Spring 2012

Close to Home | Good Food Is Right Around the Corner

Walk into a typical supermarket and you’ll see food from around the world, along with displays and offers that draw consumers toward unhealthy processed products. A growing number of people are seeking alterna­tives to the largely industrialized U.S. food system—and small and midsize farms are answering the call. These farms produce a diverse array of crops and most grow the crops in ways that protect soil and minimize pollution. The good news is that there is more than one way to buy locally grown foods no matter where you live.

A Solution for Every Consumer

One of the most popular local-food venues are farmers markets. The number of markets nationwide has skyrocketed from 340 in 1970 to 7,175 in 2011, and continues to grow. Shoppers like the diverse array of fresh fruits and vegetables (including organic and heirloom varieties), flowers, meats, jams, and other locally made products available at these markets, as well as the opportunity to talk with farmers and learn how the food is produced. Farmers enhance their long-term prospects by learning pricing strategies and obtaining first-hand feedback on customers’ preferences.

Customer surveys reveal that shoppers also enjoy the farmers market atmosphere and the attractiveness of the produce displays. But the benefits extend beyond aesthetics—studies indicate farmers markets provide greater access to organically grown foods, and shoppers buy 75 percent more fruits and vegetables at farmers markets than at supermarkets.

Another local-food distribution mechanism on the rise is the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model, in which consumers buy “shares” of a farm’s harvest in advance, then receive fresh produce and other farm products each week throughout the growing season. Today, there are more than 4,000 CSAs operating across the country.

CSAs simplify shopping, as each shareholder receives the same assortment of food (often in a pre-packed box) and picks it up at a designated time and place. While there may be less variety with CSAs than farmers markets, many CSA members try new foods when they are part of a weekly delivery, and some programs allow members to pick their own produce (like berries and peas) at the farm. But perhaps the most notable benefit of CSAs is the critical capital they raise for small farmers or farmer co-ops in advance of the growing season, when it is needed most.

Beyond the Market Stand

Local-food sales in the United States total $4.8 billion per year, yet farmers markets and CSAs account for less than half of this total; the majority of locally grown food is purchased by institutions including schools, restaurants, hospi­tals, the military, elder care facilities, and even some conventional supermar­kets. Unfortunately, this $4.8 billion represents less than 2 percent of total U.S. agricultural sales. And fruits and vegetables—which make up the bulk of local-food sales—remain under-consumed relative to dietary recommendations.

But these statistics can change. You can help strengthen your local econ­omy, support the growth of sustainable agriculture, improve your health, and even make some new friends by patronizing grocery stores, restaurants, and other retailers that sell locally grown foods—and by asking those that don’t to consider buying from nearby farms.

Also in this issue of Earthwise:


News reports suggest global warming is hurting coffee production. How could it affect other crops?