The Next Course

Our View: Buying Food Locally Is A Sound Policy But Requires Consumers To Act

July 16, 2009

When we run an item past the supermarket scanner, we're voting for local or not, organic or not."

That's one of the more critical observations made in the scathing new documentary film, Food, Inc., that raises important questions about the nation's food supply, its impact on health and safety and the big business the production of food has become over the last half-century.

Not only is it true that we are what we eat, but, increasingly, what we eat is having an extraordinarily adverse impact on ourselves and our environment. Growing incidences of food-borne illnesses, diabetes, obesity and cancer (and many other human disorders related to pesticides) can be directly traced, at least in part, to the unsustainable and unhealthy ways we grow, process and distribute our food.

Consumers may be attracted to having seasonal fruits and vegetables available in their grocery stores year-round, but the environmental consequences of shipping produce halfway around the world are considerable in the wasting of fossil fuel and the resulting release of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The alternative is to buy local - and preferably organic. But as Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Vozzella recently chronicled, what chain grocery stores advertise as local could hail from as far away as Chile and New Zealand. Maryland law does not require stores to adhere to any particular standard.

That ought to change, but such a law would be only a small part of a solution. The real burden lies with food shoppers who face the choice of buying local or not, and organic or not, every time they shop for their next meal. Until they insist on more healthful options, all the grocery stores, markets and restaurants that have grown accustomed to the reliability and convenience of large-scale providers supplying faster, fatter, bigger and cheaper foods on demand are unlikely to change their policies.

This afternoon, Gov. Martin O'Malley is scheduled to host a backyard cookout with Maryland producers and chefs at Government House in Annapolis to showcase the variety of fresh products available locally. The event launches the state's annual "buy local challenge," which asks residents to eat at least one locally grown item each day for seven days, beginning this weekend.

Eating locally would not seem so difficult a chore in mid-July, when Maryland farmer's markets are loaded with fresh corn, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and other fare. Still, it requires more consumers to become better educated about what's available and how to find it and prepare it. People must also be made more aware of the many health and environmental benefits of buying locally.

State agriculture officials say the "buy local" movement is already having an impact. The number of small-scale farms providing fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs, meat and wine to the marketplace is growing. But it can (and must) grow much further still - if the public is willing to "vote" for it at the grocery checkout.

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