What Happens to Money You Spend on Food?
In recent decades, big corporations have controlled U.S. food policy. Yet a growing body of research has substantiated what many of us have known for a long time: small-scale, locally-owned farms create communities that are more prosperous, entrepreneurial, connected, and nurturing. In contrast, big farm agriculture is harming the health of U.S. citizens and the environment. Here’s why buying local foods is just a whole lot better than visiting the local corporate grocer.
Buying Local Foods
Who buys local food? Consumers who value fresh products, a working landscape, and investment in the planet buy local. And there are so many reasons why.
Offers taste and variety: Local foods are delicious because they are picked at their peak and have a shorter time between farm and table. As a result, few nutrients are lost from fresh food. Moreover, local food preserves genetic diversity. Small local farms grow many different varieties of crops to extend the harvest season, provide an abundance of selection, and offer the best flavors. Livestock diversity is also higher where there are many small farms rather than a few large farms.
Builds community: The transparency that comes with talking to a farmer at the local market or driving by the fields reinforces confidence in the growing and harvesting processes. Local farmers aren’t anonymous: their livelihoods depend on face-to-face contact with their customers. Local food supports local families. The wholesale prices that farmers get for their products are low, often near the cost of production. Local farmers who sell direct to consumers cut out the middle people and get full retail price for their food — which helps farm families stay on the land. A local farm offers insight into the seasons, the land, and what you and your family eat. When you buy direct from a farmer, you’re participating in one of the most revered community practices: connecting eater and grower.
Saves our open spaces: Farmers who market and sell locally are more likely to keep farmland within their families rather than to sell for development. Your conscious act of buying locally grown food helps to preserve a working landscape. The result? Well-managed farms provide ecosystem services such as maintaining a fertile soil, protecting water sources, and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. A farm is a melange of fields, meadows, woods, ponds, and outer buildings. Together, they provide habitat for wildlife in our communities.
Deepens regional economic health: The farm is a stable, natural landscape. It’s part of a larger system that supports not only food sources but recreation and tourism, thus contributing to a broad series of economic opportunities. Local food keeps taxes down. Think of all the services the residents of a development need: road maintenance, school systems, fire protection, emergency personnel… According to several studies by the American Farmland Trust, farms contribute more in taxes than they require in services, whereas most developments contribute less in taxes than the cost of required services. And local businesses recirculate a greater share of every dollar in the local economy, as they create locally owned supply chains and invest in their employees. Local and dispersed business ownership strengthens the middle class.
Buying at Large Groceries and Big Box Stores
Yes, it is much more difficult to stock your refrigerator and pantry shelves with locally grown food than it is from the one-stop groceries. It takes a bit more time, thought, and planning. But in the book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver speaks about the gifts of “deliberately eating food produced from the same place where we worked, went to school, loved our neighbors, drank the water, and breathed the air.” We can take a similar journey of realigning our lives with the food chain. It begins with understanding the differences between buying locally and from corporate sources. Here’s some of what you need to know.
Negates interrelationships among life: Unlike farmstead products like cheeses, sausages, and jams, industrial food manufacturing is abstract. No longer are products processed in nearby facilities where the farmer has a direct relationship with processors and the ability to oversee quality. Humane honor for the living, for sentient beings is lost when livestock is processed in large industrial facilities.
Changes the quality of foods: Food imported from far away is older, has traveled on trucks or planes, and has been stored in warehouses before it gets to the consumer. The average travel time for a container vessel from Asia to the U.S. is between two weeks and a month. In the contemporary agricultural system, plant varieties are chosen for their ability to ripen uniformly, withstand harvesting, survive packing, and to last a long time on the shelf. The result? Limited genetic diversity in large-scale production.
Increases carbon in the atmosphere: Industrial farm products are harvested by large scale machinery, and then the shipping begins. Yes, consumers like having year-round access to multiple products have to be shipped from location to location, often having storage stops along the way. Because global shipping isn’t yet counted as part of a nation’s carbon footprint, corporate supply and distribution chains like WalMart incur costs for us all in their emissions. In fact, greenhouse gasses including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, and sulfur dioxide from ships and heavy trucks exceed the emissions from all the hundreds of millions of passenger vehicles in the world today by a wide margin. In order to slow climate change and global warming, it will be necessary to severely restrict or eliminate emissions from those sources. Buying local food can make a real impact.
Drives inequality: A community’s level of social capital, civic engagement, and well-being is positively related to the share of its economy held by local businesses, while the presence of mega-retailers undermines social capital and civic participation. Studies show that locally owned businesses employ more people per unit of sales and retain more employees during economic downturns, while big-box retailers decrease the number of retail jobs in a region. Corporate employee loyalty is limited, so ties between corporate employers and employees dilute roots in the community and provide the impetus for out-migration.
Local food is an investment in the future. By supporting local farmers today, you are helping to ensure that there will be farms in your community tomorrow. That is a matter of importance for food security, especially in light of an uncertain energy future and our current reliance on fossil fuels to produce, package, distribute and store food. Policymakers can craft better laws, business owners can use research studies to rally support, and citizens can use statistically-significant evidence about locally-grown food products to organize their communities and protect local farms.