Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A "How To" Guide to Eating Locally

So, you've decided to be a locavore, or you're thinking about it and would like more information on what it might mean for your weekly grocery shopping. Here are a few tips to eating locally, no matter where you live:

Decide How "Local" You Want to Be. Many people define "local" with a 100-mile radius from their home. Others go to 200 or 250 miles. While others consider "local" anything within their state of residence. I do a little of everything. Most (about 80%) of my food comes from within 100 miles (more like within 40 miles). Fruit is a bit harder to find and I generally consider any rice, olive oil, or fruit that was grown in my state to be local (although when I have a choice, I choose as close to home as possible). This decision will become easier once you start identifying local sources of foods.

Finding Resources - Finding resources is, by far, the most difficult part of being a locavore. The good news is that once you identify your sources, being a locavore is almost as easy as shopping at those big-box stores. Except now, your food will taste better, it will be more nutritionally-dense, and you'll be helping the environment and your community in the process.

So how do you even begin to identify these local food resources?
  1. Visit the Local Harvest website. Local Harvest is a great web resource that helps link locavores with producers anywhere in the country. Simply type in your zip code and discover information about the many producers in your area, or narrow the search and identify just farmers markets, or locally-sourced restaurants, or farms. The choice is yours.
  2. Visit your Local Farmers Market. As the number of locavores have increased around the country, so have the number of farmers markets. Chances are, you have one near you. You can either ask around, look for announcements in the community calendar of your local newspaper, or use Local Harvest's website to find the farmers market nearest you. Some farmers markets run year-round, others only during the warmer months of the year. Typically what you'll find is a series of stalls or tables where each farmer displays his products. Feel free to ask each farmer about growing practices (organic/naturally grown), when the item was picked, and if they have any cooking suggestions (I've received tons of great tips on cooking from my farmer's market vendors). Be sure to bring cash (although some of the larger markets will take checks or credit cards) and don't forget the kids. This is a wonderful opportunity to get children involved in what they eat.
  3. Join a CSA. Can't quite make it to the farmers market each week? Think about joining a CSA (that's Community Supported Agriculture). A CSA is a great way to get involved with a local farm. Basically you pay the farm a fee, and in return, you are given so many weeks of vegetables based on the farm's productivity. Was it a good year? You'll benefit from the farm's wonderful harvest. A slower year? You'll get a bit less each week. So be sure to find a farm with a great reputation. Always feel free to ask to talk to some of the current members. Some CSAs deliver your weekly bounty right to your front door. Others require a once a week pick up. Many offer "farm days" where you can come out to visit the farm or even opportunities to plant and participate in the harvest. What fun!
  4. Visit your Natural Food Store. Is your farmers market closed in the winter? Perhaps you need a few staples that aren't available at the farmers market, but you're pretty sure they're grown locally. Check out your local natural food store and talk to the staff. Explain that you are looking for locally sourced food and have them help you identify items that came from local sources. My town even has a permanent produce market (open 7 days a week), but don't assume everything is local. Feel free to ask for help.
  5. Visit Local Farms. Many farms will offer tours of their facilities (check your local paper or individual farm websites). Take them up on the offer. Some are free while others request a small fee, but they are always fun, informative, and a great educational tool for kids. While you're there, be sure to ask where you can find their local products (directly at the farm, at your local natural food store, the farmers market, or perhaps they deliver to a more centrally located place in town).
  6. Pick your own Fruit. Nothing beats fruit right off the tree or vine. And there are opportunities all over the country where you can pick your own and take it home to enjoy. Try the Pick Your Own website. Search by your state and county to find local fruit orchards near you.
  7. Check Out Your Local Grocery Store. Every once in awhile, you can even find local produce at your big-box grocery store. I don't shop there often, but I've been able to identify a few things there that are consistently local. Check out your grocery ads, the signs posted in the store, or check the back of the package to see if it was grown in your neck of the woods.
  8. Ask. As you start to build your resource base, keep asking around. Chances are someone is providing the very product you are looking for. It's just a matter of talking to the right person. When friends, relatives, and your new farmers market vendor-friends find out your interested, they'll be sure to pass along tips as they hear them. And new resources pop up all the time. Be patient and persevere, and slowly but surely, resources will present themselves.
Note: If you are from the Bryan-College Station, TX area, I've already done most of the work for you! Check out my page, "Be a Locavore - Local Food Resources," for a list of food resources by product type.

Make a Plan - Don't panic! You don't have to switch all your food to local sources all at once. Take it one step at a time. Start with the farmers market or natural food store and determine what they have to offer. Call around to local bakeries to find out if they bake their own bread from whole and/or local ingredients. Bread, eggs, herbs, and veggies are usually the easiest items to find locally. Start there and ease into this new wonderful lifestyle while you search out sources of other foods like meat, dairy, and fruit.
Adjusting to Eating Seasonally - Eating seasonally is not the same as eating locally, but more often than not, it happens at the same time. When you are eating locally, you can still have summer produce in the winter, IF you've preserved it by canning or freezing. Eating seasonally is nothing more than eating whatever is in season at that particular time of year, and more often than not, you'll be eating seasonally AND locally.

The bad news is that means you most likely won't be eating your favorite food year-round. But really, it tastes so much better to eat with the seasons that you'll soon forget the instant gratification of those big-box grocery stores and long only for fresh local produce.

So what kinds of adjustments might you need to make?
  1. Menu planning. Forget all those complicated recipe books and get ready to have a little fun. First of all, your farmers market finds (or your CSA share) will be determining what's on the menu. Be creative. There are many ways to substitute ingredients. For instance, I've never seen celery at our farmers market, but I've learned to use the stems from leafy greens like swiss chard instead. It has a similar flavor and that wonderful crunch - it's great for salads, soups and stir fries alike! Honestly, the first time I ever made soup from scratch, I spent hours searching for a recipe on-line. In the end, I just ended up chopping up some veggies, sauteing them in olive oil, filling the pot with water, seasoning with salt and pepper, and letting it simmer on the stove for 2 hours. Nothing special, no recipe, and it was the BEST soup I've ever eaten in my life! Just go with what you have, be creative with substitutions, and be prepared to devour a wonderful meal!
  2. Shopping in multiple locations. Ok. So eating locally may mean an extra trip here and there. Unlike those big-box grocery stores, you most like won't find EVERYTHING in one location. Again, you'll get over it because the food will be so good, you'd no longer even consider buying produce shipped from across the world. Ick! You may get your veggies from the farmers market, your dairy from the farm (or a designated pick-up location in town), and your bread from the local bakery. It may take a little extra effort at first, but before long you won't even think about it. The time spent in each place will mean good food as well as newly established relationships with shop owners and farmers. You'll look forward to these new errands as much as the food you receive from them.
Becoming Fearless - I wasn't sure what to expect when I first started my journey as a locavore, but becoming fearless certainly wasn't one of them. Where once I was afraid to try anything new (I certainly could never do THAT, right?), I now am eager to take part in new experiences. Where once I thought I would never participate in "domestic" activities, I have learned to make my own yogurt, bake my own bread, cook soups from scratch, preserve foods through a variety of canning techniques and yes, I've even started my own garden. And it turns out, I've loved every minute of it.

For me, eating locally changed my life. Where once life was defined by all the things I couldn't do, now I have no limits. I'm empowered. I'm alive. I'm healthy. And where once I was shy, I now eagerly accept invitations to speak about the wonders of eating locally. Who knew one stop at our local farmers market would change my whole life.

Be alive, be empowered, be fearless - Eat Local!

If you're not quite convinced and would like more information on the many benefits of being a locavore, visit the post, "The Benefits of Eating Locally."

And if you have any questions, you know where to find me! In the meantime, Happy (and mindful) eating!


Anonymous said...

Hi Heather,

Thanks so much for this post. I just went to the website you suggested and found lots of sources for my area!! I'm really excited about eating locally. I had no idea there would be so many listings. I live in Iredell County, North Carolina. Your ideas are really helpful. Thanks again.

Diane from North Caroina

Farmer's Daughter said...

Great post! I have to say for me, the best part of eating locally was starting my own garden.

EnviRambo said...

This was a great post Heather. "Bee"ing a Locavore is one of my priorities for 2009. Mainly by growing and preserving my own food. I also joined a Local Foods & Sustainable Agriculture task force for my area. One of our main purposes is to educate and connect consumers with CSAs and local farmers. I'm in the midst of planning Earth Week for La Crosse City/County with a local foods fair as one component. It should be an exciting year!

Anonymous said... and may help people too.

Anonymous said...

These last two posts have been great. I want to 'bee' a locavore as much as I can, but the 'how' of doing so seems so overwhelming at times.

Thanks so much for putting together this how to guide. I will surely be referring to it over and over.

hmd said...

Anonymous - Wonderful! It's amazing how many resources are there once you look! Happy local-food hunting!

Farmers Daughter - I can totally understand that. There's just something about going "out back" to pick ingredients for lunch.

Greeen Sheeep - Awesome! Your taskforce sounds a lot like what we're trying to do here with the Brazos Locavores. I'm looking forward to hearing more about Earth Week!

Tammy - Thanks! Two very good link to find producers of raw milk and grass-fed beef.

livingmyrichlife - The best advice I can give is to take it slow. Start with the easiest items to obtain locally and work you way up to some of the harder ones. Before you know it, it'll be second nature. And you'll never look back :)

Jena said...

Great post. Very informative, I like that. I did a similar post for one of the carnivals, it isn't nearly as helpful but if anyone is interested they can check it out here. It is so exciting to see more and more people eating locally. I think it is a great thing for our health and our economy!

J said...

Heather - This is a wonderful post for anyone trying to figure out the whole "local eating matrix". I wish I had a guide like this when I first started out. I learned through a lot of trial and error (I completely missed strawberry season last year), and I have been forced to try all sorts of new things that I wouldn't have otherwise tried. I am so happy that I have begun this experiment, and I think this post will give hope and great resources to anyone who is stuck or just trying to figure out how to begin to change.

hmd said...

Jena - Thanks for listing your post. You touched on some things I didn't.

Jennifer - yeah, I learned the hard way too and missed last year's strawberry season too (although I did manage to pick up a few berries in late May. Who knew the season started in Feburary here!?

Megan said...

I think I'm going to take your idea and maybe come up with a UK-based version.
My Women's Environmental Network group is starting a food campaign, and I think this will be great!

hmd said...

Megan - Wonderful! I'd be interested in learning how things are different in the UK (regarding how to go local).