Supermarkets offer variety and more importantly, convenience. However, this does not necessarily make supermarkets the right choice. With growing numbers of local producers and retailers, there are many reasons to buy local food.
From fruits and vegetables to meat and dairy, local produce offers us something different to the products we can buy in a big mainstream supermarket. What’s more, most of the time, locally grown and produced food hasn’t travelled as far, is produced with less shelf life enhancing additives and supports local growers and the community.
Local food is food that is grown or produced locally to where we live, nearer the physical centres of our communities and the places we spend time8. Whether it is in your town or a nearby city, if it is fresh and locally grown then it is considered to be local food.
The range of foods that we consider to be local foods is wide and varied. Local foods commonly include fruit and vegetables grown in smaller farms or even in someone's back garden or a community plot.
Local food can also include dairy, eggs or even meat. Similarly, in many locations, we can source products including preserves and honey from local producers. In fact, the list goes on as it can include cheese, butter and more. Of course what is available locally will vary significantly from place to place, see our section below on how to find local food near you.
When you choose to purchase locally, you can make a real difference in many ways. The many reasons to buy local food include lesser transport costs and environmental impacts through fewer pesticides. It also provides access to the freshest produce possible. Local food brings with it a huge array of benefits.
Unbelievably, much of the produce we see in our supermarkets comes from other countries. You might see fish from Spain or tomatoes from Italy. If you walk down most supermarket aisles you’ll find items like blueberries and pineapples stocked all year round. A close inspection of the label will tell you that they might have come from as far afield as Chile, Poland or France.
In fact, researchers in the US found that the average distance a piece of produce travels is 1500 miles4. Meanwhile, in the UK, 95% of our food is imported from other countries.
Further anything perishable or with a relatively short shelf life like fruit and veg will almost certainly have been air freighted. Perhaps unsurprisingly, air freighting our food emits more polluting C02 than any other form of transport such as road or ship. Of course, as we face up to the challenges of climate change each and every pack of strawberries landed in the UK in the winter adds to the environmental cost of our food.
Meanwhile, research by the UK government found that transporting our food by road accounts for 25% of heavy good vehicle movements or the equivalent of 20bn miles each year12. Needless to say, that’s a whole bunch of diesel and fumes to ensure our supermarket shelves are full of choices from all over the world.
By choosing local food that has travelled a fraction of these distances each purchase helps reduce the demand and resulting transport costs to our environment.
The local food that you purchase will be grown in season and that adds to the fun of purchasing local produce. When you eat seasonally, you get to vary your diet from month to month and experiment in ways that relying on year-round produce from the supermarket doesn’t encourage.
Most locally purchased seasonal goods grow more naturally, for example, outside rather than in greenhouses. Further growers use fewer fertilisers in season and many local producers choose to grow organically.
The benefits of seasonal produce can also go beyond natural growing and even aid our nutrition. One study compared the vitamin c contents of broccoli grown both in and out of season5. The findings speak for themselves with the in-season broccoli containing nearly twice as much vitamin c as the less naturally produced out of season sample. Therefore, seasonal produce is a clear reason to buy local food.
Much of our imported fruits and vegetables are picked before they fully ripen. To maintain freshness, the ripening process is usually delayed in transport with cold temperatures or gas. Once they have reached our shores items like bananas, tomatoes and avocados are artificially ripened with ethylene.
Whereas this is mostly considered safe because they are not ripened naturally on vines, trees and in the sun imported fruits and vegetables can contain fewer nutrients.
Further, a lot of local producers work hard to maintain their cleaner, greener and organic credentials as a point of difference. You’ll typically find local growers using fewer pesticides and chemicals. As such, many are certified organic by the likes of the soil association (UK) or the USDA (US).
If you’re unsure ask your local grower or producer because there is little to no doubt that organic produce is better for our health and the land. In fact, studies have shown that buying organic can result in improved nutrition and help prevent antibiotic resistance6.
Unlike past decades many consumers now have considerably less understanding of where their food comes from. To illustrate the point, a survey by the British Nutrition Foundation found that a tenth of secondary aged pupils believed that tomatoes grow underground. Whilst almost a third thought that we make cheese from plants.
Despite this, more and more people are now thinking about where their food comes from. When buying locally directly from the farmer or grower, consumers get to learn about the food, how it is grown and where it comes from.
Connecting people, both young and old, with where their food comes from inevitably helps people to make better choices7. In fact, studies have shown that knowledge is a key motivator. Enhancing knowledge of where our food comes from in our local communities can help promote healthier and more environmentally friendly food choices.
Thus, buying directly from a local grower who shares their story can help us understand our food’s provenance and better connect us with the food we eat. Similarly experiencing a trip to a farm store, or seeing first hand the making of cheese or bread, promotes improved food knowledge.
As a result of this, if consumers know what goes into making their produce it helps makes producers more accountable. In turn, this encourages safe practices, the use of less-resource intensive systems and can promote organic produce.
Locally grown produce rarely uses the mass production technologies used in commercial farming. As a result, farmers selling locally often grow wider varieties of produce in a smaller space to meet local needs.
This, in turn, provides consumers with the chance to see and try different products. What’s more, it helps ensure that genetic diversity is protected. Whereas supermarkets expect perfect products, local farmers can grow a diverse range of sustainable produce.
Growing a variety of crops on local land helps maintain a more natural balance. For example, winter crops die off in the summer and the resulting composted stems and leaves fertilise the land for subsequent summer crops. (and vice versa).
Further, many local producers are experimenting with more natural ways to maintain their crops and improve yields. For example, growing wildflowers near crops can encourage more bees to the area which in turn allows for improved natural fertilisation. Rotating crops also helps keep the soil healthy, which rarely happens naturally at large producers of a single variety of fruit or veg.
Much of the produce that we buy in the supermarket has gone through a rigorous selection process to appeal to our ideal idea of how they should look. Carrots are uniformly straight, tomatoes the same shape and size, our citrus blemish-free and apples shining fresh.
Behind the scenes, a great deal of effort has gone into presenting and packaging supermarket produce according to what sells. A study in 2018 by the University of Edinborough found that nearly a third of our fruit and vegetables are too ugly to retail according to the cosmetic standards imposed by supermarkets1. Much of this is simply thrown away adding to the global food waste problem.
Of course, us consumers have a part to play in all this by being more accepting of uglier fruit and veg. And hence another reason to buy local food. It can help this issue as many growers will not look to quite the same standards. A crooked carrot tastes just as good, pick one up today from a local grower and do a small bit to prevent food waste.
Of course, many of the reasons to buy local food require farmers near you. Without consumer support, small-hold farmers can struggle to produce food viably. However, purchasing local produce can provide the means and incentive for farmers to keep tending their land and providing fresh produce.
Farmers have been feeling the pinch for decades. Increasing costs and supermarkets driving down purchase prices have forced many farms to close9.
When choosing to buy more local food support you help to support local growers near you. Without needing to factor in the cost of transportation or distribution local farming can be both sustainable and viable with the right level of local support.
Further, with growing demand, they might also be able to supply their produce to local restaurants. And as restaurants use more local produce and more people get behind buying local, in turn, more custom will result. As a result, you are also helping restaurants to thrive and supporting the local economy which means more business for local farmers11.
When we help to enable growers to stay on their land there’s a decent chance we also help prevent more of our green spaces becoming neglected or turned into another housing development. In turn, we help to protect green space and habitats for wildlife to exist locally to our homes and communities10.
It is all too easy to support supermarkets while forgetting about local producers. Choosing to spend your money on local produce helps ensure that the money stays in your community2 - another great reason to buy local food.
Further, community farms, allotments and markets can pop up providing places for people to meet each other and foster community spirit.
Many have experienced the local food movement creating a real focal point for the community.
Somehow getting your hands dirty growing or purchasing and then eating local food can provide more links, talking points and commonality in any community. Certainly more so than passing each other by silently in the supermarket aisles with shopping trolleys full of plastic-wrapped mass-produced goods.
When you choose to buy more locally, you are also supporting job creation. If local producers can grow and need to increase productivity then they will need workers. Therefore, by purchasing locally, you are helping to create local employment opportunities.
Many families have farmed all their lives and for generations. Therefore, for many, it is all that they know. Many farms are run by families and this way of life means everything to them. By purchasing local food, you are helping to keep farms going.
Mass-produced produce typically requires some type of mechanical processing. From diesel-powered tractors, through to picking and sorting machines. Each of these requires energy to run, typically drawn from C02 producing fossil fuel sources. Smaller-scale local production is usually less mechanised which is better for the environment.
Mass farming and agriculture also use a lot of water. Oftentimes, when rainwater is not enough, this is drawn from natural water tables or rivers resulting in a negative impact to nearby wildlife and ecosystems.
Further, the pesticides and chemicals used in large scale farming regularly run off the land into nearby waterways. As a result, causing problems to local fish stocks and can pollute these delicate habitats which are home to a variety of wildlife.
Fortunately, there are now more ways than ever before to purchase local food. This makes it more accessible, instantly available and provides consumers with more options.
When it comes to purchasing local food, farmers’ markets are a great way of sourcing fresh food. Your community might hold regular markets and the seasons will play a part. Seek them out near you and give them your support. You will usually find fresh meat, fresh fruit, vegetables and salad as well as other produce.
There is something quite exciting about picking your own produce. This is a great option if you have children too. Commonly, during the summer months, local growers will open their fields and allow consumers to pick their own produce.
Many small, independent stores are now going local when it comes to food. Eating local food is easy when local stores stock fresh produce. Many of these foods will be clearly labelled in the store. This way, consumers know what they are getting and where it came from.
It is now possible to buy locally grown food by having it delivered. Many businesses now work with farmers to distribute their produce to the community. Therefore, for a fee, you can either sign up to have produce delivered regularly or you can make one-off purchases. Whatever you choose, it can all help local producers.
As consumers, we have the right to make a choice. However, the supermarkets have carried the mantle for too long. Despite this, consumers now have more of a voice than ever before.
Many now realise that only buying perfectly shaped produce is wasteful. We also don't want produce that is covered in preservatives. Rather a growing percentage of consumers now want goods that are fresh and available all year round from a local market or farmer.
There is an array of reasons to buy local food. From social benefits through environmental and economic benefits.
It is important that we educate ourselves and our children about our food. There is no doubt that we should have the option to make a change. We can support local businesses and make use of delicious produce. There is no doubt that local food should be the better choice.
|Stephen D. Porter, David S. Reay, Elizabeth Bomberg, Peter Higgins, Avoidable food losses and associated production-phase greenhouse gas emissions arising from application of cosmetic standards to fresh fruit and vegetables in Europe and the UK, Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 201, 2018, Pages 869-878, ISSN 959-6526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.08.079|
|Lacy, W.B. (2000), Empowering Communities Through Public Work, Science, and Local Food Systems: Revisiting Democracy and Globalization*. Rural Sociology, 65: 3-26. doi:10.1111/j.1549-0831.2000.tb00340.x|
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|David Coley, Mark Howard, Michael Winter, Local food, food miles and carbon emissions: A comparison of farm shop and mass distribution approaches, Food Policy, Volume 34, Issue 2, 2009, Pages 150-155, ISSN 0306-9192, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2008.11.001|
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|Mie A, Andersen HR, Gunnarsson S, et al. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environ Health. 2017;16(1):111. Published 2017 Oct 27. doi:10.1186/s12940-017-0315-4|
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