In Defense of Buying Local

In last week’s post about how to buy local on a budget, I said “the one critique” I’ve repeatedly heard about locally-sourced food is the price. Actually, I’ve heard a good deal of skepticism voiced about farmers markets, namely that vendors don’t necessarily raise their animals as humanely or grow their produce with as minimal chemical intervention as one might assume. And that’s true: as with the ‘organic’ label, you can’t take all claims of sustainability at face value. You need to read the fine print, literally or metaphorically – the latter of which might entail interrogating the vendor a bit. Right now, though, I want to briefly address a common argument of economists.

market shoppingIf everyone subsisted solely on what was available to them locally, we would be worse off. I’ll avoid using the economic jargon of comparative and absolute advantage, but, basically, we would be forcing ourselves to grow things that could be much more easily grown elsewhere. This would essentially waste huge amounts of time, money, and energy that could be better put towards specializing in select products. It would mean higher prices to the consumer as well as more environmental detriment via inefficient energy consumption. Not to mention that our diets would also be constrained by the season and regional climate, as some things simply do not grow in certain parts of the world.

In light of these points, raised by my economics professor and in articles all across the Internet, I think I should clarify my approach to buying local. First off, I focus on produce and meat; the breads and cheeses that I find at the farmer’s market are delectable, but I treat myself to them as I would anything at a grocery store. With produce, however, I genuinely believe that fruits and vegetables taste better when they are fresher. Farmers markets also offer a lot of heirloom varieties and ‘ugly’ pieces of produce that you wouldn’t find in your average grocery store due to cosmetic standards, thereby preventing waste of perfectly edible, albeit funny-looking food. As for meat, I’m always willing to pay a little more for something that hasn’t been raised on hormones or in horribly intensive conditions, mainly for the sake of humaneness. Bearing all this in mind, though, I will concede an important caveat: I don’t buy everything local, nor would I ever want to, specifically for the reasons described above. Some fruits and veggies at the farmer’s market are simply too expensive for me, which could also indicate that they’re grown inefficiently. Moreover, I love food and diversifying my diet far too much to ever want to give up on imports.

produce ingredient3So, here’s my take on it: locavorism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but the idea behind it isn’t entirely wrong. While it is environmentally beneficial to buy certain things locally, especially when it means preventing waste by supporting ugly food, there are more ecological costs to consider than long-distance transportation. This article makes some good points to that effect. And, of course, you can’t forget the prices. It’s best to stick to relatively inexpensive produce (although most foods will be a bit less cheap than at a supermarket) and check the details behind the meat to see if it’s worth the price.

As a final disclaimer, I want to emphasize that these are my personal beliefs, based on experience and some background information on both sides of the issue. Sure, I could’ve done more extensive research, but this is a blog post, not a dissertation. Feel free to comment with opinions, including disagreements or criticisms, so long as they are civil.


Three Tips for Buying Local on a Budget

When it comes to buying produce, I try to get as much as possible from farmer’s markets or local grocers rather than supermarkets. Not only do smaller growers tend to raise their crops more organically (i.e. with fewer pesticides or hormones) than massive corporations, but you also get the comfort of knowing that the food hasn’t had to travel alci seasonalthousands and thousands of miles to get to your table. That saves hundreds of gallons of fuel that would have otherwise been spent cooling and transporting the food across the country, much less the world. Not to mention that the local food is much tastier because it’s fresh.

The one critique I keep hearing when it comes to locally-sourced food is price. When I encourage my friends to shop at our city’s farmer’s market, they typically say something like, “I love the farmer’s market, but it’s so expensive! How can you afford to go there every week?” Without going into the economics of it, I’ll admit that local food tends to be less cheap because small producers don’t have the kinds of business models that allow big manufacturers to keep prices low. When grocery stores sell a pint of blueberries for $2.99, many people feel that the positives of buying local still don’t justify spending $5 for the same amount. However, there are three simple tricks you can use to buy locally and economically.

1. Browse before you buy

Since all the vendors are growing their produce in the same climate and season, most of them offer the same variety of fruits and vegetables. For the shopper, that translates into multiple price options. Just last week, I saw potatoes being sold at $3/lb., $3/pint, $4/quart, and $5/quart. Before making a single purchase, walk the entire market, make price comparisons, and then buy accordingly.

2. Remember why you’re there

It’s incredibly easy to get enticed by things like fresh breads, pastries, and nut butters, especially when samples are available, but you must resist! Try to concentrate on buying produce and whatever else you planned to buy, because treats can cost a pretty penny. The two, age-old pieces of advice ring just as true at local markets: don’t shop hungry and bring a list.

3. Try something new

market vegetablesThe farmer’s market is a great place to discover new varieties of food. This slightly contradicts my advice of sticking to a shopping list, but if you see an appealing piece of fruit or vegetable for a low price – cheaper than whatever you had planned to buy – you should go for it. Buying food that you might not yet know how to cook is a great way to expand your culinary repertoire.

I realize not everyone is fortunate enough to live near a well-publicized farmer’s market, but look around online – or just walk around your town – and you might find some good local options. Being eco-friendly doesn’t have to be hard on your wallet.