The success of the new local food culture will grow in proportion to growth in awareness of opportunities for farmers who choose to produce for local customers and of benefits for consumers who choose to eat local foods. In an effort to do whatever I can to support this new local food culture, I have developed a list of my "Top Ten Reasons for Eating Local."

I chose ten not only because "top ten lists" seem to be popular, but also because ten seems to be enough to show that the reasons are more than a few, but not so many as to become difficult to remember. Also, I chose to rank my list my reasons in reverse order, from the least important to most important reasons. Others obviously would rank them differently, but my ranking reflects my belief that the roots of current problems in the American food system go far deeper than food quality or safety.  I believe that meeting the challenge of buying local could be an important step toward solving the deep-rooted problems in American society a growing lack of integrity.

  1. Eating local eliminates the middlemen. Buying food locally saves on transportation and energy and virtually eliminates wasteful spending for unnecessary packing and advertising, which together account for more than 20-percent of total food costs. Total middlemen profits, however, make up less than four percent of total food costs. Local sustainable farmers generally cannot afford to operate on as small a margin of profit or return to their land, labor, and management as can large-scale, global, industrial operations. In addition, industrial producers don't pay their full costs of production; they externalize some of their costs on nature and society by exploiting natural and human resources. So, eating local may not be cheaper for food buyers, but it certainly reduces the negative social and ecological consequences of our food choices.
  2. Eating local saves on transportation. The most recent estimates indicate that the average fresh food item travels about 1,500 miles from its points of production to final purchase.[9] Reducing transportation doesn't save much in terms of dollars and cents, since total transportation costs amounts to only about four-percent of food costs. However, the ecological savings may be far more significant. Energy for transportation is virtually all derived from non-renewable fossil fuels. In addition, transportation is a major contributor to air pollution, particularly carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. So eating local can make a significant contribution to sustainability, even if only by making a strong personal statement in favor of reducing our reliance on non-renewable energy and protecting the natural environment.
  3. Eating local improves food quality. Local foods can be fresher, more flavorful, and nutritious than can fresh foods shipped in from distant locations. According to most surveys, this reason would top most lists of those who choose to eat locally. In addition to the obvious advantage in freshness, growers who produce for local customers need not give priority to harvesting, packing, shipping, and shelf life qualities, but instead can select, grow, and harvest crops to ensure peak qualities of freshness, nutrition, and taste. Eating local also encourages eating seasonally, in harmony with the natural energy of a particular place, which is becoming an important aspect of quality for those of the new food culture.
  4. Eating local makes at-home eating worth the time and effort. Obviously, preparing local foods, which typically are raw or minimally processed, requires additional time and effort. But, the superior natural quality of local foods allows almost anyone to prepare really good foods at home, with a reasonable amount of time and effort. Chefs at high-end restaurants freely admit they prefer locally grown food items in part because of their ease of preparation. Good local foods taste good naturally, with little added seasoning and with little cooking or slow cooking, which requires little attention. Home preparation of raw foods also saves money, particularly compared with convenience foods, which makes really good food affordable for almost anyone who can and will prepare them from scratch, regardless of income. Preparing and eating meals at home also provides opportunities for families to share quality time together in creative, productive, and rewarding activities, which contribute to stronger families, communities, and societies.
  5. Eating local provides more meaningful food choices. Americans often brag about the incredible range of choices that consumers have in the modern supermarket today. Admittedly, shoppers are confronted with a vast array of sizes, shapes, and colors of foods from every corner of the world. In many respects, however, food choices are severely limited. Virtually all of food items in supermarkets and franchise restaurants today are produced using the same mass-production, industrial methods, with the same negative consequences for the natural environment and for civil society. In addition, the variety in foods today is largely cosmetic and superficial, contrived to create the illusion of diversity and choice where none actually exists. By eating local, food buyers can get the food they actually prefer rather than accept whatever is offered in the supermarket. They can buy foods that are authentically different, not just in physical qualities but also in the ecological and social consequences of how they are produced. They can choose to pay the full cost of food, rather support the exploitation of society and the environment.
  6. Eating local contributes to the local economy. American farmers, on average, receive only about 20 cents of each dollar spent for food, the rest going for processing, transportation, packing, and other marketing costs. Farmers who sell food direct to local customers, on the other hand, receive the full retail value, a dollar for each food dollar spent. Of course, each dollar not spent at a local supermarket or eating establishment, detracts from the local economy. However, less than one-third of total food costs go to local workers in supermarkets and restaurants, most of the rest goes outside of the local community. So the local food economy gains about three dollars for each dollar lost when food shoppers choose to buy from local farmers.
  7. American farmers, on average, get to keep only ten to fifteen cents from each dollar they receive; the rest goes for fertilizer, fuel, machinery, and other production expenses? items typically manufactured and often provided by suppliers outside of the local community. Farmers who market locally, on the other hand, often get to keep half or more of each food dollar they receive, because they purchase fewer commercial production inputs. They receive a larger proportion of the total as a return for their labor, management, and entrepreneurship because they contribute a larger proportion to the production process. Those who sell locally also tend to spend locally, both for their personal and farming needs, which also contribute more to the local economy. So, eating local contributes to both the local food and farm economies.
  8. Eating local helps save farmland. More than one million acres of U.S. farmland is lost each year to residential and commercial development. The loss may seem small in relation to the total of more than 950 million acres of farmland, but an acre lost to development may mean an acre lost forever from food production.  We are still as dependent upon the land for our very survival today as when all people were hunters and gatherers, and future generations will be no less dependent than we are today.  Our dependencies are more complex and less direct but certainly are no less critical.  Eating local creates economic opportunities for caring farmers to care for their land, even when confronted by development pressures on the urban fringes. Their neighbors are their market, as well as their community. Wherever people are willing to pay the full ecological and social costs of food, farms can be very desirable places to live on and to live around.  Eating local may allow new residential communities to be established on farms in urbanizing areas, with residences strategically placed to retain the most productive land in farming. These new sustainable communities could be built around the common interest in good food and good lifestyles of members of the new food and farming culture.
  9. Eating local allows people to reconnect. The industrial food system was built upon a foundation of impersonal economic relationships among farmers, food processors, food distributors, and consumers. Its economic efficiency demands that relationships among people and between people and nature be impartial, and thus impersonal. As a result, many people today have no meaningful understanding of where their food comes, and thus, no understanding of the ecological and social consequences of its production. By eating local, people are able to reconnect with local farmers, and through local farmers, reconnect with the earth. Many people first begin to understand the critical need for this lost sense of connectedness when they develop personal relationships with their farmers and actually visit the farms where their food is produced. We cannot build a sustainable food system until people develop a deep understanding of their dependency upon each other and upon the earth. Thus, in my opinion, reconnecting is one of the most important reasons for eating local.
  10. Eating local restores integrity to the food system. The new sustainable food system must be built upon personal relationships of integrity. When people eat locally, farmers form relationships with customers who care about the social and ecological consequences of how their food in produced? not just lower price, more convenience, or even an organic label. Those who eat locally form relationships with farmers who care about their land, care about their neighbors, and care about their customers? not just about maximizing profits and growth. Such relationships become relationships of trust and integrity, based on honesty, fairness, compassion, responsibility, and respect. Eating local provides people with an opportunity not only to reconnect personally, but also, to restore integrity to our relationships with each other and with the earth. In today's society, there should be few, if any, higher priorities.
  11. Eating local helps build a sustainable society. The underlying problems of today?s food and farming systems are but reflections of deeper problems within the whole of American society. We are degrading the ecological integrity of the earth and the social integrity of our society in our pursuit of narrow, individual economic self-interests. As we begin to realize the inherent benefits of relationships of integrity within local food systems, we will begin the process of healing the ecological and social wounds that plague modern society. Thus, my number one reason for eating local is to help build a new, sustainable American society.

(Excerpt from "Eating Local: A Matter of Integrity" by John Ikerd)


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