Food miles and farming

While the first breezes of fall often denotes yard work and a trip to the storage closet for an inventory of last yearâÄôs scarves and hats, it has historically been the end of the harvest for local farmers. Minnesota, the home and engineer of honeycrisp apples, fills its farmersâÄô markets with sweet corn and squashes. There is no better time to buy local foods because they can be found in both the traditional grocery chains as wells as the co-ops, and 11 Twin Cities co-ops, including Linden Hills Co-op and the Wedge in Uptown, have taken the last month to promote the Eat Local America Challenge. The challenge, as reported by the Southwest Journal, is a promotion by 70 co-ops around the country to eat locally during the peak harvest season. According to the Linden Hills Co-Op, from Aug. 15 through the end of this week, patrons who have pledged to the challenge will be making five meals each week (including breakfast, lunch, snacks or dinner) from locally grown and locally produced ingredients; or for an entire month, participants choose 80 percent or more of their food from seasonal sources. Local, in the sense of this challenge, includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas. But the challenge is far from new. While co-ops have been promoting such ideals for more than three decades, current research has placed the pertinence of these ideas into the mainstream. Even though broccoli is grown within 20 miles of the average AmericanâÄôs house, the broccoli in the supermarket travels an average of 1,800 miles to get there. In 2002, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University released a study in which the researchers studied the data of 30 different fresh-produce items arriving by truck to the Chicago Terminal Market from across the United States and Mexico. Using the weighted average source distance, the study found that food traveled an average 1,500 miles to its destination at the grocery store. This study was the impetus for the term âÄúfood mileâÄù which has made its way from Wikipedia to the BBC as reference to the distance our food travels from farm to broker to grocer to our cart. This research and current trends toward organic and more sustainable food practices have contributed to innumerable web organizations promoting these ideals. Eat Local America is only one that reigns among sites like 100 Mile Diet, Sustainable Table and Local Harvest.org, which provide seasonal calendars and regional maps of organic produce and places in which to buy it. It is easy to tag these organizations as an isolated space reserved only for bleeding-heart liberals. But according to Roberta Kwok in an article for online magazine Salon.com, âÄúThe corporate world has jumped on board as well: GoogleâÄôs Cafe 150 stocks its pantry with ingredients gathered from within a 150-mile radius.âÄù So, as Google also boards the bandwagon, this movement becomes increasingly more difficult to dismiss. However, the argument can certainly be made otherwise. We do have a remarkably efficient distribution system in the United States. IsnâÄôt it more sensible to ship large amounts of produce across the country? WouldnâÄôt a brigade of individual farmers with small trucks use just as many fossil fuels and emit just as much carbon on their way to the farmers market? Perhaps. But the idea of eating local food stands as a kind of code for other values. First, there is a simple gratification in affirming stewardship in the area. Many argue that knowing and speaking with the farmer who produced your food is valuable. Apples in the produce section canâÄôt communicate the conditions in which they were grown. Additionally, buying locally often reduces the money gained by a middleman and places more revenue in the hands of the people who physically worked on the farm. It is a simple illustration of the economic cycle I discussed last week. The money, if in the hands of the local farmer, streams more funds back into the local economy. While he might pay his mortgage with that money, his farm remains an entrepreneurial entity in the business of agriculture. As IâÄôve already mentioned, even farming locally requires produce to be transported to a place in which it can be sold. Though fruit is piled into appealing heaps at the grocery store, it has been removed from the prepackaged way it arrived there. Its plastic packages have been thrown away. Local produce traditionally travels significantly less distance and requires less packaging. When food is purchased at a farmers market, food is often poured from display baskets to the shopperâÄôs bag, and the farmer reuses his crates. Perhaps one of the soundest arguments for eating local food is its nutritional value. According to New York Times bestselling author Jo Robinson, grass-fed beef has two to six times more omega-3 than factory farmed, grain-fed meat. Omega-3 is a âÄúgoodâÄù fat that helps our cardiovascular system, helps our brain function and may help prevent cancer. WhatâÄôs more, local food tastes better. As soon as it is picked, produce begins to lose its nutrients. Local fruits and vegetables are picked as they become ripe, rather than weeks before that because they do not have to endure a cross-country transport, a weekâÄôs time in the grocery store, and days more in the fridge. The closer produce remains, the faster it can be consumed and the healthier it will be. So never mind the WedgeâÄôs challenge ends on Sunday. The Mill City farmers market is open into late October, and is just a bus ride away from campus. Routes 3 and 16 will drop you off just blocks from the marketâÄôs site by the Mississippi River and the ruins of MinneapolisâÄô old mills. Taking place in the remnants of our cityâÄôs historical grain hub, it is appropriate a new trend of local produce would literally stand in its place.