When I moved to California back in 2007, I tried eating locally for a year. It couldn’t be that hard, I thought—after all, California produces 60 percent of the country’s fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts, not to mention a wide selection of grapes that get converted into delicious wines. I didn’t give up the occasional coffee and dark chocolate, but had no trouble letting go of bananas and other tropical fruits, out of season produce. No more asparagus in September.
It was harder than I expected, but only at first. I had to cut out most processed foods, which was great for my health, and it took longer to grocery shop, a lot longer. But, once I knew what I could buy I actually saved time. I could just walk into the market, grab what I needed, and get out, not tempted by sales and coupons or driven by hunger. This also saved me money and helped me stick to a budget.
The environmental benefits, like reducing the number of food miles that went into my mouth, were the primary reason for this experiment. Food travels an average of 1500 miles from the farm to our plates. That’s a lot of oil.
There were many unexpected benefits, too. A locally based diet encouraged me to shop at the farmers markets more often, which got me outdoors and allowed me to get to know my farmers, to ask questions about their priorities with respect to land stewardship. Even at the grocery store, I started asking more questions of the department managers who often get to know the farmers and producers directly.
For these reasons and more, the eat local movement is catching on, and it’s not just a California fad. On a recent visit to my hometown of St. Louis I noticed several hip restaurants, cafés, and even neighborhood grocers that were boasting “locally grown” produce, meat, and other items “Made in Missouri.” My brother is the head brewer at Square One Brewery and Distillery, a pub that only sells their craft beers and award-winning spirits in St. Louis, so he also appreciates the idea of feeding the local economy. That’s why I was surprised when he argued against my claim that Americans could feed themselves from local and organic farms. Many people think like him.
A new study, however, suggests they are wrong.
Professor Elliott Campbell at UC Merced recently completed an enormous task—mapping the potential of every city in the U.S. to obtain locally produced food. The findings, published in the latest edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, show that more than 90 percent of Americans could meet all of their dietary needs from food that is grown and raised within 100 miles of their homes. Moreover, in most of the country, 80-100 percent of the population could be fed within 50 miles.
UC Berkeley Professor and influential author Michael Pollan said, “Elliott Campbell’s research is making an important contribution to the national conversation on local food systems. That conversation has been hobbled by too much wishful thinking and not enough hard data—exactly what Campbell is bringing to the table.”
To determine the percentage of Americans whose caloric needs could be supplied entirely by food grown locally, Campbell’s team assessed farms within 100 miles of every major city in America. Then, they estimated how many calories those farms are able to produce and compared the potential calorie production to the population needs in each city.
As I did when I moved to California, shifting to a local diet, however, would require a shift in our expectations and demands. For example, Campbell’s research shows that only about 35 percent of residents in San Diego could eat locally without at least some dietary changes. That number increases to 51 percent of the population if people were willing to stick to a plant-based diet, and something in between if animal-based proteins were decreased substantially.
The eat local movement is growing, with many people like me wanting to support local farmers who offer high-quality produce that is ripened in the field instead of in a warehouse. And it’s not just a few hip cafés and upscale restaurants working to meet our demands—even national chain restaurants are making attempts to source meat, dairy, and produce locally when possible. Supporting local agriculture also helps to ensure that the high quarterly earnings currently being garnered by corporate agriculture and their short list of wealthy stockholders would, instead, be divided between our nation of family farmers. There are so many reasons to eat locally.
Americans love a challenge. So, I challenge you to join me in eating locally, even for just one week. If you’re really looking to challenge yourself, then try it for one month. How about a year? The research is clear—you can do it—the only thing stopping you is you.