How to be a Locavore: A Consumer’s Guide to Eating Local

Vegan, flexitarian, paleo, and the latest: locavore. This new style of healthy eating consists only of (or mainly of) locally grown foods. It’s a trend that is aimed at minimizing one’s carbon footprint, finding the most flavorful produce, and supporting the local economy, all for just a few dollars more. If you’re interested in joining the locavore lifestyle, there are a few things to consider when looking for local foods and “farm-to-table” establishments.

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What’s Considered Local?

Though the idea behind the diet sounds great, there has been little agreement on the definition of the phrase “locally grown.” In fact, it varies dramatically between states, countries, or even who you’re asking. Here are various definitions of the term:

  • Federal Level: the USDA definition adopted by Congress in 2008 declares that “local produce” must travel less than 400 miles or must have been grown within state lines to be considered such.

  • State Level: State regulations vary, mostly depending on how densely populated the areas is. For instance, Vermont requires local produce to originate no more than 30 miles from the point of sale, whereas Iowa considers local to be anywhere within state lines.

  • Ecological definition: Some look for produce that is considered ecologically local. This means consumers will prioritize fruit and vegetables which have been grown in their native climate. This is true even if it’s shipped from somewhere geographically distant.

  • General Definition: When surveyed, the public generally tends to define “local” as grown within a 100 mile radius of the location it’s being prepared or sold.

  • Hardcore locavore definition: Real locavores want to buy their produce directly from the growers (think farmers’ markets, local produce deliveries, or one’s own garden).

Generally, the definition of “local” tends to vary depending on where one is surveying consumers. In densely populated, urban areas, it’s more common for “local produce” to be defined as grown within county lines. In more rural areas, the range can be much larger while still being considered local.

Environmental Impact

One of the reasons this term is so hard to define is also the main reason many want to support it: environmental impact. The carbon footprint of produce is not only determined by how far away it was grown, but also how it was shipped. For instance, a potato that was transported 100 miles by truck will have the same carbon footprint as one transported 1,000 miles by train.

This is why many choose the ecological definition-- while it doesn’t necessarily boost local economy, it is backed by the reasoning of environmental impact. Similar research has shown that when crops are grown in a climate they are not native to, they’re produced with the help of greenhouses heated by fossil fuels. In that case, it may be more ecologically friendly to buy produce from its “local climate” even if that climate is further away.

You can see how this only becomes more confusing…

The “Farm-to-table” Fad

So what does this mean for “farm-to-table” establishments? At this point, It may not be surprising to learn that there are little to no regulations on what can or can’t be called “farm-to-table.”

The unofficial definition of farm-to-table (or F2T) entails the majority of the dishes be comprised of fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients. When done honestly, this system will support local, usually organic, farmers and therefore local economy. Chefs will also know all aspects of how livestock and produce was raised, harvested, slaughtered, etc. Finally, all produce should ideally be harvested at peak ripeness to ensure optimal flavor.

Unfortunately, as there is no definitive regulation of the F2T name, it has been increasingly diluted by restaurants to deceive well-intentioned diners and crank up prices. In fact, there have been some proven cases of fraud surrounding these establishments in recent years.

Luckily, there are a few reliable ways to ensure you’re eating at a truly locally-focused establishment :

  • Ask questions. If the restaurant truly knows it’s farmers, ranchers, and fishers, they’ll want to talk about it.

  • Go by the seasons. Look for ingredients that aren’t seasonal. If you’re being served “local tomatoes” in January, raise an eyebrow.

  • Look for information about farms. If there’s no information on the menu, ask the waiter, who will likely be trained to talk about it.

And the best way to eat local, seasonal, and fresh? Grow it yourself! Find out how we support backyard growers here a Avalow.