The Case for Local Food

April 11, 2014

In two readings and discussion, students explore the benefits of eating in season and supporting local farmers and consider some of the criticisms of local food arguments, including the concept of "food miles."


To the Teacher:

Most of us are part of a globalized food system that we're barely aware of. The foods we consume are often are shipped to us from states and countries that may be hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away. While a globalized food system may have some benefits, defenders of local food believe it has many overlooked costs.
 
The local food movement encourages eaters to learn more about the origins of their food, to support farmers who are living near them, and to rediscover the pleasures of eating in season. This approach, they argue, has both social and environmental benefits—as well as culinary ones.
 
This lesson provides an overview of the issues that have inspired the local food movement. It consists of two student readings. The first explores the benefits of eating in season and supporting local farmers. The second reading analyzes some of the criticisms of local food arguments—particularly the concept of "food miles"—and it examines how local food advocates respond to these concerns. Questions for discussion follow each reading.
 



Introduction

Begin by asking students: 

  • Do you know, at least sometimes, where your food comes from? If so, what are some of the places? (Mexico? California? A farm nearby?)

Tell students that in this lesson we'll be exploring this question of where food comes from and whether eating local food is better than eating food that was shipped from far away.   
 


 

 
Student Reading 1:
Why Buy Food Locally?

Most of us are part of a globalized food system that we're barely aware of. The foods we consume are often are shipped to us from states and countries that may be hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away. While a globalized food system may have some benefits, defenders of local food believe it has many overlooked costs.
 
The local food movement encourages eaters to learn more about the origins of their food, to support farmers who are living near them, and to rediscover the pleasures of eating in season. This approach, they argue, has both social and environmental benefits—as well as culinary ones.
 
The local food movement—and the number of people who consider themselves "locavores" (local eaters)—has grown rapidly in recent years in the United States. Locally grown food reached sales of almost $7 billion in 2012. While people have varying definitions of what constitutes local food, the movement advocates eating vegetables, fruits, and other food items grown and produced as close to home as possible. Many advocates consider food grown within the same state to be local, while others aim to eat foods grown within a 100 miles of their home. The local food movement aims to push back against the economic dominance of large corporations in the food industry, encouraging consumers to support local farmers and invest directly in their own communities.
 
The GRACE Communications Foundation, a non-profit whose mission includes supporting sustainable food systems, outlines several environmental and economic benefits of eating locally:

Local food systems rely upon a network of small, usually sustainably run, family farms (rather than large industrially run farms) as the source of farm products. Industrial farming negatively impacts the environment in myriad ways (e.g., by polluting the air, surface water, and groundwater, over-consuming fossil fuel and water resources, degrading soil quality, inducing erosion, and accelerating the loss of biodiversity). Industrial agriculture also adversely affects the health of farm workers, degrades the socioeconomic fabric of surrounding communities, and impairs the health and quality of life of community residents....
 
Many small-scale, local farms attempt to ameliorate the environmental damage done via industrial farming by focusing on sustainable practices, such as minimized pesticide use, no-till agriculture and composting, minimized transport to consumers, and minimal to no packaging for their farm products....

Evidence indicates that local food systems support local economies; for example, farmers' markets positively affect the business surrounding them, while also providing significant sources of income for local farmers, thus maintaining the viability of many small, local farms. Unlike large industrial farms, small family farms are more likely to spend their dollars in the community on farm-related inputs (e.g., machinery, seeds, farm supplies, etc.); in addition, food grown locally, processed locally, and distributed locally (for example, to local restaurants) generates jobs and subsequently helps stimulate local economies.
 
In 1959, there were 4,105,000 farms in the United States, while the latest US farm census in 2011 recorded only 2,200,000 farms. In the last 50 years, though the number of farms has shrunk, the size of the farms still in existence has grown tremendously, which demonstrates the consolidation and industrialization of US agriculture. Local food systems help preserve farmland by providing small family farms a viable outlet through which to sell their farm products.
  

Beyond economic benefits to farmers and the local economy, there could also be health benefits to eating locally. As Eric Doxsey-Whitfield wrote for the New York Academy of Sciences website, experts on a panel addressing the science of local food described a variety of advantages that might justify a consumer preference for local food over food items that travel over longer distances:
 
First, nutrients may degrade if food is transported for long periods of time or is not stored properly; this gives local food an advantage, assuming it gets to the consumer quickly. Second, heirloom varieties of certain plants such as wheat, corn, and cauliflower have higher levels of micronutrients than newer crops selected for high yields; these older varieties are more likely to be found on smaller, more diverse farms. Lastly, agricultural management practices, such as irrigation and fertilization, can affect the nutritional value of food; industrial farms tend to rely heavily on practices that produce more watery plants with fewer nutrients.
 
 Other experts on the panel noted further ecological benefits:

Small-scale farms are typically associated with higher crop diversity and are often able to employ a larger array of sustainable management-practices. Crop diversity promotes nutrient cycling and supports a wider range of beneficial insects and soil microbes than does a monoculture system.... Regions lacking crop diversity, such as the vast cornfields of the Mississippi Basin, exhibit more erosion and topsoil runoff, and water bodies in these areas have higher levels of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer. 

Local food advocates view the movement as a way to address multiple issues at once: circulating money within one's own community, supporting small farmers, eating fresher and more nutritious foods, and minimizing environmental impact.
 

For Discussion:

 

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. According to the reading, what concerns does the local food movement aim to address?
  3. How would you define "local food"? What might be some of the difficulties in assigning such a definition?
  4. What advantages might small farms have over large farms? In what ways might large farms be better? Do you think there are reasons to promote one over the other?
  5. Do you find the arguments in favor of eating locally convincing? Explain your position.

  


 

Student Reading 2:
Food Miles and their Critics

 
While the movement to promote locally sourced food items has many proponents, the drive to eat local also has its critics. These detractors often challenge the concept of "food miles."
 
The idea of tracking how many miles a food item travels before reaching our plate is relatively new. In the early 2000s, Iowa State University researchers estimated that in the U.S. a typical vegetable or piece of fruit travels about 1,500 miles from its farm of origin before reaching the shelves of our grocery stores. The concept of measuring and ultimately reducing the food miles associated with one's meal quickly caught on, serving as a simplified way to talk about the complexity of the industrial food system and its impact on the environment.
 
However, critics have pointed out several problems stemming from this simplification. The first is that some miles that a food item travels are more environmentally damaging than others. As a December 7, 2006, special report in The Economist explains: 

Obviously it makes sense to choose a product that has been grown locally over an identical product shipped in from afar. But such direct comparisons are rare. And it turns out that the apparently straightforward approach of minimizing the "food miles" associated with your weekly groceries does not, in fact, always result in the smallest possible environmental impact.
 
The term "food mile" is itself misleading, as a report published by DEFRA, Britain's environment and farming ministry, pointed out last year. A mile travelled by a large truck full of groceries is not the same as a mile travelled by a sport-utility vehicle carrying a bag of salad. Instead, says Paul Watkiss, one of the authors of the DEFRA report, it is more helpful to think about food-vehicle miles (ie, the number of miles travelled by vehicles carrying food) and food-ton miles (which take the tonnage being carried into account).
 
The DEFRA report, which analyzed the supply of food in Britain, contained several counterintuitive findings. It turns out to be better for the environment to truck in tomatoes from Spain during the winter, for example, than to grow them in heated greenhouses in Britain. And it transpires that half the food-vehicle miles associated with British food are travelled by cars driving to and from the shops. Each trip is short, but there are millions of them every day. Another surprising finding was that a shift towards a local food system, and away from a supermarket-based food system, with its central distribution depots, lean supply chains and big, full trucks, might actually increase the number of food-vehicle miles being travelled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles.

 
While some criticisms of the "food miles" concept may be legitimate, they don't necessarily invalidate the desire to eat locally. Many locavores care about more than just food miles. They endorse local eating as a way to promote a broad set of sustainable practices. Farmers producing for local communities are more likely to grow a variety of produce, and to alternate their crops. This is a more environmentally friendly practice than industrial agriculture's model of growing just one crop intensively over large areas in an effort to profit through a very high volume of sales.
 
Moreover, local food advocates also emphasize the importance of community in encouraging awareness about the conditions under which our food is produced. These supporters argue that supporting venues such as local farmers' markets creates relationships built on transparency and accountability. Customers can get a more direct window onto how their food is made—something that is usually lacking in a globalized food system.
 
Initiatives such as urban farming, farmers' markets, food co-ops, and community supported agriculture can both bolster local economies and help build ties between people in a given area. In an October 8, 2010 article, Christine Muhlke, food editor for the New York Times Magazine, noted that in her reporting she constantly heard advocates of local food emphasize the idea of community:

What are they talking about when they talk about community? In their case, it's the network of people that they gradually knit around themselves based on a shared interest in food, from the grain supplier to the bakery apprentice to the farmers' marketers and restaurateurs who order the loaves. It's the schoolteacher who buys bread every week who eventually asks the baker if he'll teach her students how to make pizza dough. It's the cheese maker who trades for baguettes. It's the sous-chef who receives the daily delivery and becomes a drinking buddy...
 
The strongest example of a food community I've seen was in Detroit, where a vibrant farming scene has sprung up literally from the ashes. In a neighborhood that is a true food desert — there are no national chain grocery stores within city limits; more than 90 percent of food providers are places like convenience and liquor stores — I watched young men and old women socialize while picking collard greens in abandoned lots brought back to life by the Urban Farming organization. There was no fence, no supervision, no charge. Some of these people — neighbors — haven't spoken to each other since the 1967 riots, the Urban Farming organizer Michael Travis told me as we watched. 

Local food advocates stress that eating locally encompasses more than reducing one's carbon footprint. It is also involves being connected to and giving back to one's community, and making a regular effort to learn more about the food that we eat. 
 

For Discussion:

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. According to the reading, what are "food miles"? Why might this be a useful idea?
  3. What criticisms have skeptics raised about the concept of food miles?  
  4. What do advocates of local food mean when they use the term "food community"? Do you think that such communities are important? Why or why not?

 


 

Project for class research

Work with students to research sources of the school cafeteria's food, and share what they've learned with the rest of the school community.   
 
 
 
Research assistance provided by Yessenia Gutierrez.