Everyone’s talking about it: “eat local,” “shop local,” “become a locavore”… but why? If I’m going to drive an extra 10 minutes, or shop at two stores instead of one, or spend time trying to discern which fruits and vegetables qualify as local produce, I first need to be persuaded that it’s an important thing to do.
And it is. So I’m breaking down the top three reasons why buying local produce is better for our health. There are many other benefits as well — to the environment, the community, the local farmers — but here I’m going to stick to our health, and the ways in which local fruits and vegetables are more nutrient dense than those harvested on industrial farms thousands of miles away.
Local Produce is Fresh
Local produce reaches our table far more quickly than fruits and vegetables sourced from large distributors. Because it spends less time en route, it (1) doesn’t have to sacrifice flavor and nutrients; (2) can be harvested at peak maturity, meaning it has the maximum amount of phytonutrients; and (3) is sold during its prime, which helps maintain all of these benefits.
Here’s the converse: A study by The Institute of Food Research showed that shipped produce loses up to 45% of its nutritional value between being picked and making it to the grocery store. And fruits such as apples and pears are often stored for up to 12 months between harvest and reaching your store’s shelves. Neither of these outcomes sound very appetizing.
Local Farmers Cultivate Healthy Soil
And there’s more… if we’re eating locally, we are supporting the sustainable agricultural practices common to smaller farms, who focus on building healthy soil by composting and planting cover crops. Healthy soil means more nutrient-dense crops, so by purchasing locally, we are benefitting from more nutritious produce both today and in years to come.
In contrast, industrial farms are encouraged by subsidies to grow single “commodity” crops (i.e. corn, wheat, rice, soybeans), which require synthetic fertilizers to replace the nutrients drained by the soil, as well as an abundance of pesticides because they cannot naturally stave off insects. These single-crop farms deplete the soil, and depleted soil means depleted nutrients in the produce.
Local Produce is More Diverse
Here’s another reason industrial farms don’t produce a diversity of crops: they plan on shipping their produce long distances to traditional grocery stores, so they focus solely on growing crops with a long shelf-life and uniform appearance.
In contrast, local farmers focus on crop diversity, because it helps them obtain the benefits of enhanced soil and fewer pests and weeds.
Why does crop diversity benefit our health? Because variety is as important as quantity when it comes to eating produce. No single fruit or vegetable contains all of the nutrients we need, so we need to include as diverse an array of produce in our diets as possible.
The Bottom Line
We are inevitably going to spend time, money, and effort buying and preparing fruits and vegetables, so it’s helpful to know if those resources are well spent. We expect our produce to nourish us, providing us with energy and warding off disease, and as discerning consumers we want to know if the produce we are purchasing is going to be able to check those boxes.
So while not everything we eat needs to (or can) be obtained from within a 100-mile radius, it’s helpful to know, as consumers, what exactly we are buying when we purchase our weekly groceries. We may save a few dollars buying what’s on special at our local supermarket, but if we are looking for health benefits, we may not be saving much money after all if that produce has been shipped across the country (or even worse, across the world).
I used to be pretty good at buying local before having kids… I treasured my Saturday mornings at the Irvine Farmer’s Market and turned my nose up at the idea of buying from a supermarket. But these days I have small kids to manage, which makes picking out perfect produce a little more difficult… ha ha, imagine that.
At this stage in my life, here is what I strive for: to obtain my produce from either (1) my Imperfect Produce delivery (referral code for $10 off), (2) South Coast Farms in San Juan Capistrano, or (3) the Sunday San Clemente Farmer’s Market. Sometimes this works out and I have a week’s supply of local, organic fruits and vegetables. And sometimes it doesn’t work out and I get my week’s supply at Ralph’s or Trader Joe’s (and to be honest I know very little about where those fruits and vegetables are coming from).
But I figure that with grocery shopping, as with all things, small improvements are better than nothing. I’ll keep you posted as I come up with more tips or tricks for shopping local while keeping it convenient and manageable. And I hope you’ll do the same!