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How to Buy Local Food

March 8, 2017 (Updated: October 15, 2019)
Lily Moran

By now, I’m sure you know the benefits of eating locally. Not only do you guarantee you’re eating whole foods—real vegetables, for instance, not processed food-like stuffs—but you’re eating food in season, when it’s had a chance to ripen naturally in the ground or on the vine. It’s not stored with preservatives or shipped across the country on a refrigerated truck. You can talk with the farmer about how they grew their foods, and avoid the ones using herbicides and pesticides. However, not all local food is equal. In fact, sometimes you’ll find impostors at your favorite farmer’s market! So today, I want to talk about the best ways to ensure you’re getting exactly the local food you want.

Beware The Farmer’s Market

Today, there are thousands of farmer’s markets across the country—at least 7,800, and most likely many more.

Farmer’s markets are typically great places to get local food, wherever you are.

But farmer’s markets are not always what they seem.

In fact, plenty of farmer’s markets—and roadside stands—will label imported food “local.”

Spotting a fake isn’t always easy. The sign can say “local,” and—while it pays to converse with whomever is running the stand—there’s always a chance that they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear.

So it pays to establish a relationship with a few local farmers. If you’re a regular, they’re much more likely to tell you the truth—unlike a tourist that they just want to sell to as quickly as possible.

In some cases, you can even visit the farm, if you like.

But here’s a little hint: Get to know the harvest seasons of your local area.

If you live in the mid-Atlantic—where corn ripens in August—but there’s “local” corn available in June, you know you’ve got a scam.

And you’ll know to avoid that stand in the future.

Also, beware fruits and veggies that look a little too perfect.

True local produce should have blemishes. They should come in a variety of sizes and shapes. They may even come in colors you’re not used to.

If the farmer’s stand has a pyramid of peaches that each look like the platonic ideal, odds are good they aren’t from nearby.

Also, know something about what’s commonly grown in your area. If you’re in New England, you probably aren’t getting local bananas, though believe it or not, there’s probably someone right now with that label in front of their stand.

In short, talk to everyone—including the manager of the farmer’s market. He or she can usually point you towards the most reputable farmers.

And, whenever something looks a little too good to be true, it usually is. Seek out imperfections, and you’re very likely to seek out local produce at the same time.

Join A Collective

If you don’t want to worry about the “local or not local” pop quiz every time you go shopping, there is an easier way.

You can join a Community Supported Agriculture group—or CSA.

You’ve probably heard of CSAs before, but perhaps no one has explained them to you properly.

Basically, a CSA is an agreement between a farmer and his subscribed customers.

At the start of the year, members of the CSA pay for the whole season. That’s a boon for the farmer, who can even out cash flow.

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And then, throughout the growing season, every subscriber gets a share of everything grown on the farm. Usually it comes as an overflowing box or bag—and often it’s much more than you could get for a similar price at the grocery store.

Now, sometimes the bounty will be a little light—sometimes a hailstorm can wipe out part of a crop, for instance. The CSA is partially about sharing risk—so a farmer doesn’t go belly-up in case of misfortune.

But, usually, subscribers get more than their fair share. Helping your local farmer run the farm comes with rewards.

But, best of all, there’s no guessing in this case—with a CSA, you know exactly where the produce is coming from.

In fact, in some CSAs, you can even work on the farm a little yourself!

What’s more, because farmers depend on their CSA relationships so much—and there is such a strong symbiosis—you’re much more likely to get the full truth. It simply isn’t worth it for a farmer to fudge—and risk damaging the trust and relationships within the CSA.

So if you want to know, without doubt, that your food is local and organic, a CSA is your best bet.

If you don’t mind some natural pesticides, but can’t stand chemical herbicides, one of the only places you’re likely to get a straight answer is at a CSA.

And, today, finding one is easy. Just look for a local CSA online.

Cooperate With Others

For some people, a CSA is too big a commitment. Perhaps you don’t have a full season’s grocery money ready to go up front—or maybe you don’t cook for enough people to work through your weekly delivery.

In that case, a food co-op might be the way to go.

Think of a food co-op as halfway between a CSA and a grocery store. It’s like a local grocery store—run by locals, sometimes staffed by members, filled with local produce and little else.

Most are open to everyone, though some require equity (which might be sweat equity). The co-op board vets all the produce and meats that come in, so if you trust them, you can trust the food.

And, since co-ops are specifically formed to link communities with local food, you can be sure they’ve got your interests at heart. After all, co-ops aren’t profit-driven enterprises, like the big chain grocery stores. Co-ops only want to bring great local food to their area. Their heart will always be in the right place.

You can find a nearby co-op at this website.

There’s no such thing as a guarantee when it comes to food. If you aren’t present at the farm, you are always taking someone’s word for how produce is grown, how animals are treated, and where food comes from.

But farmer’s markets are usually good places to start—especially if you get to know the farmers. CSAs and co-ops are even better.

Too far from farms?

If you live far from farmer’s markets and from farmers, you may want to consider growing fruits and vegetables yourself. Of course, if you haven’t already looked into homesteading or intensive farming, you probably aren’t about to run out and grow all of your fruits and vegetables for the year.

But if you can supplement your diet with fruits and vegetables, particularly the sorts of plants that you eat with the skin on (like apples), you’ll see a great benefit in the varieties of fruits and vegetables and the certainty that you have chosen to avoid any pesticides. Plus, gardening is a great low-intensity exercise, and digging in the dirt is really good for your immune system.

If you don’t have the space or the time to grow yourself, buying organic produce at the grocery store in season, and buying frozen organic fruits and vegetables out of season, is a pretty decent alternative. Food that is certified organic has been guaranteed by the government to be grown under strict conditions preventing the use of nasty chemicals and using natural growing techniques.

When you buy frozen organic fruits and vegetables, make sure you’re buying a package of just fruit or just vegetables. Vegetable oil, salt, and sugar are all permitted in a prepared organic dish, but they aren’t healthy for you. It’s much better to buy a bag of frozen vegetables and make your own soup than to buy a frozen soup and defrost it.

With a little homework and common sense, you can avoid shipped food, dangerous chemicals, and the other dangers that come with factory farming. You can support your local community and economy. And you can be healthier for it as well. You just have to buy local food!


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