On my last birthday, my friends and I went for a picnic in LA’s Griffith Park. It was a beautiful spring day, and we sat on a blanket in the grass eating Caprese salad, fresh baguette, hummus and homemade strawberry shortcake. As the sun poured down and we sipped on sparkling pink lemonade, we started talking about the immense pleasure of fresh, well-prepared food. I said how appreciative I was to grow up in a place where locally grown, in-season produce was readily available.
Here in Berkeley, there are three farmer’s markets each week. Sellers bring their fresh fruits and veggies, along with artisan cheese and honey, from various farms in Northern California, although none are too far away. There’s also an incredible shop called the Monterey Market a mere half mile from the house in which I grew up. It’s the size of a large supermarket, but practically every shelf and bin is packed with produce. They do sell bananas and mangos from South America and Hawaii, but special emphasis is put on local items that are at their prime. Finally, I’m incredibly lucky that my mom is a fantastic gardener. She fills our plates with greens, veggies, berries and fruits straight from the backyard that couldn’t be more fresh.
I realize that this philosophy towards eating, based on local and seasonal produce, is no longer the norm. The American food industry has turned away from small-scale farms in favor of strategies that are cheaper and more scalable. Today, produce is genetically modified to survive extreme weather conditions and grow year-round. Tomatoes are picked while still rock-hard to withstand long journeys, apples are stored for months before being placed on supermarket shelves, and berries are trucked across the country. This approach to food production means that a greater variety is available for more months of the year, but the cost in freshness and taste is immense. I’m currently reading Marion Nestle’s book What To Eat, and love her frank description of this issue: “If you are not growing your own, you have no idea what fresh fruits and vegetables actually taste like.”
This enormous difference between homegrown and conventional is so easy to spot, once you take a minute to really contemplate your food. There’s nothing like the first perfectly ruby red strawberries in April. They’re smaller than those you might buy at Safeway, but also infinitely sweeter and dripping with juice. The sun-sweetened orange cherry tomatoes that appear on my mom’s vines in August are like nature’s candy. We hurry to pick them, still warm from the sun, and pop them straight into our mouths. That crisp apple, enjoyed in October as the leaves start to turn and the air chills, can’t even be compared to the wax-coated, mealy red apples served in school cafeterias.
As my friends and I continued to chat, we discussed all of these points in turn. As strongly as I argued that nothing compares to fresh, local, seasonal food, they reminded me of the many practical reasons that food is produced the way it is. Fresh produce from the farmer’s market is expensive, and many people can barely afford conventional produce, let alone artisan lettuces. California offers the perfect climate to grow many types of fruits and vegetables, but not all locales can support such abundant production. We all agreed that the concept of locally-sourced food was an ideal to aspire to, but we weren’t sure if it was possible.
I was stunned to come across this study a few months later. Researchers from UC Merced have shown that ninety percent of Americans could be entirely fed with food produced within one hundred miles of their homes. It appears that farmland potential across America is actually much greater than most of us assume. This means that our reliance on produce from another state, or even another country, may not really be necessary.
The implications of this finding are immense. Tremendous resources are required to transport produce across the world, and cutting out this step in the production process would benefit the environment greatly. An increased reliance on local food production would also encourage more sustainable farming practices, including water and energy recycling. Of course, there would be significant tradeoffs as well. The researchers state that one of the biggest barriers to eating locally is actually meat, so focus might need to shift to a more vegetarian diet. Variety would also decrease: if we really wanted to eat only those foods produced within one hundred miles of our homes, the number of products available to us would see an exponential decline.
But there’s no reason to take such an all-or-nothing approach, because this is a case where any small change is better than no change at all. If each of us made a concerted effort to fill our grocery bags with just a few more locally-grown products, we would be making a real and tangible difference. This might mean eating vegetarian a few days a week, or limiting bananas to an occasional treat, or forgoing tomatoes in the dead of winter. I think this tradeoff is worth it; after all, skipping apples in spring means they’ll taste that much sweeter come autumn.