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Ever thought about where your food comes from? Or why most fruits and vegetables can be found year-round, even when they aren’t in season? Sure, it’s nice to be able to eat a few grapes whenever you want, but have you thought about the process of getting the grapes to where you live?
The import effect
About 50 percent of the fruits and 20 percent of the vegetables we eat in the US are imported from other countries. For example, about half of our grapes come from Mexico, Chile, and Brazil. Because the demand for year-round produce keeps increasing, fruit and vegetable imports are increasing too.
We like to be able to eat what we want, when we want it (that’s the American way, right?), but importing can have negative effects. It increases carbon dioxide emissions, can hurt local economies, and the added pollution, preservatives, and packaging can harm the environment and our health.
Become a local foodie
So how can you prevent these negative effects? “[Eating] locally grown food from local farmers means having access to fresh, healthy food while supporting low environmental impact production and strengthening local economies,” says Lilia Smelkova, former campaign manager at Food Day, headquartered in Washington, DC.
College students agree. Nearly 50 percent of students we surveyed said they would rather eat “fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers, even if it means I can only get them seasonally,” according to a recent CampusWell survey.
Being a local foodie is something most of us can do, and it doesn’t involve as much effort as you think. Improving your knowledge about where food comes from can help you make choices that are healthier for you, your environment, and everyone.
Where does your food come from?
How to go local without breaking your budget
Sure, eating locally grown food ups your nutrients, satisfies your taste buds, and supports your community. But how do you do it on a student budget or make a difference at your dining hall? Here are some student-friendly strategies for making it work.
In charge of your own food prep?
- Check out your community’s farmers markets. They often sell food at cheaper prices than grocery stores do.
- Join a CSA. Ask your roommates to split the cost of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm share. Buying a share means a box of fresh, local produce will be made available for pickup weekly. It’s usually cheaper than buying fruits and veg from the store. To cut the cost more, ask about volunteering on the farm in exchange for produce.
Depend on the dining hall?
- Talk to your school administration or food service provider about the importance of eating local food and showcasing where your food comes from. Ask them to indicate when ingredients are sourced from local farms and build relationships with community food growers.
- Join (or start) a club that focuses on the environment or sustainability. You may be able to use school land to start a student garden, grow herbs in your res hall, host a farmers market on campus, or even plant an apple orchard for future generations to enjoy fruit grown on campus.
Here’s why you should try growing your own food
Growing your own food can be an awesome hands-on science project and a way to better know ourselves and the natural world. “The more we are exposed to different fruits and vegetables and ways to eat them, the more likely we are to find something we like and continue eating it,” says Karen Moses, director of wellness and health promotion at Arizona State University.
Budgeting tip: Life can be expensive, especially when you move out of your parents’ house. Why not save a little money by learning how to grow your own food?
These foods (and more) can be grown inside in front of a window:
- Microgreens (vegetable seedlings)
- Mushrooms (careful, these can be stinky)
The nationwide FoodCorps program employs young adults to teach high school students how to grow fruits and vegetables. It’s a full-time, low-paying gig, and a year’s service gets you a $5,000+ stipend toward school. For some, it works as a gap year between undergraduate and graduate programs.
- Choose an easy-to-grow variety, such as cherry tomatoes. Seeds are cheap and can be found online or at home and garden stores.
- Find a large container. A plastic 5-gallon (18.9 L) bucket works great if you add drainage holes.
- Fill about 3/4 of the bucket with soil. Poke 1/4-inch deep holes with your finger and put 3–4 seeds into each hole. Thin them out as they grow.
- Water the soil often enough to keep it evenly moist, and make sure the bucket is getting at least 6 hours of sunlight and warmth per day.
Tip: It’s best to grow tomatoes in a sunny spot outside or indoors in front of a big window.
- Prop up the plants as needed. The tomatoes should be ready in two to three months. Enjoy them in salads, on homemade pizza, or as is!
5 reasons to eat locally grown foods
1. Freshness and taste
Ever taken a bite of an apple fresh off the tree or had a juicy tomato picked from the garden? Did you notice how much better it tasted compared to most of the grocery store versions?
There are a number of reasons local produce often tastes better than produce that has been imported from another country or state. For example, local produce is usually:
- Picked at the peak of ripeness. Most imported food has so far to travel that it’s picked early and ripens on the journey. Unfortunately, this sacrifices a lot of the taste.
- Not sealed with wax. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), many fruits and vegetables that travel to faraway markets are sealed with wax. This is to maintain moisture, prevent mold growth and bruising, and to make the food more visually appealing. But this added waxy coating can affect taste and texture, and not in a good way.
- Less likely to be doused in chemicals. Chemicals are often used to preserve freshness or ripen food that has traveled from far away.
“Knowing where your food comes from, how it was grown, and what’s in it will help you to avoid [chemical additives] as well as highly processed foods full of fats, salt, and sugar,” says Lilia Smelkova, former campaign manager at Food Day in Washington, DC.
2. Reduce your carbon footprint
Eating and growing local foods may help lower carbon emissions by reducing the distance that food has to travel.
The environmental impact of food transportation
- In the US, most food travels about 1,500 miles from the farm to your table.
- Food usually travels by air, truck, or train. This requires the use of fossil fuels such as oil and gas, and also causes carbon dioxide emissions.
- Food that travels far usually requires more packaging so that the food stays intact on its journey. The production of this packaging negatively affects the environment.
What do students say?
Close to two-thirds of students said that if they found out the food they were eating was imported and had a large carbon footprint, they’d look for local alternatives (as long as the price was about the same), according to a recent CampusWell survey. Almost a quarter of the students surveyed said they would still look for a local option, even if they had to pay more.
3. Support your community
When you buy local goods, you invest in the economic and social vibrancy of your community.
Helping farmers helps you
Buying from local food markets allows farmers to sell produce directly to people, which may minimize the use of “middlemen,” such as giant food manufacturers. This helps support the farmers and their families so that they can continue providing you with high-quality, low-cost food.
Plus, when you’re face-to-face with a farmer, you’re able to ask how the food was grown, what chemicals were used in the process (if any), and even get ideas for how to prepare the food.
4. Get a nutrient boost
How well fruits and veggies retain their nutrients depends on many factors. But, generally speaking, they tend to lose nutrients over time, which is bad news for produce that’s shipped from faraway destinations.
Since local food is picked at its peak of ripeness and eaten more quickly, it retains its nutrients better and tastes better too.
5. Eating fruits and veggies helps you look and feel better
Local foods may be fresher and less processed, and may retain more nutrients. Eating more fruits and vegetables in general is healthier for you and can help you look and feel better. For example, some studies suggest that a low-glycemic diet (eating foods containing carbohydrates that are processed slowly, such as green veggies and most fruits) may be helpful in reducing acne.
Want to up your happy? Up your fruit and vegetable intake. Students who ate fruits and vegetables felt happier until the following day, even after other influences had been ruled out, according to “Many Apples a Day Keep the Blues Away” (2013), a British study.
Karen Moses, EDD, RD, CHES, director of wellness and health promotion at Arizona State University, Tempe.
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