Some people say an avocado from the farmer’s market in your neighborhood is better for the palate, the conscience, and the planet than the one from a large chain grocery store. You should feel virtuous when you buy locally grown food, they suggest. Localism has been called everything from a trend to a moral obligation, even a fear tactic. With strong arguments from advocates on both sides, it’s difficult to know where to place your food allegiance.

What Exactly Is Local?

Let’s start by defining local. Is it a demarcated radius around your house? Can it be anywhere in your home state? What about in the states bordering yours? The answer may depend on who you ask. There really is no single definition of “local” or “local food systems” in terms of geographic distance between production and consumption. A definition that has caught on particularly well is one that is based on marketing arrangements—where farmers sell directly to, say, regional farmer’s markets or local schools. In 2008, when Congress passed H.R.2419, an amendment to the “Consolidated and Rural Development Act,” they grouped “locally” and “regionally” together:

“(I) the locality or region in which the final product is marketed, so that the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product; or (II) the State in which the product is produced.”

At its heart, “local” is largely seen in terms of ecology or sustainability, where food production takes climate, soil, watershed, and species into account before defining a particular “foodshed”—“that sphere of land, people, and businesses that provides a community or region with its food,” according to Brian Halweil, author of the book Eat Here.

Dr. Harry Watkins, PLNU professor of sustainability, defines local eating this way: “To eat local would be to live off your means, not at the expense of others.”

However eating locally is interpreted, one thing is clear—local food, home gardens, and community-supported agriculture have recently exploded in interest and popularity.

“Locovores,” proponents of purchasing all things close by, see eating locally as both an intrinsic value that supports their home communities as well as a response to big-time farms and food retailers. Documentaries like Food, Inc. and Forks Over Knives and books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma are opening up a larger conversation about the origins and contents of our food.

Food Miles, Food Swap, and Global Food

Margaret Wing-Peterson, PLNU assistant professor of family and consumer sciences, argues that localism is not a trend, but a merited course of action.

“Our hand is being forced,” said Wing-Peterson. “More and more people are realizing we can’t maintain our increased level of, excuse the term, gluttony.”

By gluttony, Wing-Peterson isn’t talking about overeating individually, but as a nation, even a globe. As we become more globalized, we are consuming food from all around the world.

“I often tell my students a honeydew or a strawberry has more airline miles than I do,” said Wing-Peterson.

But it hasn’t always been like this. In the past few decades, food has been making longer and longer trips to our kitchens.

“People everywhere depend increasingly on food from distant sources,” said Eat Here’s Halweil. “In the past 40 years, the value of international trade in food has tripled, and the tonnage of food shipped between nations has grown fourfold while population has only doubled. In the United States, food typically travels between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometers (about 1,500 to 2,500 miles) from farm to plate, up to 25 percent farther than in 1980.”

This increase is partly due to demographics, says Halweil, since more people now live in cities and further from food production centers. Also, and perhaps more significantly, technology allows food to be stored longer, which allows more distant (and cheaper) shipping. This is a recipe for the food system to sprawl.

Food from afar has made food cheaper in some respects and more expensive in others. For those who can afford it, eating produce grown in exotic rain forests or cheese made in the French countryside offers a way to have cross-cultural experiences. That’s one benefit of the globalization of food. Cheaper, faster transportation also allows us to experience foods that are the same—fast and cheap—and not always in the McDonald’s sense. Especially for those living in metropolitan areas, the variety of good food available from around the world is almost endless.

Although it’s fast, long-traveling food still has a shelf life. In response, long-distance travel requires more packaging, refrigeration, and fuel—all of which produce larger amounts of pollution and waste. To travel long distances many foods depend on preservatives and additives, as well as run up against a great number of chances to be contaminated, says Wing-Peterson.

“I often tell my students a honeydew or a strawberry has more airline miles than I do.”

– Margaret Wing-Peterson, M.S, R.D.

One of the cases the local food movement makes is that food that travels far is not as nutritious. When a local farmer picks a carrot hours before heading to a local market, that carrot has had less time to shed its nutrients than a carrot that took a few days to make its way to you by boat, train, or 18-wheeler. (That’s not to say that all local food is getting to you hours after being plucked from the ground or a tree. After all, as previously mentioned, the definition of local is more far-reaching than some might think. Grapes picked in Tulare might be considered just as local to a San Diego market as those picked within county limits.)

Another way our food travels around the world is trade in the most literal sense of the word. Halweil calls it “food swap,” where countries import certain foods even as it exports comparable quantities of the same food, “shuttling hundreds of millions of tons of identical food in opposite directions.”

“In the case of milk,” Halweil writes, “British supermarkets and food manufacturers prefer to buy a standardized, predictable commodity in large quantities from a few sources on the world market, forcing British dairy farmers to sell their milk in international markets. These same economic forces also explain why the label on a bottle of Tropicana brand apple juice says it ‘contains concentrate from Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Argentina, Chile, Turkey, Brazil, China, and the United States.’”

This swap is largely driven by competition and price—wherever a company can find a cheaper product is where it will buy. In many cases, this keeps the price of our food down. But many advocates of localism say it comes at a much larger price. The different countries contributing ingredients to that bottle of apple juice all have a wide range of pesticide standards, for example. Not to mention there are still high costs and emissions involved in transporting food all around the world.

When your food travels longer distances, it is in an attempt to create a more efficient system, since it is more effective for a large farm to produce a larger percentage of a specific crop than for many smaller farms to produce a variety of crops. This is called mono-cropping. But that specific commodity may make a few stops along its long journey. Halweil gives an example from Larry Swain, an economist and University of Wisconsin professor, who has studied the history of food distribution in the United States.

“‘Essentially, all produce that is distributed in the Great Plains must go through [North Platte] for quality control, taste and appearance inspection, inventory,” he says. “… So if a lettuce farmer outside Lincoln wants to sell lettuce to a Wal-Mart in Lincoln, it must first be shipped 225 miles to North Platte for inspection, then be shipped back up to Lincoln.’”

This “jet-lagged” lettuce, as Halweil calls it, seems to be a victim of its own efficiency.

Locovores argue the economics of food differently. They believe the less a piece of food travels, the less extra costs are involved. Additionally, the less food travels, the more it economically benefits the community where it was produced and then purchased. One major argument  for eating local is that it is a boost to local economies, and there is plenty of research to back this up.

In a Washington Post article entitled “The Economics of Local Food,” writer Jane Black gives the example of a World Watch study of farmers in Minnesota.

“In southeast Minnesota, farmers spend $996 million to grow $912 million worth of crops,” she writes. “Similar patterns are found in Iowa, Arizona and Washington. Producing local food could change that, [the study] reports. If those people in southeastern Minnesota bought just 15 percent of their food from local sources, it would generate two-thirds as much income as all the region’s farmers receive from subsidies.”

For individual communities, buying locally reinvests dollars into their local economy. A Civic Economics study evaluated the economic impact of local spending in 10 U.S. cities. The study built on previous findings “explaining the local economic multiplier effect or ‘local premium’—the boost to your local economy that results from locally owned independent businesses, owners, and employees spending business revenue within the region.”

“While chain stores and restaurants extract locally generated revenues from the community with each nightly bank transaction, independents are creating a virtuous cycle of local spending,” says the city of Louisville study. “The extra dollars in the local economy produce more jobs for residents, extra tax revenues for local governments, more investment in commercial and residential districts, and enhanced support for local nonprofits. In short, these businesses create better places.”

Of course it’s difficult to know for sure if this economic impact will expand beyond the city level. In the World Watch study, it is noted that the potential benefits of “shifting food dollars to the local food system are just that: potential.” To date, no community has actually implemented such sharp changes to see if these predictions are correct.

Healing the Food Desert

Economics are not the only argument locovores use to support buying locally grown foods. Benefits to the local community also include something more profound: localism’s ability to serve the marginalized. For many communities, food localism has made the greatest difference not for foodies, but for those at or below the poverty line.

Critics of the local food movement have called it elitist. And in many cases, local food does come with a steep price tag. But many communities are finding that local food production and consumption are actually improving the supply and quality of their food.

A “food desert” is a term used to describe “innercity urban areas with no green-grocers or fresh-food options,” according to Halweil. This definition is also fitting for many rural areas with the same lack of access to fresh food.

One such area is close to home for PLNU. City Heights, a San Diego neighborhood known for its diversity and large refugee population, is a low-income area that previously fit the bill of a food desert. However, Kaley Hearnsberger (10), farming resource coordinator for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), says that things are changing in her neighborhood. She manages the IRC’s New Roots Community Garden in the heart of City Heights.

“Since its redevelopment, City Heights has been gaining more access to healthy, affordable food within walking distance,” said Hearnsberger.

New Roots is built up from a dirt lot that takes up just about one city block. It is home to plots of everything from leafy greens and tomatoes to herbs and medicinal plants. It is also supported by an aquaponics system, which combines traditional aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a closed system. Waste from the fish is filtered out by the plants and used as their vital nutrients, after which the cleansed water is re-circulated back to the fish.

New Roots is helping City Heights shed its previous stereotype as a neighborhood devoid of healthy food options. Much of the food grown in the garden goes home with farmers to feed their families, but the garden also serves as a training ground for urban farmers to learn about aquaponics, and even more importantly, marketing. Many of the urban farmers were also farmers in their home countries, but selling in an urban landscape is a completely new game for them. Those who use the IRC’s garden as a launching pad sell to local restaurants and farmer’s markets. For example, the chef of Local Habit—a restaurant in the neighboring community of Hillcrest—visits the garden often to see the origin of his business’ food as well as the farmers who grow it.

Aside from the more quantitative upsides, Hearnsberger argues there are intangibles.

“Community happens in the exchange of food,” said Hearnsberger, who tells stories of City Heights families who have acclimated to American culture oftentimes by buying or selling food.

The Other Side

In her Journal of Rural Studies article, “The practice and politics of food system localization,” C. Clare Hinrichs wrestles with if localism really is “an apparent counterpoint to globalization,” and realizes it’s actually not so cut and dry.

“On one hand, food system localization may involve defensive, perhaps subtly exclusionary protection of a region constructed as discrete, homogeneous, static and beleaguered,” she writes. “But on the other hand, the very experience of localization can foster social and gustatory exchanges that demand new receptivity to difference and diversity.”

Localism, at first examination, seems a simple remedy to the shortcomings of global food, but many critics think if widespread localization were adopted, it simply wouldn’t work. Perhaps the most prolific criticism of the local food movement is that it is economically unsustainable.

Fears of food shortages driven by population growth, climate change, and waning fertile land have spawned a global food crisis. According to a 2011 article, “The Inefficiency of Local Food,” writer Steve Sexton says, “Experts estimate that in the next 50 years, the global food system likely needs to produce as much food as it did in the previous 10,000 years combined.”

Sexton argues that localism could not sustain such growth. While local farming brings the production of food closer to where it will be consumed, globalized food trade depends on trade and specialization, where production costs depend on local climate and natural resources where a specific crop is grown. Sexton’s article give examples of California and Idaho. California, with its pleasant winters and summers and fertile soil, produces all U.S.-grown almonds and 80 percent of U.S. strawberries and grapes. Idaho, which has warm days, cool nights, and rich volcanic soil, produces 30 percent of U.S. russet potatoes.

Experts estimate that in the next 50 years, the global food system likely needs to produce as much food as it did in the previous 10,000 years combined.

To grow potatoes in California or almonds in Idaho, more amendments would need to be made to optimize growing conditions, or as Sexton puts it, “Forsaking comparative advantage in agriculture by localizing means it will take more inputs to grow a given quantity of food, including more land and more chemicals—all of which come at a cost of carbon emissions.”

It’s difficult to know for sure, on a large scale, how local food production would impact the larger economy or even the environment, but one thing is for sure—big food business has succeeded for a reason.

“… large operations are … more efficient at converting inputs into outputs. Agricultural economists at UC Davis, for instance, analyzed farm-level surveys from 1996-2000 and concluded that there are ‘significant’ scale economies in modern agriculture and that small farms are ‘high cost’ operations. Absent the efficiencies of large farms, the use of polluting inputs would rise, as would food production costs, which would lead to more expensive food,” said Sexton.

Give and Take

PLNU’s dining services provider, Sodexo, embraces both local and non-local purchasing practices. For them, it’s all about balance, says Executive Chef Urs Emmenegger.

And that’s the key—it just would not be feasible for Emmenegger to bring in all local food for various reasons, one being finances, another supply. For example, Sodexo’s most popular produce at PLNU is bananas, which are not grown locally. The trade-off to give students their favorite fruit is to purchase it from farther away.

Emmenegger is constantly looking for ways to purchase other food items locally when the financial trade-off is feasible. He has a list of items, their prices, at which farms they grow, and how far those farms are from campus. Because for PLNU (and for their produce distributor), local means food produced within a 250- mile radius.

“We try to buy as much locally as we can but still keep cost down for students, faculty, and staff,” said Emmenegger.

A Glocal Approach

Food at PLNU is a good example of how many businesses, organizations, and people find that eating local, most times, has its limits. But we each can still do our part to reap the potential benefits of local eating for ourselves and our environment. While the global food market is still necessary, we can take a “glocal” approach. PLNU’s Watkins suggests getting to know a local farmer or growing your own produce with the space you have, buying from a farmer’s market, or becoming a part of community-supported agriculture. With each small decision, you reap benefits for your body and your conscience—while still enjoying the occasional banana.

Sharon is a PLNU alumna as well as the former Vide President of Marketing and Creative Services at PLNU.