Buy Local for Health and Farmer Wealth

Create family feasts from goods grown in your region

Commentary by Carrie Madren

Before Brussels sprouts roast in butter and holiday hams simmer in savory sauces, every home cook must forage for foodstuffs. Before you shop for provisions, consider what ingredients you might procure locally or from regional producers.

Buying local goods has both health benefits and advantages for your local environment — as well as for the entire Chesapeake region. And thanks to special holiday markets, Community Supported Agriculture farms and efforts like cooperatives and food hubs, local foods are available throughout the year.

Although many seasonal farmers’ markets close in October, many hold a special holiday market day, and some community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs) offer year-round service. In addition, to make small and mid-size farms’ goods more accessible, ‘food hubs’ have cropped up from Virginia to New York. These hubs use a business model that makes regional food more available. By aggregating and redistributing food, hubs use purchasing power to help goods get from small or mid-size farms to markets, grocers, restaurants, CSAs, schools and more.

Most food hubs have a permanent facility or storage space for food and equipment; hub management coordinates logistics such as finding outlets for goods. Many hubs also offer farmer trainings and apprenticeships or internships to boost the local growing community. And, according to a 2011 survey, nearly half of the food hubs distributed food products to communities where fresh foods are otherwise hard to find.

These hubs are scattered throughout the mid-Atlantic. One, dubbed Local Food Hub, operates out of Charlottesville, Va., and distributes food from more than 50 small farms within a 100-mile radius to more than 100 regional locations.

Farther north, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative sells locally grown certified organic food to retail establishments, co-ops, restaurants and institutions in eastern Pennsylvania, New York City and beyond. About 75 farmers make up this non-profit cooperative, which has a CSA for individuals and families, and a wholesale program for businesses and institutions.

Buying local has caught on in the mid-Atlantic region and throughout the United States, and has revenues to the tune of more than a billion dollars a year across the country. Food hubs, CSAs and farmers’ markets help to create more outlets for high-value crops — such as vegetables, fruits, flowers, ornamentals, condiments and spices — which bring in more income per acre than other types of crops.

By purchasing from local growers, we can help farmland to stay farmland. Farms that thrive keep acres of the Chesapeake Bay watershed green and clear of development. Land that stays agricultural can help prevent the environmental problems brought on by development (such as stormwater runoff) if they follow ‘best management practices’ such as planting cover crops and maintaining stream buffer zones.

In addition, a wider diversity of local farms ensures that locally grown goods will be available for years to come.

Buying local may yield another benefit as well: Many local, sustainable-food proponents advocate that buying from regional farms may be safer for your holiday crowd. That’s because local food has less risk of coming from recalled batches (with traces of salmonella or other harmful bacteria), often tracked back to mega-farms across the country. Transport, multi-step handling and storage are often where problems arise; for instance, long voyages in a truck or train offer bacteria a chance to colonize. Any local outbreaks, on the other hand, can be pinpointed and resolved more quickly.

Buyers should know, though, that though smaller farms have more oversight and control over their products, they have fewer safety laws to comply with compared with big producers. So cooks should still wash produce and mindfully work with raw goods to keep themselves and their families healthy. Salad greens should be immersed in a bowl of water and rinsed; fruits with stems, such as apples, trap bacteria more easily, and should be thoroughly rinsed and rubbed. Eggs should be thoroughly cooked, and home chefs should still wash their hands frequently.

In addition, by buying from a local grower or producer, you may be able to find out how foods are grown — if farmers used pesticides, chemicals or hormones. If you’re buying directly from farmers or growers, just ask, so you can make an informed decision.

So as you gather goods for holidays feasts, remember that we vote for farms with our dollars, and not only can you get more nutritious foods harvested close to home by mid-Atlantic farms, you can help keep those farms going year after year.

Carrie Madren writes about environmental issues, Chesapeake life and sustainable living. She lives in Olney, Maryland. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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