Local Eating Protects Health and the Environment

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The first day of spring is this Saturday, and here in the Carolinas, local farmers will begin gearing up to sell their fruits and vegetables at farmer’s markets across both states. Among the many benefits of shopping at a farmer’s market for your family’s food is that locally grown produce may contain more vital nutrients than fruits and vegetables shipped over long distances.

Most fruits and vegetables grown in the United States will travel at least 1,500 miles before they reach their intended consumers. Vitamins, antioxidants, and other important nutrients are not stable for an extended period of time and can be broken down by light and heat. In addition, local produce is typically sold within 24 hours of harvest, so it tastes fresher, has been handled less, and was allowed to ripen on a vine instead of by artificial means.

Buying more foods locally is also good for the environment. The transport of food in large trucks produces more carbon dioxide and uses 17 times more petroleum than locally grown food. Food that travels long distances is also more susceptible to contamination.

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Eating locally, or as one group says “becoming a locavore”, is also fiscally responsible. First, it helps stimulate the local economy. According to one study, every dollar spent locally generates twice as much income than money that leaves the community. Another study found that more than $.90 of every dollar that is spent is given directly to the farmer, preserving farming as a livelihood.

Focusing on local foods can also help keep money in your pocket. Foods in season are usually cheaper because they are more abundant. Also, the price of food is tied to the cost of oil. Less transport plus less gas may equal food savings for the consumer.

There are at least 5,200 farmers markets that operate in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. UNC Medical Center offers these tips for visiting one this spring:

  • Bring cash in small denominations. Most farmers will have enough change to break $20, but they'll have trouble with a $100 bill.
  • Don't be afraid to experiment with a new vegetable. Most farmers can suggest recipes and will even let you sample the produce before you buy.
  • Ask the farmers questions: Did you grow the produce or did you purchase it from a wholesaler? How should I cook it? They are usually more than happy to talk to you about it.
  • Many small farmers who use organic practices cannot afford to obtain organic certification. If pesticides and herbicides concern you, ask the farmer whether he or she uses chemicals. Maintain an open mind about finding the occasional bug. It’s often a convincing sign that pesticides weren’t used.
  • If you don’t have a local farmer’s market, try a “pick-it-yourself” farm in the area, or even try growing a few vegetables yourself.
  • For motivation, you may want to try an “Eat Local Challenge”. For one week, commit to spending 10% of your grocery budget on food grown within a 100-mile radius of where you live. Try at least one new fruit or vegetable each day, and preserve those you cannot eat right away so that you will have fresh food for later in the year.

The “Eat Local” movement is about making conscious choices about the foods we provide for ourselves and our family. Make the best choices each day and each one of your small efforts can have a big impact on both health and our global community.

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