The other day I wrote about a new carbon footprint label for wines I was reminded of a fact I learned when writing my book: Produce in the United States is shipped an average of 1,500 miles before being sold; as a result, more than 80% of the cost of food goes to processing, packaging, transporting, storing and preparing food – not the food itself.
This got me thinking about ‘food miles.’ The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) defines the term ‘food miles’ as the distance food travels from the location where it is grown to the location where it is consumed, or in other words, the distance food travels from farm to plate. ATTRA and other groups advocate for local food systems that reduce ‘food miles’ and transportation costs, offering significant energy savings to farmers, retailers and consumers. This was echoed in an 2009 interview with Jeremy Barlow the chef-owner of Tayst Restaurant and Wine Bar in Nashville :
“If you look at the economy right now, the biggest thing going on is that food prices are going through the roof. And it only promises to get worse. But for local guys, their price is the same this year as it was last year and the year before.”
ATTRA points out that consumers also benefit from fresher, better-tasting, and more nutritious food, while more food dollars stay within rural communities.
A Worldwatch Institute report offers several suggestions for how consumers can help to promote local food systems, including:
- Learn what foods are in season in your area and try to build your diet around them.
- Shop at a local farmers’ market, or link up with your neighbors and friends to start a subscription service featuring seasonal foods from local growers
- Ask the manager or chef of your favorite restaurant how much of the food on the menu is locally grown, and then encourage him or her to buy food locally.
- Take a trip to a local farm to learn what it produces.
- Host a harvest party at your home or in your community that features locally available and in season foods.
- Produce a local food directory that lists all the local food sources in your area
- Buy extra quantities of your favorite fruit or vegetable when it is in season and experiment with drying, canning, jamming, or otherwise preserving it for a later date.
- Plant a garden and grow as much of your own food as possible.
- Speak to your local politician about forming a local food policy council.
Is reducing food miles in and of itself a perfect strategy? Not really. But, the Worldwatch Institute points out, if you’re a consumer interested in sustainable food, the local food economy is a good place to start. A farmer who sells in the local food economy might be more likely to adopt or continue sustainable practices in order to meet this customer demand. If local food has environmental benefits, they aren’t all-or perhaps even mainly-intrinsic to local-ness: “It is the social relation, not the spatial location, per se, that accounts for this outcome.”