Recent media attention on local foods has raised public awareness about the health benefits and community returns from thriving local agriculture. Often, though, stories portray local “foodies” as purists fixated on 100-mile diets that banish even imported condiments. Eating from local sources comes off looking like an extremist food fad, rather than a practical means of supporting one’s home ecosystem and economy. These caricatures of local eating may undermine the cause by scaring off mainstream eaters who aren’t seeking radical dietary change.
For local eating to become a way of life in the larger culture, people need to understand that it’s practical, economical and satisfying. It won’t spread to the mainstream if it requires excessive time, money or dedication. As Stacy Brenner of Broadturn Farm in Scarborough observed in the recent documentary series Meet Your Farmer (www.meetyourfarmer.org), “We have to marry convenience with local.”
Buying local foods does take conscious effort, but those who make that effort can find affordable and convenient choices. Our family spends roughly one-fifth of our annual food budget on local items – without added cost or hassle. Some local options even offer savings over equivalent imports. For example, local, organic blueberries (winnowed and ready to freeze) cost $3.25 per pound last season, compared with $4.78 (for Hannaford’s store brand berries), $5.42 (for Whole Foods’ store brand berries) and $7.66 (for Cascadian Farm brand berries). Raw local honey bought in bulk at $2.50 per pound is about half the cost of raw supermarket honey.
MOFGA has long encouraged Mainers to spend at least $10 per week on local foods during the growing season, a move that would generate $128 million for the state’s farmers and growers. But as consumers, we could support local agriculture far more than that – without overtaxing our food budgets, spending undue time shopping, or abandoning all tropical treats. (Don’t ask me to forego chocolate, please!) If our family successfully held to the USDA “low-cost” monthly food plan of $779 (for four individuals, two under age 11, as of January 2011), our 20 percent dedicated to local foods would put nearly $2,000 annually back into Maine’s agricultural economy. When we run over budget, local agriculture benefits still more! Maine’s average household size is closer to two individuals, so smaller households might contribute only $1,000 annually – but that still represents more than 500 million potential dollars statewide – which would fast put Maine at the forefront of local food production.
Dedicating 20 percent of one’s food purchases to local goods doesn’t take extravagant effort or an extreme diet. All it requires is a chest freezer, some storage space, and a bit of flexibility. Here are a few guidelines to help you on your way.
Whenever possible, purchase from the grower.
For close to a decade, our family has purchased honey, maple syrup, strawberries, blueberries, vegetables and occasionally meat directly from growers. More recently, we’ve added a Community Supported Fishery share. We tend to buy in bulk, so we don’t make many special trips and we save on the high mark-ups of small packages. A 4-ounce bottle of maple syrup in a local shop costs $3.99. At that per-ounce price, a gallon would be $128 (more than twice the gallon price of maple syrup from our local supplier).
You can meet suppliers at a farmers’ market, get a Community Supported Agriculture share (many of which have convenient drop-offs; see “directories” at www.mofga.net), or go directly to the supplier. We’ve found growers to be incredibly helpful in getting us goods – even meeting us when they’re passing nearby, to save on our driving. There’s only caveat with buying from the source: Don’t wait until the last minute. Place orders in advance, as small producers can’t always provide their product on short notice.
Choose retailers committed to local producers.
When buying directly from a grower is not feasible, you can find local foods at co-ops and at many grocery stores. Even some supermarket chains such as Hannaford and Whole Foods are strongly committed to local purchasing. You’ll have better luck finding items in summer and fall, but many markets continue to stock Maine potatoes, milk, bread and apples through winter.
Consider joining a monthly buying club, which enables you to purchase packaged goods, frozen items and bulk foods at wholesale prices. One regional distributor, Associated Buyers (www.assocbuyers.com), is committed to supporting New England vendors. (Its monthly catalog lists vendors by state – with 44 currently in Maine, providing options such as granola, canned soups, stoneground flours, condiments, and frozen meats, pastries and berries.). Distributors deliver monthly to you, which beats even “one-stop shopping” for convenience. You can meet the minimum order of $350 if you join several other families in your area, sharing the work of breaking down orders.
Prices of local goods vary considerably among retailers, and the largest market or co-op doesn’t necessarily have the best price. If you buy large amounts of an item, inquire about bulk discounts. And be prepared for occasional disappointment when the product you want isn’t in stock; local suppliers strive for regular deliveries, but don’t always achieve them.
Our family buys food at more than a dozen locations over the course of the year, but we do little driving exclusively for food purchases. The ecological value of relying on local foods would erode quickly if we burned tanks of fuel in the process. We generally make two or three farm visits for berries (an hour round-trip in each case), but most other market stops are done when we’re driving by those locations anyway. The exception is the farmers’ market during growing season, a weekly pilgrimage of 6 miles that we combine with other errands or – better yet – do by bicycle (filling a bike trailer with market goodies).
Master the art of storage.
Buying local foods won’t be economical if your food spoils. We’ve had to learn (sometimes the hard way) what keeps well, how quickly we go through certain foods, and how much to stock up on seasonal items.
If you have cellar space (for storing apples and root vegetables) and time to put up food (e.g., dehydrating apples, canning tomatoes and making fruit preserves), you’ll be at an advantage. But you can do well with just a chest freezer. We quickly fill 7 cubic feet each summer with roughly 200 pounds of organic berries. (Disregard the common guidance to freeze berries on cookie sheets: Who cares if a berry is mashed when it will ultimately go into a smoothie or muffin?)
Maintaining what friends long ago dubbed a “Y2K” pantry allows us to stock up on local foods such as rolled oats, winter squash, onions and garlic, which keep for months in a moderately cool and dark setting (and would do even better if we had a root cellar). With a well stocked pantry, we save on the wasted time, gas and pollution of last-minute store runs, and can readily assemble impromptu meals when menu planning falls by the wayside. Periodic inventories help, in both pantry and freezer, to keep rotating through supplies.
Use Maine’s Local Twenty as a guide.
Deliberately buying local helps our family eat real foods and steer clear of concoctions engineered from dubious ingredients. Nearly all Maine’s “Local Twenty” [see sidebar below] foods are whole, nutrient-dense choices with minimal processing and packaging. The little packaging they do have typically reveals their geographical source – making it easy to determine if they’re local. Potato chips and fruit leather rarely indicate where the potatoes or apples in them were grown, but most bags of whole apples or potatoes clearly list the state or country of origin.
For inspiration on creative ways to prepare Maine’s Local Twenty, a growing assortment of cookbooks highlight seasonal, fresh foods and farmers’ market fare (with recipes organized by season or prime ingredient – so you can survey lots of options when your CSA provides a bushel of kohlrabi). One of my favorites for basic, family-friendly recipes is Simply in Season, by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert.
Plant fruit trees.
Vegetable gardens can require a lot of work, but some fruit trees and shrubs can offer incredible bounty with little maintenance. Fruits such as peaches, cherries and blueberries are easily frozen, providing welcome tastes of summer’s harvest in the depths of winter. Local eating offers many joys and rewards, but few measure up to the delight of sampling sun-warmed fruit from a backyard tree.
Maine’s Local Twenty
Foods that Maine can produce for its citizens to enjoy all year
From the June-August 2008 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener; list compiled by Cheryl Wilcox and Melissa White Pillsbury.
Maple syrup, honey
Tomatoes (fresh and processed)
Leafy greens (spinach, kale, lettuce)
Seafood: shrimp, scallops, lobster, mussels, clams, fish
Beef, turkey, lamb, chicken, pork
Root vegetables: beets, parsnips, leeks
Winter squash and pumpkin
Fresh or frozen corn, beans, broccoli, peppers, peas
About the author: Marina Schauffler is author of Turning to Earth and, most recently, the Portland Green Guide, available at www.naturalchoices.com.