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Green Groceries: Buying Food Locally

From an environmental point of view, it’s best to buy your food locally. The main benefit is that it cuts down on food miles, the distance food travels from where it’s produced to your plate. Mechanical transportation results in a lot of carbon emissions. (Food eaten in the United States travels an average of 1,500 miles before it gets to the plate.)

Experts don’t agree on what’s considered local — some say within 12 miles, some say within your own watershed or climatic region — so it’s up to you to decide what’s practical. (If a label says “locally grown,” it generally indicates something within 250 miles.)

Some ways to stay local when buying food are:

  • Buy from locally owned and operated grocery stores. Many large grocery stores tend to treat food grown throughout the country as if it’s locally produced. But, even if a cow starts its life in a farm just a mile away, the meat travels to storage and distribution centers miles from home before it gets back to your grocery store.

    If your local (and large) grocery store brings in as much local and organic produce as possible, then by all means, support it. But if it doesn’t do that, head for smaller specialty stores and co-ops.

    Join a food co-op. A co-op is a cooperative organization in which people come together as members to take advantage of the buying power that results from being more than just one individual or one family. Members usually pool money in some way and thus become member-owners of the organization with a say in how it runs and a share in dividends if there’s money left over at the end of the year. Co-ops can be informal, such as when several families pool funds to buy from a co-op food warehouse, or they can be more formal with hundreds or even thousands of members. When it comes to food, many have a mandate to support local, organic, or natural food producers. You can find co-ops throughout the country through the Co-op Directory Service or by entering food co-op in your favorite Internet search engine.

  • Frequent local farmers’ markets. Farmers’ markets cater to people interested in buying fresh, local, and sometimes organic produce. At most farmers’ markets, you can sample and buy local fruit and vegetables and talk to the growers about their produce — they’re usually passionate about the subject — so that you know exactly what you’re buying and eating. At many markets, you also find other locally produced food, such as meats, cheeses, and preserves. If you can’t find a market in your area, inquire with Local Harvest or enter farmers market and your geographical area into an Internet search engine.

    Meet the growers at a farmers’ market. [Credit: PhotoDisc, Inc.]
    Credit: PhotoDisc, Inc.
    Meet the growers at a farmers’ market.
  • Go straight to a local farm. You may be able to hook up with a farm that sells its produce straight from the farm or has its own farm store. Even if you live right in the middle of a city, you may find that farmers set up shop temporarily and sell produce straight off their trucks. (Some farmers even deliver to established regular customers.)

If you have to drive there and back, you also have to think about the fuel you’re using and the impact of your transportation on the environment. However, if you can combine a trip with other errands, you reduce your environmental impact.

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