Introduction: Eat Locally, Save Energy - a How-to Guide

Picture of Eat Locally, Save Energy - a How-to Guide

My Environmental Blog

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?

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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?

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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

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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)

Picture of 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:

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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

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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:


Eat Local Grown

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:

Farmers Market Search

Calculate you carbon footprint:

Nature Conservancy calculator

Pick an area to be your radius:

Find a radius

Support local farms & find a CSA:

Local Harvest

locavores.com

Lots of info, but most useful if you live in California.

Agriculture news and updates:

Worldwatch

Step 6: Give It a Try!

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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.

Thanks!

Comments

Rhonda Chase Design (author)2015-01-28

I took all the photos either at a local farmers market or in my home. All the growers gave me permission to take photos. Even the lovely lady handing out cara cara orange samples.

mtairymd (author)2015-01-25

That was a really nice write-up. Thanks for sharing. I read a counter argument a few years ago (see links). I’m interested on your take with regards to the criticism related to the economics of “food miles”.

http://freakonomics.com/2011/11/14/the-inefficiency-of-local-food/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/23/freakonomics-eating-local_n_1441937.html

You sound like you really care and your only agenda is improving the environment – more people should. I often wonder about the agendas of the anti groups (shocking headline – sell books, politics – campaign funding from large corporations, etc.). However, my statistically, data driven mind always pushes me back to basic economics and math. Anyway, you did an excellent job presenting your side of the argument.

I'm glad you brought up these issues. It is indeed possible to come up with a calculation in which local farming appears to be less advantageous, but only if you leave out some variables. First off, the article & video assume a scenario in which everyone will buy their food from small, multi crop farms locally, but not too close. They made assumptions based on many small farmers driving small amounts of produce 100 miles. When we're worried about reducing transportation impact, there is an economy of scale to be considered. Buying from a very small farm very nearby is good for energy savings. So is buying from a local grower that supplies a number of food markets. A larger grower that's further away may still be a good choice if they supply a greater number of stores and supermarkets and/or supply in large quantities. These variables do make a difference. As I mentioned in my instructable, the best way to save energy is to buy what is available as locally as possible. I buy almonds and strawberries which are grown nearby. I seldom buy brazil nuts and pineapples. Even urban centers often have farmland nearby. But even if produce has to go further to get to a large city, the grower is servicing a substantial community, thus another economy of scale. There are certainly other points I can make, but I think you get the idea - there's a lot more to the statistics of buying locally grown and produced foods then were presented in the article and video. Also, as a last point I want to make it clear that supporting local growers doesn't mean only supporting small businesses. Here in California we have industrial farms using sustainable growing practices as well as mom and pop businesses to buy from. This was pretty long-winded, but I hope it helps.

ps If you're still reading - I love your dog laser pointer headgear!

Yes I read it all - excellent reply!

ashleyjlong (author)2015-01-25

What do you think of the produce delivery services that say they source from local farmers? Is that a step in the right direction, or not much of a measure since transport and packaging are still in the mix? I've had a hard time committing to farmers market shopping with my busy work schedule and wondered if that might be a good route to try.

Good question. I've had experience with both the drop-off food deliveries and the kind where you go to a central location to pick up your box. I think health-wise both kinds are almost always good. However, as far as how efficient the transportation is, that depends on the business doing the deliveries. The best scenario would be a local grower that delivers to a central location that you can walk to from your office (or home). After that, I would see what services are available in your area and ask them about their delivery practices. For example: A company making lots of stops with old trucks is probably a lot harder on the environment than having all those consumers go out shopping in fuel efficient cars. On the other hand, a grower serving everyone in a small area in a "green" truck is probably a good bet. You'll have to ask how many people they service in your area, where they are driving from, do they pack up and distribute from the farm and what kind of vehicles they use. Also, ask if they have drop offs near your office. This may be a better way to go. Some growers are very proud of keeping things green and are happy to tell you how they do things.

Also, look at the list of farmers markets for your area. There may be one near your office that you can get to on lunch. I know there are several in San Francisco and are common in many big cities during work hours.

All that being said, it's not the end of the world if you can't get to a farmers market. Trader Joe's, Safeway & Whole Foods all sell lots of local foods. Just make sure they're being distributed from someplace local as well. The store managers usually know the details of the "grown in California" items.

You're in a great area for going local. Let me know how it goes!

Phoenix Flare (author)2015-01-24

Well done! Great work - I'm all about the environment! Keep up the great work!

Thank you! Have a great week!

alloydog (author)2015-01-25

Excellent sentiment! We always try to buy as local food as possible - In the green-grocery section, all the fresh fruit & veg has the name and address of the producer on the boxes. We always try to get as local as possible.

Also, at work, I convinced our company to buy as much stuff as possible from local shops instead of from the big mail-order companies such as Farnell and Elfa. We save hundreds of Euros a year in postage, the shops also give extra discounts, because we buy so much from them, and it keeps some money (and jobs) in the local community, rather than to the coffers of some big multinational that has it's shareholders dividends a priority over it's employees.

Thank you so much for sharing your real world experience and how shopping locally can be good for companies as well as individuals. This can be a much better business model for the environment, the local community and the company's bottom line. Kudos to you for moving your company in this direction!

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Bio: Geeky artist with too many pets. Details & blog at: rhondachasedesign.com
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