Better Than Organic? 10 Great Reasons to Go Local!
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
The USDA certified organic label is widely considered to be the gold standard for carefully raised food and livestock. But is there something just as good, if not better, right down the road from you? Read on to learn why seeking out local food sources may be a better option.
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Modern Food Disconnect
For centuries humans have congregated in local outdoor marketplaces to buy, sell and trade goods and services. Up until about 100 years ago, it was completely normal to know exactly where your food came from. Relationships with growers, farmers, butchers, bakers and artisans were developed so it was known who was trustworthy and who was shady.
The lazy fruit seller quickly gained a reputation for his overpriced, rotten fruit and the prize lamb dealer was praised for his tender and beautifully cut meat. No one was fooled.
When we buy food in a grocery store today, that important connection to the producer is lost.
Instead we rely on labels, advertisements, and word of mouth to decide how to spend our food dollars. We are also subject to tricky marketing schemes such as where food is placed in the store, including strategic aisle and shelf locations along with targeted colors and words used to draw us to a label or package. It's no mistake that sugar cereals with cartoon characters are placed right at children's eye levels. It's a battlefield, especially when you are a hungry shopper... and more-so with nagging kids in tow!
This dependency on labels, ads and sophisticated marketing has become completely acceptable to us as a normal part of food sourcing.
But is our deep disconnection to the stuff we toss into our shopping carts, and then into our bodies, really normal?
As Joel Salatin, regenerative farming leader and real food advocate, says in his revelatory book Folks, This Ain't Normal:
“Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?”
For most of my life I never gave much thought to where my food came from. It was in the fridge or in a cupboard and then on the table; that's all that mattered. I never thought of where on earth it originated from.
When I grew up, I felt shopping at health food stores and buying "natural" or certified organic labels meant I had arrived.
What could be more valuable and trustworthy than a USDA certified organic sticker on a banana or piece of steak? I understood the hard work and integrity that went into earning that label. It meant my food was clean, free of chemicals and loaded with maximum nutrients.
But as I pursued my studies of holistic nutrition, I was challenged to think more deeply about food sourcing and all its implications.
Local Farmer's Markets: Novelty vs. Necessity
I admit that Farmer's Markets used to seem like a fun and entertaining way to shop.
And while there is nothing wrong with enjoying the beauty and relaxation of these mostly outdoor vending spaces, I see many (thought not all) people also treating local Farmer's Markets like novel entertainment instead of a necessary chore like grocery shopping.
There is a lot of relaxed ambling and gazing at colorful food and other artisan goods, being extremely selective about purchases, and leaving with one or two "special" items. Rarely do I see someone hauling around a cart, a cooler or multiple bags and baskets to load up on food like their pantry depended on it.
This may or may not have to do with cost, depending on the market, but we'll address that concern in a few minutes.
As Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms states -- regarding the end of tomato season when there is an overabundance of tomatoes at the market destined for the farmer's compost pile:
"Where are the people lining up to buy them at half price, blemished along with the rest, to go home and make fruit leather, juice though the food mill, diced tomatoes, or canned whole tomatoes? Or ketchup or salsa? Throughout human history, before supermarkets, this end of season flurry of activity was normal in every household."
When I first read about this lost idea of raiding local markets at the end of a peak food season in Joel Salatin's life-changing book Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People and a Better World, I thought: well, shoot -- he's right.
Why are letting all this nutritious food go to waste? Why aren't we looking for bargains at the close of a market day or at the end of season? That used to be a normal.
In recent years, I've become more dependent on Farmer's Markets for the best culinary ingredients from a foodie perspective. But it wasn't until I entered my holistic nutrition program with the Nutritional Therapy Association (NTA) and studied Culinary Wellness and starting following Joel Salatin's work with regenerative agriculture and sustainability, that more lights went on in my head.
I was challenged to look not just at "the Farmer's Market" as a stand-alone, once per week event to get a few select items, but to see local farms (represented at the market or not) as THE main source for our household groceries. I was also encouraged to develop deeper relationships with farmers, learn more about their processes and options for purchasing, visit their farms, and explore local meat and poultry production -- which I always assumed was way more expensive or not as flavorful. Boy, was I wrong!
Not only this, but we were encouraged to cruise through local grocery stores, read labels and discover what kind of food sources were available in those places. In doing so, we started shopping at a locally owned market that not only sells from local farmers, but sources their foods from other small farms and small businesses around the U.S. I had no idea this was available until I went on a mission to find thoughtfully sourced food in my community.
This also caused me to think hard about relying on "certified organic" labels.
Is Organic Food Really Organic?
Organic food in the United States, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, includes:
"USDA certified organic foods [that] are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives."
The process of obtaining a USDA certified organic label is rigorous, time consuming and costly. You can learn more about it directly from the USDA website if you are interested.
Because it's such an intensive process, there are lots of politics, chaos and even fraud surrounding organic food labeling.
From disastrous reports about organic food from overseas coming to port and being treated with conventional pesticides to rampant fraud within China's organic program, the USDA has been criticized for their inability to oversee the growing organic industry. And the number of revoked or suspended organic certifications in 2019 spans several countries with the U.S. being at the top of the list.
At the same time there are many tales of the integrity, financial investments and labors of love that go into earning and maintaining a certified organic label. This applies not only to smaller organic farms (which tend to be easier to regulate), but also to "big organic" farms who are subject to the same rigorous federal inspections.
But there are some major points of concern.
Organic farms are still allowed to use "natural" pesticides on their crops which might concern those who are paying more for what they believe is "pesticide-free" food. Even more worrisome is that many organic farms are in close enough proximity to non-organic farms to be exposed to conventional pesticides. This has led to findings of toxic pesticide residue among many organic crops which can be devastating for farms working hard to maintain an organic operation. Unfortunately, this also happens with GMO crops grown near organic farms.
At the same time, many certified organic farms are extremely large and widespread, and look similar to conventional industrial farms with large operations and heavy environmental impact.
Many of the very successful "big organic" brands have been purchased by industrial food giants who can afford to keep up levels of mass production. Annie's natural and organic foods, for example, was purchased by General Mills in 2014, and Green & Black's organic chocolate company sold to Cadbury in 2005 which is now owned by Kraft.
The reality is that certified organic food depends on the integrity and mission of the producers who operate the farm. This can be hard, if not impossible, to discover for an everyday shopper with little to no time or interest in doing product research. That's why labels, like "certified organic", quality advertising, word of mouth and even stories on the back of package are what we've learned to trust when it comes to food purchasing.
We want to believe that the imagery of rolling hills dotted with pastured livestock and words like "small batch" and "all natural" and "family owned" means we are investing in the best products for our health and the environment.
We hate to learn that "cage free" hens are still cooped up in large barns and will never see daylight in their lifetimes, and that our expensive organic cherries are tainted with "pesticide drift" from a nearby conventional farm. But these are the risks and realities of buying food from farmers you cannot get to know and farms hundreds and even thousands of miles away from your city.
This is our modern food marketplace and we've come to accept it as normal, and even settle for things that we aren't certain of.
And while I will still always choose organic over conventional in a grocery store, I believe there is still a much better option. In fact, there has always been, and still is, another way to source clean, delicious and highly nutritious food... and it may not be far from your front door!
10 Reasons to Seek Out Local Food
By definition, local food is produced close to where it is sold and consumed. It by-passes large, traditional supply chains and emphasizes community relationships with growers and consumers. Good old-fashioned trust is exchanged for shiny packages and expensive labels.
Let's take a look at 10 important reasons to source your food locally when possible:
1. Less Food Miles From Farm to Plate
Some estimate it takes an average of 1,500 miles for a meal to travel from it's original farm to your kitchen table. It may be less (100s of miles) if it comes within your state, or more (10,000s miles) if it is imported. These food miles not only impact the environment (carbon footprint), but also the freshness and nutrient density of food. When you shop locally you can ask exactly where the farm is located and know for yourself how far the food has travelled and when it has been picked. This ensures you are getting the freshest food possible with the least environmental impact.
2. Better Nutrient Density and Flavor
Another major advantage of reduced food mileage is knowing that local food has been harvested at the peak of ripeness. I often ask farmers when the food was picked and the typical answer is usually "yesterday"or "this morning."
Naturally ripened food contains maximum nutrients -- vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting compounds. This also makes it taste better! Nutrient density and flavors are compromised when food is picked before it is ripe (so it can travel). This unripe produce is then stored and perhaps treated naturally in someway to keep it "fresh" before it rambles along highways, boats or planes for days losing nutritional value and flavor as it goes.
There is nothing more unappetizing than a malnourished tomato that is pale on the inside (a common sign of potassium deficiency) and bears no flavor. Compare this to a locally vine ripened, bright red heirloom tomato bursting with juicy nutrients. The difference is astonishing.
3. Eating Regionally with the Seasons
When you buy local food, you subject yourself to the age old practice of eating seasonal foods that are native to your local area. This conveys a host of health benefits. Food is highly nutritious when it's grown regionally and in season instead of being forced to grow out of place, year round, which usually requires many interventions such as growth stimulation and ripening practices. Eating locally with the seasons will provide you with optimal vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients needed for each season.
For example, if your area harvests abundant citrus in winter you will have plenty of access to locally made vitamin C to boost your immune system. If there are melons in summertime, you will receive the hydrating minerals needed to sustain you in your climate's warm weather.
If you start paying attention to this, you'll see that the flavors of local and seasonal foods are far superior to off-season, far away options. That said, we are all free to eat how we like. I personally like avocados 24/7/365 and they don't grow here!
4. Relationships with Growers
Perhaps my favorite part of shopping for local food is developing relationships with farmers and ranchers. This is another ancient aspect of community that has not yet disappeared from society. Don't lose the opportunity! The advantages to this are numerous.
First off, you make new friendships, build mutual trust, gain an appreciation for the hard work it takes to grow food, ask questions and get answers, get invited to visit farms and "see for yourself", and you can even offer support and help, and in return, receive the same. This has been especially important during the 2020 pandemic when food was suddenly cleared from shelves. I was glad to have established contacts with several growers in our area. Get to know your local farmers!
5. Transparency of Growing Process
This goes along with developing relationships with farmers. Instead of relying on a certified organic sticker or all-natural story on the back of a package, you can have face-to-face conversations with growers to learn about their processes.
None of the local farmers I buy from here in Sedona have certified organic farms due to being small farms and the certification process being very costly and extensive. But I have learned through conversations and trusting relationships that none of these farmers use pesticides or chemicals on their food. To verify this I am often invited to visit the farm and see the process. There is no greater transparency than a trusting two-way relationship like this one.
"' If you want to know who to patronize, shop at a market stall for three weeks in a row. Any farmer who has not invited you to his farm by your third purchase does not deserve your patronage'."
This comes from Joel Salatin again quoting another farmer. I have found this quote to be spot on. I only shop with farmers who have an open door policy to their farms, which most are more than happy to do!
6. Supporting Healthy Soil
This may not seem like a big deal, but in truth, it's probably the most important reason to seek out local food. As Joel Salatin says in Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People and a Better World, (one of my favorite reads ever):
"No civilization can be any healthier environmentally or economically than it's soil."
Soil fertility is just as important as human fertility. As goes our soil so goes our food, our environment, our health, our economy and our future. Industrial farms have such depleted soil that they must rely on chemical fertilizers to restore life and flavor (a.k.a. vitamins and minerals) back into the crops. Local farmers work hard on their soil and it shows in the flavor of the food -- a great sign of soil health. There is no supplement on the market that can beat the vitamins and minerals obtained from healthy and well nurtured soil. It's the foundation of life and health.
7. Investing Money in Your Local Economy
This is rather obvious, but important to keep in mind when voting with your food dollars. As stated above, many (not all) industrial organic farms have become acquired by large food corporations. While it's great to support organic farms of any size, I prefer to invest my money into local farms -- organic or non-organic with clean practices. The return on investment is not only more nutritious and flavorful food due to proximity and food being picked at peak ripeness, but it ensures that those who work so hard to provide these goods can keep doing so.
8. Ability to Negotiate & Trade
While coupon cutting may be fun for some, there are also great deals to be had in good-old fashioned bargaining and bartering with local growers and vendors. Oftentimes, local food producers will reduce prices near the end of the market day and even at the end of season when there is still an abundance of a certain crop, but less interest in buying it. Some sellers are even open to trades if you have goods or services to exchange. Some have volunteer needs on the farm and are willing to get some help in exchange for goods. The great thing about shopping directly from locals is that you can have these conversations and find deals on clean food that you wouldn't be able to get in a big box store where decisions are based on schedules and bureaucracy.
For those who argue that farmer's markets and buying local food is more expensive, I would ask if you have really compared prices or tried any of the above strategies. Some farmer's markets even take SNAP food stamps. You will only know about these possibilities at your local market if you scope things out and ask. For sure, some farmer's markets are pricier than others, but if you can find a vendor you trust you may be able to find out about unknown possibilities.
9. No Risk of Fraudulent Organic Labeling
It's often said that people do business with those they know, like and trust. This relationship is impossible to be had in a grocery store where food growers are often hundreds or even thousands of miles away (China is currently the top agricultural exporter to the USA). So we rely on labels and marketing. We can only hope the USDA certified organic label on our pricey Comice pears means they didn't get any pesticide or GMO drift on the crops. We're willing to spend more on a grass-fed organic steak expecting it wasn't unknowingly finished with fraudulently labeled "organic" soy or corn.
None of the local farmers I buy from are certified organic, but I trust them all more than I trust any label or story on the back of a package. I'm not saying those aren't valid, but I feel more confidence talking face-to-face with local farmers about clean practices. I've received numerous invites out to farms so I can see for myself how things run. Even if I don't make it out to every farm, this mutual trust is more reassuring to me than any sticker or seal of approval.
10. Social Connections & Mental Health
As humans we are social beings and need to connect to other humans. This is not philosophical, but physical, and affects our well-being since health-promoting hormones like oxytocin are produced when we bond with others.
Through the ages, public open air markets have provided us with a chance to mingle with others, get to know to our community and enjoy some low-stress time away from home. I have made some great friends through local farmer's markets -- not just farmers, but like-minded shoppers. We also get opportunities to enjoy the work of local musicians and artists which can also support our ability to relax and slow down in this fast-paced, stressful world. This special place is not just good for our nutritional well-being, but provides us with time and space to appreciate life. Not to mention it's a great time to get outside and received some vitamin D -- both of which support mood and brain health.
Never underestimate the holistic benefits of a market in your town. Grab your reusable bags and start exploring! And grab a copy of this life-changing book by Joel Salatin if you want to start pondering normalcy again!
Do you shop for local food? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below! I'd love to hear from you!
You can also follow me @nourishandcherish.ntp on Instagram!
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About the Author
Roxie Daggett is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) with a virtual practice in Sedona, Arizona. Her passions include studying nutritional research pertaining to memory, brain health, genes and longevity. When she is not geeking out on nutrition she enjoys messing around in the kitchen with old world recipes, reading and hearing stories from elders and farmers about traditional food sourcing, and wandering around the Red Rocks with her heroic husband and Staffordshire bull terrier.
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