My eyes intensely scan the colorful bell peppers and sumptuous summer squash, searching for signs that indicate from whence these vegetables came. My mission on this grocery outing would be a tough one: Buy local food.
Looking back on my upbringing, I realize that my ability to source food locally is rooted in my family. My parents cultivated my interest and modeled how to mindfully purchase produce. But after reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” a year and a half ago, I became aware of the environmental implications of faraway food choices. Reducing the distance food travels from farm to consumer, “food miles,” cuts carbon emissions and combats the alarming, accelerating realities of climate change.
Besides environmentally-conscious eaters, the locavore lifestyle attracts followers with various ideological motivations. In juxtaposition to major agribusinesses, local food attracts consumers via their associations with better labor practices, environmentally-friendly business operations, organic and non-GMO food and ethical treatment of livestock.
Despite perceived benefits, adopting locavore eating habits can be difficult. For example, eating locally requires eating seasonally, and long, snowy winters may mean sparse options. Also, local food is often steeply priced. While I support neighborhood farmers, I acknowledge that my comfortably middle-class Californian household has eased my adoption of a more local diet. That being said, I would like to share several routes I have taken to enjoy locally grown food.
Through the Fully Belly Farm CSA, my family has paid a small farm for “veggie boxes” since I was in elementary school. Each Friday, I look forward to seeing, snacking on, and concocting new recipes with seasonal surprises: fresh sweet peppers, cucumbers, basil and heirloom tomatoes.
Farmers markets are another oft-traveled path to obtaining local nourishment. Some of my earliest memories are of browsing food stalls with my mother, sampling little pieces of sliced fruit or pointing at strange leafy vegetables. I love the atmosphere of farmers markets: each vendor displaying their bounty on a friendly table, curious shoppers mingling amongst each other, the sweet smell of fruit mixing with the earthy scents of vegetables and the aroma of freshly baked bread. Besides being a wonderful way to shop for local produce, farmers markets also allow shoppers to connect with the people who grow their food, adding a pleasant personal touch.
Recent efforts by farmers markets, organizations and the government, like expanding the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), attempt to make nutritious food accessible to all people, regardless of budget. I had the incredible opportunity to volunteer at one such organization, The Free Farm Stand, over the summer. Every Sunday, they operate in San Francisco’s Mission District, providing lower-income families with high-quality, fresh produce donated from local farmers markets and from San Francisco’s own urban farm, Alemany Farm. Anyone could receive the greens as long as they queued. I handed out produce, attempting to fairly ration out chard and kale or delicately handle slightly overripe nectarines.
Hunger is frequently characterized as an issue of scarcity, but often there is plenty to go around. The Free Farm Stand’s efforts exemplify how we can improve our distribution systems in order to limit food waste, provide local, healthy food to hungry households and generously share the world’s plentiful harvests.
The conventional grocery store can also be a destination for local food shopping. When I shop for groceries, I consider where my food is coming from before I buy it. I am privileged to live in San Francisco, with its independent supermarkets that source local food, and even at chain supermarkets, many items also originate in California. It is to find a tender head of California lettuce or a fragrant basket of strawberries. My final foray into local eating is growing and harvesting my own food. I feel special whenever I eat a tomato or a green bean from my family’s backyard—I don’t think I can get more local than the 30 feet between the tomato plants on our patio and our kitchen table!
Gardening not only produces delicious food but encourages a deeper relationship with food and the natural resources needed to grow it. This combination of excellent food and nourishing principles is what I, along with many others, seek in our pathways to local eating.