Living a sustainable life means different things to different people. There are various factors to consider including the energy we consume and where it’s sourced from, the frequency and means in which we travel, the waste we produce, and of course—the food we eat.
I’ve been on my own journey to live a more sustainable life for several years now and recently decided to tackle local food. I did a ton of research to find the best locally grown food options to suit my personal needs and preferences, so read on for my findings and recommendations!
WHY SHOULD I BUY LOCAL FOOD AND WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH CLIMATE CHANGE?
Food grown on local, smaller farms is typically in season and free from hormones, chemicals, and preservatives. The food is also full of rich nutrients which is better for your overall health. When you buy local you also help support your community and boost the economy.
SO WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS HAVE TO DO WITH CLIMATE CHANGE?
The food you find in large grocery store chains is most likely mass produced and traveled a long way to get there. Here are some alarming statistics to explain why that matters. Total emissions from livestock account for a whopping 14.5% of all GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions globally. Cattle (for beef and milk) represent 65% of those emissions. When we talk about supply chain and transportation, that’s about 13.7 billion metric tons of CO2, or 26% of total GHG emissions!
OKAY, I’M CONVINCED I SHOULD BUY LOCAL. WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO DO IT?
OPTION 1: FARMERS MARKETS
Farmers markets are a fantastic option for locally grown food and most of the farmers are actually selling at the market themselves—no middleman necessary! The food is also organic and pesticide-free as well as sustainably produced.
Options. I live right outside of New York City which means I have a lot of farmer’s markets to choose from, all selling a variety of fruits, veggies, eggs, cheese, meats, and seafood.
Locally sourced. I know where the food comes from and I get to meet the farmers and engage with them.
Healthy and Nutritious. Chemical free and nutrient packed is important to me!
Sans Plastic. I like that with farmers markets I get to control the way my food is packaged by bringing reusable bags.
Location. Once you go a few miles out of NYC market locations do start to dwindle. The closest farmer’s market to my apartment is about a mile away, which doesn’t seem very far but when your form of transportation is the subway or your feet, carrying groceries can be a daunting task!
Price. Farmers markets are generally more expensive than produce you would find at the grocery store due to most of the factors above. These farmers are also paying their employees fair wages so that goes into the cost of their goods. So this isn’t really a con, but it’s a factor for me due to my own budget restrictions.
Availability. Most of the farmers markets in NYC are only open one day a week so it makes it hard to simply stop by when I have free time.
OPTION 2: COMMUNITY SUPPORTED AGRICULTURE OR CSA
Community supported agriculture is a system that connects consumers directly to farms. Customers subscribe, or become members of the farm of their choice for a season. In exchange for their membership they receive a box of fresh food on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
Local and personal. You know exactly what farm you’re getting your food from and have the ability to meet and interact with the farm owners. Sometimes they even invite shareholders to the farm for an intimate tour or host a get-together.
Support the local economy. Buying a share ensures farmers will have enough cash flow to produce their goods and pay their employees fair wages.
Variety. The box you receive may have food you’ve never heard of before so you get to try new things!
Low emissions. Farms are usually within one hour from the locations they deliver produce, cutting down on emissions from transportation—a big win for sustainability minded folks.
You pay upfront. Buying a share in a farm means you need to purchase your “season pass” ahead of time. It can range anywhere from $300 upwards of $1,000+ depending on the size of your box of food.
Pickup. Most CSA’s set up at a location one day a week for their members to pick up their boxes. As a freelancer, this was a big deterrent for me as my schedule changes week to week. Additionally, not having a car means I would need to lug a big box of produce on the subway.
Variety. This was a pro for me personally because I love trying new food and don’t need to plan ahead for meals. However, I’m also putting it as a con because if you’re a strict meal planner this might not be the best option.
Option 3: Produce Delivery Service
This option is a cross between a CSA and a grocery delivery service. Some select CSA’s do offer delivery but the majority do not. I found some organizations that will bring the food right to your door.
Delivery. The most obvious perk, this is a big deal for city dwellers who don’t own cars or can’t commit to a weekly pickup day.
Flexibility. Some of these services will allow you to purchase meal kits, pick what you want a la carte, or subscribe like being a member of a CSA.
Support local. You still help local farmers without having to pay the hefty upfront cost of a CSA share.
Delivery cost. Depending on the service this can get pretty steep. One of the services I looked into near me had a fee $15 per order unless I was a subscriber!
Packaging. When you order your food you usually don’t have control over the way it’s packaged, which can lead to unnecessary materials. The delivery service I did end up trying had free delivery and great food but to my disappointment, all of it came in plastic bags!
Added emissions. It’s important to do your research on this one because some services make deliveries on bikes, but if they don’t, delivery trucks = added emissions.
OPTION 4: PRODUCE SUBSCRIPTION SERVICE
“Ugly” produce has become somewhat of a trend lately, but it doesn’t come without a moral price tag. Companies like Imperfect Produce and Misfit Market are said to rescue rejected food from farms and help resell them so they don’t go to waste.
When I first learned about this I was so on board. I can help prevent food waste by buying reject produce that would otherwise go straight to a landfill?!
What could be better than that? But then I started to ask environmental experts in my network what they thought of the services and a few of them told me they were skeptical.
After devouring what felt like countless articles I found out why these services come with the moral price tag I mentioned. In an op-ed by the New Food Economy, industry experts from two nonprofits in the space claim the food isn’t actually being rescued, but essentially hijacked from food banks.
They also say the leftover food is mostly coming from overproduction on large industrial farms and it’s not actually benefiting the small, hardworking farmers. There are plenty of other articles to choose from if this particular one doesn’t resonate.
For those reasons I’m not going to include a pros and cons list for this one. I’ve since cancelled my subscription to the local ugly produce company I was with and will offer this information to others who ask what I thought of it.
THE FINAL DECISION...
After all the experimenting, researching, and deliberating on the best locally grown food option for me, I ultimately decided on farmers markets. While the food is slightly more expensive it’s worth it to me knowing that I am helping local farmers and lowering my carbon footprint substantially by not supporting mass produced agriculture. I do still love the idea of a CSA though and hope to have the opportunity to buy a share in the future!
Now that you are armed with knowledge you can decide what locally sourced food options are best for you and your lifestyle. It’s definitely not one size fits all and everyone has different priorities.
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