The real question about local food

Maisie Greenawalt, VP of Strategy

“Which is better for the environment and the economy — a tomato grown nearby or one from the supermarket?”

That’s how USA Today starts off a recent piece titled “Local food is trendy, but is it really more eco-friendly?,” discussing two new books that claim to debunk the idea that it is. This argument is a pretty moldy one — it’s been floating around since we launched the Eat Local Challenge, back in 2005 — and it surprises me that anyone still likes to take a bite of it.

USA Today summarizes the two books’ main points as these: transportation (aka “food miles”) accounts for but a fraction of greenhouse gas emissions compared to on-farm energy use (tractors, fertilizers), and big farms grow more food on less land with less energy per item.

Leaving aside the fact that these two things contradict each other, the whole argument to me seems like a false one: no one should look at food through just one lens. And while the media loves to “stir the pot” with headlines like that one, I think the American public is smart enough to hold more than one idea in its mind at the same time.

The kind of local food you get at the farmers’ market is so much fresher, picked that morning when it’s ripe instead of picked early and unripe so as to withstand long travel — and so it tastes better and is better for you. And since it comes from small, owner-operated farms (as opposed to corporate “family farms,” which sell through supermarkets), it supports the communities in which we live: it puts our money directly in the pocket of people who pay taxes that support our schools and take care of the land that feeds us.

There are also reasons why it’s often “eco-friendlier,” too, but I think people can figure those out. What baffles me is why the media (both book authors and journalists) is so attached to this supposed controversy. The number of farmers’ markets in the United States is continuing to steadily grow — why don’t they just ask the millions of people shopping at them why they do so?