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Why and How to Eat Local

The growing movement to eat locally grown food attracts most people because it’s good for the planet. But it’s good for our own bodies too.

Those of us who have diabetes are especially concerned with good nutrition. We have to be sure to get high quality without the large quantity of food that most of our fellow Americans eat. Earlier I wrote here that we know that organic food is more nutrient dense than the standard supermarket stuff.

Likewise, food loses its nutrients as it ages. Food shipped from half way around the world can’t possibly be as fresh as food grown locally.

Farmers markets
and community supported agriculture offer the most and best locally grown food. But here at the foothills of the Rockies and in much of this country we don’t have those choices for almost half of the year.

I’m certainly looking forward to this season’s farmers market when it opens here this Saturday. For the past five months I have had to rely on what natural food stores and supermarkets offer.

This week I looked to see what locally grown produce they have. I also asked the grocery clerks and store managers to point out to me what food they sell that’s locally grown.

The results of my little survey stunned me. None of the six stores here had much that local farmers grew. Considering the cold winter that’s just ending here, that’s not too surprising.

But of these four natural food stores the worst was the country’s leading natural food chain, Whole Foods Market. This is the company that proudly states on my cloth shopping bag, “Locally Grown, Whole Foods Market supports local farmers.” The local store also has a big sign, “Our goal is to support the family farm as a vital part of America’s food production. We are closely tied to the neighborhood and support the local farmer wherever possible.”

In fact, the local Whole Foods Market at this time supports just two of these farmers. The only locally grown foods that I could – and did – buy were fresh herbs and hothouse tomatoes.

Wild Oats Natural Marketplace, the country’s second largest natural food chain, was the best of the bunch. But Wild Oats won’t exist in a few months when Whole Foods completes its purchase of the chain in a few months. The Wild Oats flagship store in nearby Superior sells the same brand of fresh herbs as Whole Foods, plus Yukon Gold organic potatoes, five types of mushrooms, bean sprouts, wheat grass, and edamame.

Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers
had locally grown potatoes and beets. The one truly local store, The Boulder Co-operative Market, had locally grown sprouts, barley grass, and yams.

I expected the supermarket chains to be even worse, even if their move into more organic produce has earned them much publicity. Safeway, however, was a pleasant surprise. It offered four types of locally grown sprouts, arugula, three types of mushrooms, and russet potatoes.

On the other hand, none of the stores did worse than the local representative of the largest supermarket chain in the country. Here we have King Soopers, the banner that Kroger flies under in Colorado. The only locally grown produce they had was hothouse tomatoes.

These results convinced me that this winter it would have been hard for me to eat only produce grown in Colorado. I certainly didn’t. But Bill McKibben and his family did just that three years ago in equally cold Vermont.

They did that by putting up lots of food ahead of time and getting to know the farmers in their area. He documents this successful “experiment” in his new book, Deep Economy.

I bought and read his book after listening to an inspiring talk he gave here on March 26. He says that we need to move beyond the ideal of “growth.” We must seek our prosperity locally, produce more of our own food, generate more of our own energy, and even create more of our own culture and entertainment.

Bill inspired me to act specifically on eating local. Not entirely, but more.

He inspired me to do two things:

1. I will buy more local food. It’s only a start, but I vow that from now on I will buy only food that farmers in North America grew. For example, I won’t buy organic blueberries – one of my regular purchases – from New Zealand or Chile any more.

2. I contacted the manager of the Whole Foods Market here to encourage him to advertise in his store which produce that they sell is local. That is just the barest start, but better signage at the local store level will begin to give us the knowledge we need to empower ourselves.

I decided for several reasons that the store to work on is the local Whole Foods Market. It’s the largest natural food chain in the world. Whole Foods here in Boulder is one of the highest grossing stores in the entire chain. Recently, I saw a sign at the store entrance stating how many of their products in the produce section were organic and how many weren’t (it’s just over half organic).

I thought that it would be great if they could add to that sign the number of local products and also prominently display a sign, “Locally Grown,” about each of the local products. So I put into a call to the “store team leader,” Tom Rich.

Since then we have had three phone conversations and exchanged emails. We haven’t yet had a chance to meet in person, but we will.

I was amazed how receptive Tom is. “Those are great idea,” he immediately told me. “We can do better signage.”

He admitted that his store wasn’t doing well in promoting local products and committed to me that they would promote local produce better. Just before our most recent phone conversation he had met with the company’s marketing manager to work out signs and a chalk board telling customers which and how many of their fruits and vegetables are locally grown.

Tom’s definition of locally grown is within 200 miles of the store. The only store in this area that currently tells customers where specific foods come from is the food coop, which has a sign stating “Colorado Produce” over each of its local offerings.

Buying locally produced food reduces the gasoline used to transport it. The less gasoline used the less it contributes to global warming – to say noting of an outflow of our dollars to foreign nations.

This is the general environmental reason that most people have for eating local. For example, shipping a head of California lettuce back east uses 36 times as many calories of fossil energy as it contains (Deep Economy, page 65).

Whether you care more about the environment or your own body, please join with me in moving toward eating food that farmers in your own area grow. You might want to start, as I have, by boycotting food that comes from far away.

Please also join with me in encouraging your Whole Foods Market to start by putting up signs telling us what produce they sell is local – and then buy more of those foods. I hope that you have as good luck when you contact your local store manager as I did when I contacted Tom Rich.

As always, knowledge is the first step. Then, the next step will be for our stores to offer more. The third step will be for us to buy more local food and enjoy its benefits.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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