The first time I realized my interest in sustainability was when my family and I lived in Chicago. I took my young children to a local farmer’s market and without even thinking, I asked the farmer selling the vegetables how far way they were located from the city. This was 10 years ago, before the term “food miles” became mainstream and the magic 1500 mile number (# of miles food typically travels from farm to store) was assigned to foods sold in the grocery store. The farmer’s answer, “100 miles.” I hoped they were a little bit closer, but 100 miles is not too bad considering how big Chicagoland is.
It got me thinking of what local food means and it’s been something I wrote about and studied over the past several years. It seems as though “local” means something different to each person. There is no straight definition.
So, if you had pick a number of miles that you consider local, what would it be? 10? 25? 50? 100? 300? And then ask yourself this, could you eat 90% of your diet exclusively from local foods, say within a 100 mile radius of your home? That means gathering 90% of your diet -- everything from seasonings (salt, herbs, etc) to flour to sugar to meat. Is this even feasible and do you want to do this? Could be a good challenge if you’re up for it.
I would venture to guess that there are some areas of the United States will have way more variety in their local food system (ahem, California) than other parts of the country (let’s say, northern Minnesota) simply due to seasonality of food and growing conditions. Perhaps it’s even more of a challenge to define local food in some areas where winter seems endless (like Montana or Alaska).
Now, if you wanted to eat locally where you live could you go without bananas, assuming they are not grown in your backyard? How about lemons? Perhaps those items could be part of the 10% of foods that are not locally sourced in your diet. It all starts to get tricky and you have to make compromises on what you want in your diet. I can go without bananas but lemons are a whole different story. Maybe I need to grow a lemon tree. I tried to once, but it never produced lemons.
But that’s thinking of local foods on a personal scale. We can go to farmer’s markets, get a CSA share, and find local meat and eggs. However, not everyone has the means or the time to go to farmer’s markets or pay for a CSA share. They rely on big grocery store chains to get their food.
So, what does local mean to these corporations? Local is the new organic and as people become more familiar with the food system, the more they want sustainable food choices. Which means, big corporations are defining local for their own business models and each one is different. Since we don’t have a “local food” definition, this isn’t a big surprise.
I took the time to search several grocery stores and see what they consider “local food.” This is by no means an exhaustive list of grocery stores in America. It’s just a sampling, but as you can see, each one defines “local food” differently.
Local food is produce grown and sold in same state.
Leaves it up to the stores but basically they use state lines. A big state like California is divided into areas “Bay Area,” etc.
Products are local if they are sourced within their 6-state region (Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Kentucky).
Local food is anything sourced within 400 miles of the store. They have a nice new website dedicated to local farmers and sustainability.
They have regional growing partners. They also had a policy that local food is less than 8 hour drive to the store.
Local produce is sourced within the states the store is located.
They leave the definition of “local food” up to the consumer.
Now you know what local means these grocery stores. If I did not list your grocery store, you can always look on their website to see what they say.
To me, local food depends on where I live. If I can find what I need within 25 miles from my home, I am good with that. However, when we lived in Bozeman, Montana, local food meant looking beyond the 25 mile radius, especially if you wanted to enjoy all that Montana has to offer – Flathead cherries, flour, and lentils.
Eating 90% of your diet sourced locally will be a big challenge for most people. Perhaps setting a smaller goal (like getting only local produce or honey) is more attainable.
The best way to start is to determine your definition of local food and do your best to follow it. At the very least, a farmer’s market is likely nearby. Ask the farmer where he/she is located. And if you are able, plant a garden, even if it’s small and only grows lettuce or cherry tomatoes. That’s as local as you can get.