People can take the pledge on their website to buy roughly 10% of their food locally, and in doing so they join the movement to stimulate their city’s economy and help the hardworking food producers who live a stone’s throw away from them.
Not to mention, local foods are fresher, healthier and haven’t traveled hundreds of miles to get to you. It’s not that much more expensive to buy, and the products are more diverse and in season. What’s not to love?
After Sandra Sarlinga made the move from Argentina to the United States in 2000, she made a quick stop by a grocery store during her first few weeks in the country. She didn’t like what she found.
“I couldn’t smell any produce,” Sarlinga said. “I wanted the rich scents like at the markets in Argentina, but I didn’t get that in the store. It was upsetting!”
It’s a common scene in American grocery store chains today. Perfectly plump strawberries are stacked neatly against the reddest, shiniest apples, which sit across the aisle from the rich, green bundles of spinach. As is often the case, this produce is picked before it fully ripens to ensure its fresh look by the time it travels – often across the country – to local stores’ shelves.
“If your veggies look perfect, it means no other critter in the world wanted to eat them but you,” said Dr. Norman Wirzba, a research professor at Duke University who spoke at Elon University’s Fall Environmental Forum.
Wirzba’s talk, “Why Sustainable Agriculture Matters,” stressed the need for a real change in society’s mindset when it comes to food. He charged the carnivores and herbivores of the world to take a step back and reexamine where their food is coming from, because, as he put it, “we are the most food ignorant generation the world has ever known.”
“Do we have to grow our food with so much poison, so many pesticides?” Wirzba asked. “Is that what you want to feed yourself?”
For Sandra Sarlinga and her family, that was a definitive no. When she and her husband Fabian moved to Elon, North Carolina, they started The Farm Fairy, a farm which originally sold locally produced honey and now offers artisan breads, lavender, eggs, herbal teas, jellies and soaps, among other products.
Sarlinga’s quest to spread the joy of fresh, healthy food has taken her and her family to several farmers’ markets in the Piedmont area, including the Elon Community Church Farmer’s Market, which is held Thursdays from 2 pm to 6 pm from April to October.
At a glance, the market’s vendors seem few and far between. There are roughly eight to ten booths per week selling unique and locally produced goods like homemade jams, vegetables, jewelry and tie-dyed clothing. But each vendor has a personality and a story to tell, and a love for their craft is evident.
Michael Strickland, lecturer of English and environmental studies at Elon, said the most notable part of the market is that the vendors are largely located within 20 miles off campus.
“At places like the Company Shops Market in Burlington, which is a local food co-op, you’re writing out all the costs of packaging and shipping food that comes from far away,” he said. “You’re handing your money straight to the guy that grew your food.”
But what about that money? Many people are quick to point out the increased costs associated with buying organic and locally-made foods. Is it worth it to stretch your wallet a bit more for local eats? Is this a realistic lifestyle choice for cash-strapped college students?
Strickland says yes.
In his Sustainable Food Production class two years ago, he had students complete a study of grocery costs. Their goal: to determine if food prices at local chains like Harris Teeter and Lowe’s Foods were all that different from the Company Shops Market in Burlington.
The students were surprised to find the prices didn’t differ much at all.
After buying the same items at each type of store, they paid just 10 to 15 percent more at the co-op each time. With $100 grocery bill at Harris Teeter, for example, they paid, on average, about $110 at the co-op.
“I tell my students it’s doable, it’s not that expensive,” Strickland said. “If they would just cut down on those other weekly expenses like that one dollar beer or that fancy coffee and plowed their money into buying local food, it could work for them. They could make an impact and a conscious statement to other students about being informed, educated consumers.”
Wirzba said buying local is worthwhile because it helps sustain regional economies and contribute to local business growth. And smaller-scale farming and markets create a thriving culture, not just a thriving economy, he said.
Shoppers who practice “locavorism,” the umbrella term for buying and eating local food, also reap the health benefits.
“Health is an important factor,” Strickland said. “Take a gallon of milk you find at a place like Walmart. The milk comes from who knows where and is probably a mixture from ten different dairy farms. You’d be better off supporting a dairy farm ten miles away that you’re able to track down.”
But Strickland admits it’s often hard to find many local vendors outside of a market setting.
“There are certainly pockets of Burlington that are ‘food desserts,’” he said. “You’d have to travel far to find any local products.”
But he said that, if possible, it’s important to at least know the source of what you’re buying. It may take more effort to research local food vendors, but he said it is certainly worth it.
Living a local lifestyle is a win-win for the consumer and the vendor. For Strickland, the economic and health benefits are plentiful. For Sarlinga, the food quality and taste is unmatched. And for Wirzba, there are unique outlets for personal growth.
“Many jobs only require you to push buttons,” he said. “But with farming, producers and consumers can be connected. You have a wonderful opportunity with lots of local farms in North Carolina to meet the farmers and help them. This makes possible a more celebratory culture. You can grow to know food in a way you haven’t before. You become more grateful over good food. That’s one of the great joys in life.”
Story, graphics, video and photos by Madelyn Smith.