried fruits in the winter. This wasn’t all that long ago, but I’d grown accustomed to making my favorite soup whenever I wanted with ingredients from all over the globe. I usually didn't think about cooking with what was available at a particular time of year. I just decided what I wanted and then bought the ingredients.
So, change number one for eating locally is to let what’s in season drive what's for dinner.
Here are some more suggestions for testing the locavore waters:
Step 4: How to Be a Locavore (or at Least Give It a Try)
I believe we stick to plans better when we plan to be moderate. With that in mind, here are some ways to approach eating locally. Try one or all, but choose what feels manageable to you:
Choose a radius that makes sense for you.
My radius includes Napa and other farming regions, so I know I will always be able to get good dairy, eggs, produce etc. Make sure your radius includes what you need. Don't worry too much about items like bananas and pineapples which are grown in very limited areas. Concentrate more on what is offered in season, near you.
Choose a limited selection of foods to start.
The idea is to make local eating easy, so it's okay to ease into it. Try it on one food group, like veggies. Or dairy. Or try finding alternatives for the worst offenders like apples from New Zealand. (Seriously, who really needs an apple from the other side of the world? I've seen these in the supermarket side-by-side with apples from Washington, New York and Brentwood which is a town only about 40 minutes from where I live.) Or you can start with a few things you know are available locally in your area.
Choose a limited trial period.
Try a week. Or maybe plan to buy locally at your next few shopping trips. Pick something comfortable for you.
Go to a farmers market.
More and more cities are getting farmers markets. Often seasonally. Usually once a week. If you're not sure what to do with what you see, ask the farmer. Sometimes they even have recipes. And if you're not too shy, talk to people around you. Shoppers at farmers market are usually really happy to share their favorite finds. And don't forget samples. Farmers almost always have samples. I've tried not only fruits and veggies, but also olive oils, fish, breads, cheeses and even salsa and falafel.
Check labels and ask for help.
Fortunately, most food items are labeled. First look for "grown in" labels, not "distributed by". Then look at the "distributed" disclaimer and make sure the item is not distributed far from where it started. If you need more info at the supermarket, the department managers usually know the path of their products. The produce manager can tell you which items come from local growers. The butcher can tell you where the chicken was raised. And the general store manager can usually help with these items, as well as cereals, dairy, eggs, breads etc.
Find a local CSA
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. These are programs in which you invest a small sum in a local farm in exchange for a weekly box of assorted vegetables and/or other farm products. CSAs work differently for different farms, so you might need to look into what's available near you. This wasn't a great choice for me, but I have friends who love getting their box of goodies while supporting local growers.
Take a field trip (literally)
This is a great way to get the family on board. Look online and see what farms have "pick your own" or will show you around. Some growers have email lists and will contact you when their harvest season begins - especially for fruit picking.
Step 5: Resources for Eating Locally
Originally, five years ago, I was nervous about committing to eating locally grown and produced foods. But after doing a little research, I began looked forward to it. There were more resources to help me be a locavore than I thought. I went from feeling overwhelmed to feeling excited to try new things. I was able to have fun with food while doing good for the environment - and keep it up.
Here are some links for resources to help you to eat locally, support local growers and save energy:
This looks like a really good resource to get started with. I haven't used it yet, but I checked it against what I know and it seems useful and accurate.
Find a farmers market:
Calculate you carbon footprint:
Pick an area to be your radius:
Support local farms & find a CSA:
Lots of info, but most useful if you live in California.
Agriculture news and updates:
Step 6: Give It a Try!
Now I have my favorite products and places to shop and I've become familiar with the seasonal cycles. I look forward to cherries in June and squash in October, like when I was a kid. Shopping locally no longer takes much thought - it's just the way I shop. I'm far from perfect, but I try to stay aware of how far my food travels, the less, the better.
I'd love to hear what you try and how it goes. Please include links for any good resources you've found.