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June 18, 2018  |  Login
Your Best Bet: Buying Food Locally
By Yvonne Jeffery, Liz Barclay & Michael Grosvenor

Food that flies thousands of miles from other countries is just part of the food miles problem. Even American produce can travel many hundreds of miles before it gets to your plate. Retailers buy from producers and often transport the food over the road to big packaging plants, to huge storage facilities, to distribution centers, and finally to the stores from which you drive it home. To cut down on those miles, you have to buy locally.

Because of concerns for animal welfare, and because eating food produced using pesticides and other chemicals may cause health problems, the demand for organic food has increased to such an extent that big businesses are interested in its money-making potential. Most people have limited time to shop, so large grocery stores are the convenient option. They enable you to get everything under one roof and do a big shop every once in a while, reducing the miles you travel to get groceries.

Keep in mind, though, that many large grocery stores tend to treat food grown throughout the United States as if it's locally produced. Even if a cow starts its life in a farm just one mile away from you, the meat will travel to storage and distribution centers miles from home and will have traveled a large distance before it gets back to your grocery store. Big businesses have greater buying power than small competitors, but they also transport food farther to storage and distribution facilities, increasing factory and transport emissions and reducing the nutritional value of the stored food. Also take into account the impact that big business has on local business, particularly small, locally owned specialty grocery stores and farmers' markets.

Take a careful look at where you shop. If your nearby chain grocery store brings in as much local and organic produce as possible, then by all means support it. But if it doesn't, then look for other options. The larger stores' buying power may translate into lower food costs on the shelves, but do what you can - within your budget - to purchase more locally and/or organically produced food.

If you're unable to buy food from a farmers' market or directly from a local farmer, head for smaller specialty stores and co-ops, many of which sell organic and/or local products.

Co-ops are exactly what they sound like: cooperative organizations 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 any money is left over at the end of the year. Co-ops can be informal, such as when several families pool funds in order 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 Coop Directory Service at

Some local shops or co-ops may sell only organically produced and labeled food; others combine organic food with health food, vitamin and mineral supplies, and other well-being and fitness-related products. These kinds of stores are popping up everywhere and are increasingly moving into many large shopping centers thanks to the demand for organic food products.

Wherever you shop, check with the store to see how local "local" is. The distance that experts consider local varies - some say 12 miles; some say 100; some say within your own watershed or climatic region. Decide for yourself what's practical given your geographic location. (If a label says "locally grown," it generally indicates something within 250 miles.) If you live in the northern part of the country, of course, buying local agricultural products during the winter is very difficult; in that case, "local" may mean produce grown within the United States in winter but produce grown much closer to home in summer. more



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