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Why I Choose Local (Even Before Organic)

September 14, 2012

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Last week, the media was abuzz with reports that a Stanford University study had disproved the advantage of organic foodstuffs, a claim which health and nutrition experts rallied to rebuff.

In the wake of this debate, I found myself asking if organic is really the most important question in the current food debate. In truth, I’ve always focused on local first.

Growing up, the question of farming methods was not something my family ever considered. The quality that separated one food from another was freshness - over food that was frozen, canned, bottled, bagged – and from an early age I could taste the difference.

When I was four-years-old, I tried throwing out the frozen string beans my mother sautéed in butter, complaining that they were mushy and bland. She protested, arguing that they were healthy. This family quarrel has stuck with me as proof that taste is the critical element in how we choose what we eat. That’s why, as an adult, I prefer to buy fresh, flavorful, local food – even more so than organic.

At this year’s TEDxManhattan “Changing the Way We Eat” conference, Mitchell Davis, Vice President of the James Beard Foundation, presented a talk called “Tasting Our Way to a Better Food System.” He argues that we are living in a unique moment, in that our taste preferences have aligned with that which is actually good for us: seasonal, fresh products.  Given this current climate, if we were to make both personal and political food decisions based on taste, we could actually create a food system that provides everyone – not just the elite – with the right to healthful and delicious food. 

In an ideal food system, we would be able to always buy both local and organic. But the cost of getting a “USDA certified organic” label is prohibitive to many small American farms, and Big Agriculture is gaining increasing control over what the national standard for “certified organic” actually means. That’s why the crunchy kale or crisp apples at our greenmarkets may not wear an organic sticker.

Admittedly, a focus on local products means choosing from a smaller selection of seasonal ingredients, but those foods taste better and cost less than out-of-season organic produce grown in far-flung locales. Moreover, unlike organic produce and proteins – which the Stanford study disproved to be more nutrient-dense than conventional produce - local foodstuffs are more nutritious than those shipped over long distances. Buying local is also better for the environment, and supporting small producers means that more money goes directly to farmers, instead of Big Agriculture. And let’s not forget - the ultimate benefit of local products is their rich, just-picked flavor, as other food and nutrition advocates will attest.

If you’re ready to go local, then this is the time! September is locavore month, so join the 30-day eat local challenge and check out our Farmer’s Market Guide for extra local tips!

How will you celebrate locavore month?