Buying local has become a sort of buzzword for healthy food, but in a world where nearly everything is available, why does it matter?
The whole theory of conscious eating is not only being present to flavor and texture, but also being aware of where your food comes from, and the wider effects of your choices. Chances are very good that if you can wander into your local park and pick fresh berries from the bushes that grow there, it didn’t cost you much, and that’s a good start. Everybody’s got a budget. But there’s more.
First of all, it’s fresher. A lot of chain grocers carry food that is bred for transport, not for flavor. Firmer flesh and brighter color may be exchanged for intensity of flavor, because it’s got to go 500 miles in a hot truck. It’s harder to sell bruised tomatoes, even if the bruised ones taste a little better. So they make sure that the tomatoes that make it to the display look like they’re the best, though they may not be. It’s a good general rule that the farther you are from the source of your food, the lower the quality must necessarily be. They will also carry the largest and smoothest variants of your produce, because that convinces our reptilian brains that it is better to eat. This may not be the case. While obvious rot is a bad idea, minor variations in color and size are harmless, and may contain more flavor and nutrition than the specimens that appear more attractive. We’re missing out.
But second issue, the real issue here, is community building. The variations in quality in the modern world are pretty slim, and refrigeration means that we can bring snow crab from the wild waters of Alaska to Key West without too much trouble. And if I had the chance to eat crab legs in Key West, I might just do it. But in Key West, I could get some amazing citrus, and if I did, I’d be supporting local farmers, whom, perhaps, I know personally. Maybe my kids go to school with their kids, and play in the band together. When we choose local food, we support a community of interdependent businesses, and everyone thrives. It’s not just farms and produce. Small businesses, owned by your neighbors, are always under threat by large corporations with greater resources behind them. But those corporations are not our people. They don’t belong to families that we know and love, who drink from our water hoses in July. When we spend money locally, everyone’s lives improve. After I interviewed Rat the Barista, we sat and talked a while about the little shop where she worked. It was locally owned, in a very small town. She knew her customers, and what they liked, and what they were likely to enjoy if they wanted something other than their usual. The shop employs local young adults, whose presence encourages the patronage of other young adults, and that’s good for business, and contributes to productivity. The large chain coffee shop is probably good, but they don’t know you and care about you in quite the same way.
It isn’t usually practical to get everything we could possibly want or need right around the corner, and sometimes, people in Minnesota want strawberries. And they should have them. They’re amazing. But buy them from the family that owns the little store down the block, if you can. They’ll remember that you did, and when you need to borrow the lawnmower, they won’t hesitate. They’ll even let you drink from their hose in July.