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By: Kerry Phillips, RD   Date: 4/22/11

Happy Earth Day!  What comes to mind when you think of Earth Day? Is it “green-living” or recycling? How about environmentally-friendly or sustainable food production practices

Interest in where our food comes from, sparked by a desire for more healthful foods, has spawned a newfound appreciation for “local foods.” This topic was the basis for a recent educational webinar, co-hosted by the IFIC Foundation and the Council on Food, Agricultural, and Resource Economics (C-FARE), that featured expert insights on the definition of local foods; the nutritional, economic and social tradeoffs of local versus other foods; and consumer insights regarding local foods.  If you missed the webinar, you’re in luck! Here are the key takeaways from the “Low-Down on Local Foods:”

What Does “Local” Mean?
The local food movement is truly “on the move.” Data from USDA finds that the number of farmers markets across the US is rising, with more than 6,000 in operation in 2010. What’s not as clear is what the term “local food” actually means. There are many words that may come to mind when thinking about local foods, such as “fresh,” “environmentally friendly”, “community,” “local economy,” and “small farmers;” however, there is no standard definition of local foods. 
 
What Do Local Foods Deliver?
Going to farmers markets and purchasing local foods is about more than good-tasting food; it’s a chance to build relationships with farmers and support your local economy.  Beyond social outcomes, it’s important to remember that local foods are a small part of our food system, with farm-direct sales accounting for just 0.4 percent of all farm sales in 2007. Seasonality, inconvenience and low producer profits are some of the limitations faced by local food systems. Conversely, benefits such as variety, convenience, and affordability can often be delivered more efficiently by larger-scale distribution systems.  
 
Is Local Food More Nutritious?
“Nutrition” and “health” may seem synonymous with local foods.  But in fact, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that locally-produced foods are more nutritious than conventionally-grown foods. In addition, it is a common myth that most local foods are also organic. Local foods may be produced using a variety of production methods. The nutritional quality of the produce you eat hinges on many factors, including climate conditions, maturity and ripeness at the time of harvest, storage post-harvest, extent and type of processing, and transportation conditions.  Regardless of whether it is locally-grown, it’s important to make sure nutrient-rich foods (like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy, and lean protein) are a regular part of your mealtimes each day. Remember that foods other than produce available at farmers markets, such as dairy, meat, and bakery items, may still be high in fat and sugar. Local isn’t necessarily a nutritional safe haven!

Is Local Food Better for the Environment?
When it comes to environmental impact, it seems intuitive that local foods would have a lower “carbon footprint” than foods traveling across the country, or even regionally.  It turns out, however, that energy used during transportation plays a relatively small role in overall energy used during food production and processing.  Other steps along the food chain, such as agricultural production and even home storage and preparation, have a much greater impact on energy use than transportation.  For example, a pick-up truck (often used to transport food to famers markets) can use up to ten times the amount of fuel as a semi-trailer to travel the same distance, demonstrating that local isn’t always the “greener” option.  

The Fork in the Road: Where Local and Nutrition Intersect
The local food movement provides an opportunity for families and individuals to develop a greater appreciation for where their food comes from. Local, however, is not a panacea for a more healthful or environmentally-friendly diet.  From a nutrition perspective, the primary focus should remain consuming a nutrient-rich diet for optimal nutrition.  This Earth Day, I’m celebrating the fact that I have access to a diverse food supply with nutritious options that fit my budget and my taste preferences.  What are you thankful for this Earth Day? 

Click here to view a recording of the “Low-Down on Local Foods” webinar and access additional resources on local foods and modern food production.

 

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