When the modern local-food movement sprang up more than a decade ago—inspired by all those locavores who ate up Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma—many people paid a lot of attention to the distance their food traveled from farm to table. It was logical. Transporting food over great distances produces pollution that fouls the environment, and there was growing concern about the impact of industrial agriculture on climate change.
But the local-food movement has evolved over the years. Local foods also taste better and can be more nutritious, since they likely haven’t been sitting around in a warehouse. The dollars you spend on them bolster local producers (who are likely to reinvest in your community), while helping to preserve valuable farmland and open space. And buying locally often supports smaller growers—the type whose scale and crop diversity allow them to use fewer pesticides and fertilizers than the typical large, single-crop (monoculture) farm.
This is why NRDC is working to strengthen regional-food systems around the country and advocating for solutions to bring local and sustainable foods to all communities—food that is good for you, the farmer, and the planet. For example, we’ve encouraged the nation’s largest public school systems to serve wholesome, regional, and sustainable foods to kids throughout our biggest cities. And we’re helping to establish a large wholesale farmers’ market in New York City with the same scale and other economic advantages that conventional produce exchanges have today. “More than 99 percent of the food sold in this country comes through wholesale channels, so if we are going to get better food into our schools and hospitals, we need to open wholesale avenues for local and sustainable producers,” says Margaret Brown, an NRDC attorney who spearheads the regional-food work.
How can you be part of the local and sustainable solution? The best thing you can do as an eco-conscious consumer is learn how your food is grown and demand responsible, sustainable practices at every opportunity. Buy organic meats and vegetables or food from smaller, diversified farms. Dealing directly with local growers gives you the opportunity to get to know them. When you shop at the local farmers’ market (which may not be as expensive as you think, since many now cater to the tastes and budgets of their surrounding neighborhoods), or if you become a member of a community-supported agriculture plan (CSA) or a farm-share food program, ask these questions:
- Is this produce certified organic or do you otherwise use organic practices? A farmer must pay fees to be certified organic, and for some growers the cost is unaffordable. They may still follow organic practices, however, so just ask.
- Do you use nontoxic, integrated pest-management methods? Conventional chemical pesticides are literally toxic; they threaten the survival of honeybees and monarch butterflies and have been detected in 90 percent of our streams and rivers. But farmers can use nonpoisonous methods of pest control that do less damage to the surrounding ecosystem. (By the way, you can do the same in your own backyard.)
- Do you grow many different crops? Growing more than one crop can help farmers maintain soil fertility and manage pests without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers—and the latter are big contributors to climate change.
- Do you limit the use of antibiotics to times when your cows, pigs, and chickens are actually sick? Animals on farms do get sick periodically and may need antibiotics to get better. But livestock breeders who routinely add antibiotics to animal feed as a preventive measure are helping to create the antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" that sicken and kill thousands of people every year.
- Can the hens that lay your eggs, or the cows and pigs you raise, leave the barn where they spend the night? Do they have access to fresh pasture? We’d like to think the animals that produce our food lead decent, cruelty-free lives, but the words on food labels can be deceiving. The term "free range," for instance, is virtually meaningless, Brown says. And "cage free" simply means a chicken was not held in a cage, but it still may have lived in a severely overcrowded pen. Only a “pasture” or “pasture-raised” designation guarantees that animals can spend a part of their time moving freely outside. Buying as directly as you can from the farmer and asking about pasture access is the best way to get what you are looking for.
Building sustainable local-food systems is all about restoring the link between you and the farmers who feed you. Every time you linger in conversation at the farm stand or the grocery store meat counter, that’s just what you’re doing. And, hey, if you’re considering all these factors, pushing for more sustainable-food solutions in your community, and you still crave a delicious, sustainably grown banana shipped in from the tropics? Don’t feel guilty. Just eat it.
With minimal effort, you can turn those banana peels and apple cores into gold. Let us break it down.
How to decode all those labels, find responsible producers, and help force change in the beef-production industry through the power of your dollars.
Farmer Russ Kremer caught a drug-resistant infection from his own pigs. Now he's raising them right.
Jeff Schacher knew that restaurants waste food. And that people are hungry. So he invented a tech-savvy way to rescue millions of meals.
By working with schools, parents can make their kids’ cafeteria lunches healthier and more planet-friendly.
A farmer’s daughter turned marketing exec tries something in-between: community gardening—where the business of “knowing your audience” applies just as well.
KFC will eliminate medically important antibiotics in its U.S. chicken supply chain by the end of 2018.
Sean Sherman wants to show the world another type of North American cuisine: indigenous food.
Our guide to buying greener beans, brewing with less waste, and avoiding all that packaging.
In Music City, restaurateurs, grocers, farmers, volunteers, and the mayor are beginning to harmonize in the fight against wasted food.
Dennis Derryck, the founder of Corbin Hill Food Project, is on a mission to diversify the farm-share model—and to deliver more callaloo.
Organize a park cleanup, support our national parks, or bid in a charity eBay auction (we’ve got our eyes on Questlove’s drumsticks).