The challenging call to 'go local'

Wednesday, July 29, 2020 - 12:12pm

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Illustration by Hibah Mirza

In late May, I strolled through my small town’s farmer’s market for the first time this season. Things were obviously different: no dogs to make friends with, masks and the “six-feet apart” rule blocking conversations, a lack of free samples at vendor booths (an understandable, but tragic regulation). Despite these adjustments, farmers and flower growers set up shop, desperately hoping the pandemic wouldn’t tank their weekly sales — especially those without an online option. 

I got a whitefish for my parents from a fishing family based in the Upper Peninsula, a flower arrangement for my mom’s birthday and a loaf of multigrain bread from a neighborhood bakery. It felt good — virtuous, almost — using my purchasing power to support local producers during this difficult time. But this definitely wasn’t my first response to the call to “go local.”

As a kid, I grew up with the complete opposite mindset. My family religiously ordered Little Caesars pizza or Taco Bell for dinner every Friday night. We had McDonald’s or Wendy’s for every road trip (there were a lot). On early mornings before school, I’d devour the pre-made breakfast sandwiches from Starbucks. We shopped for groceries, household items, and pretty much everything else at Meijer, a Midwestern supermarket chain. My dad got whatever was tagged on sale — so mostly Meijer-brand everything (shipped from scattered packaging centers across the country). We became loyal subscribers to Amazon Prime, the epitome of reliability and convenience. We were a corporation consuming machine. 

But of course, I don’t blame my parents or myself for this. It’s simply how the United States has progressed over the last few decades. Most American families utilize these large corporations as a result of their affordability and accessibility, for good reason. My family was one of them. My parents weren’t health-nuts or hippies in the environmental movement, so cheap, industrially produced foods from Meijer were perfectly suitable. They both worked long hours and rarely had time to cook, and we lived in a city that lacked a “Main Street,” so we often resorted to fast food chains or pre-packaged dinners. 

Yet in high school, I fell in love with cooking. I was glued to the Food Network senior year. I  found myself consuming countless conversations about how fresh produce from the farmer’s market is a kitchen staple, and recipes and restaurants labeled “farm-to-table.” I also became vegan, which kickstarted my obsession with high-quality fruits and vegetables — and with environmentalism. 

When I got to college, I finally learned the environmental impact behind my food consumption habits. I became an Environmental Studies major, so I was indoctrinated with the environmental benefits of shopping local for food ever since my first required course. For example, I learned how reducing the miles food travels to get to the consumer (also known as “food miles”) helps us depend less on fossil fuels, or how it reduces air pollution and cuts back on greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, smaller farms often adopt more environmentally friendly farming practices, like rebuilding crop diversity, enriching the soil with cover crops, and using fewer pesticides (which can cause toxic run-off into water sources). 

There are also economic and social advantages. Local food also means local land is kept in production, and the direct farm-to-table relationship builds strong community relationships. After years of learning about the benefits of locally grown food, I decided to actively seek out ways to get involved in the movement. 

During my sophomore year of college, I lived in a cooperative house, where I was designated “food steward” — which meant I had the weekly responsibility to buy food for my 23 housemates. Although Costco was a necessary staple for bulk purchases, I tried to order most of our produce from local wholesalers, whose mission was to get as much food from local farms as possible. Later in the year, we started a “coffee of the month” challenge, where every month I’d pick up beans from a local coffee shop. 

When school abruptly ended due to the pandemic, I left my position at the co-op and returned to my childhood home. I tried to convince my Meijer-loving family to adhere to my new mindset, and since I was the one who did all the cooking, I was able to impact my family’s footprint, too. 

In order to grow my own food for culinary projects and dabble in gardening (a quarantine-induced hobby), I planted an herb garden in my backyard. Not only did it make me feel better about my consumption habits, but the process of patiently watching the herbs grow was healing. It gave me something to look forward to amidst the seemingly endless pandemic. As did my town’s farmer’s market, which popped up every Thursday morning overflowing with beautiful products, produced with a similar love that my herbs were grown with. 

Although I’ve experienced a great deal of happiness from my mission to shop local, the demanding consumer choice has its shortcomings. There are several staple foods in my diet I simply cannot get year-round in Michigan, since most fruits and vegetables aren’t available from November to February. Also, most local farmer’s markets are only open throughout the summer months, which requires shoppers to seek out another way to get their groceries — that doesn’t include the incredibly convenient but globally imported superstores, like Meijer or Kroger. There’s also the problem of bananas and avocados — two delicious, nutrient-packed foods that don't grow anywhere, anytime in my local climate. 

But most of all, the biggest hurdle to shopping locally is cost and accessibility issues, something I’ve been privileged enough to navigate. Although many cooking magazines and environmental groups will tell you it’s worth it, it’s often expensive and inconvenient to obtain locally produced food. For millions of Americans — especially people living in low-income communities of color — farmer’s markets and other farm-to-table vendors cannot be found close to their neighborhood. These underserved areas, most commonly referred to as “food deserts,” lack access to affordable, healthy food options, but generally provide easy access to convenient, low-nutrient fast food. Additionally, the majority of community farmer’s markets still don’t accept EBT (food stamps), which is a barrier to 36 million Americans

Buying local food sounds great in theory, but the challenges are glaring — and the social and economic toll the pandemic is taking on American families is exacerbating them. Although shopping local has notable benefits, the road to reaping those rewards is one of privilege. We can’t forget that. 

I felt compelled to highlight my personal journey with shopping local, because after the pandemic, giant corporations and chains may be the only ones left. Especially this summer, I’ve finally been able to connect the environmental and economic advantages of going local to the more personal benefits, like consumer empowerment and a sense of community togetherness. With that said, answering the call to shop local isn’t without challenges, and for most of us, it isn’t intuitive. It’s a demand that requires you to rethink your position in your community, the power of purchasing in our economy and environment as a whole. But if you find yourself available during the time slot of your local farmer’s market, and have the means to shop, go ahead and check out what you can find. You might stumble upon the inspiration to “go local.”