Locally Grown

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In response to the piece I published a couple of weeks ago on Tom Brady’s diet, a reader posted the following comment:

Great…except I’m not sure why farmer’s markets are included in the nutrition buzz fad list. I get most of my produce (veges, fruit, cheese, nuts, bread) from farmer’s markets because it’s better quality than the woeful stuff sold in Australian supermarkets, plus it supports local producers rather than the big supermarkets who make life difficult for our farmers.

She is referring to the passage in which I wrote, “He [Tom Brady’s personal chef] hits on nearly every current nutrition buzz phrase except for farmers markets, raw, dairy free, gluten free, and no white foods, but don’t worry, he brings these up later.” The commenter inserted “fad” where I had used the word “phrase,” which may have been intentional or an oversight, but either way I think the substitution fits.

A fad, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal.” Breaking down this definition into parts and focusing first on time, we see evidence that the boom of farmers markets might have a shelf life. Between 1994 and 2013, the number of American farmers markets more than doubled, but is beginning to plateau.

One of the main reasons produce is transported from a distance is because the land and conditions necessary for mass growth do not always exist within local communities. My friend took the following picture of me in front of a corn field in Iowa while we were on our cross-country bicycle trip. He could have panned the camera around in any direction and the picture would have looked pretty much the same. In fact, much of the country through which we rode is comprised of farmland all the way from the roadside to the horizon.

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The United States contains an estimated 954,000,000 acres of farmland and approximately 322,000,000 people, which equates to an average of 2.96 acres of farmland per person. In contrast, my state of Massachusetts is 6,754,560 acres in total and was home to a population of 6,745,408 residents in 2014, which equals a density of only 1.00 acre per person. Even if we were all ready and willing to transform our yards, roofs, and windowsills into our own personal farms, the math suggests we do not have enough land to meet our state’s food demands through local growth alone. The comparison is not perfect, as it neglects to account for exporting, but my point is that while farmers markets may satisfy the complete needs of some individuals and play a partial role for others, they will never be able to satisfy the masses without a radical shift in our population and/or how we construct our society.

The second part of the definition of a fad, “exaggerated zeal,” plays itself out in the belief that produce from farmers markets is inherently better for us and our environment than what one would find in the grocery store. The notion that locally-grown produce contains higher quantities of vitamins and minerals relative to fruits and vegetables shipped from far distances does have merit, as seen with vitamin C, for example, but how much does it matter?

Velandia et al. wrote, “Scurvy [which is caused by vitamin C deficiency] is a disease rarely seen in developed countries where fortified food products and multiple supplements fill the market. However, poor diets devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables and low food variety can still cause this often forgotten disease.” For people whose diets are restricted, upside exists for selecting foods that are dense in nutrients in order to make the most of what they are eating, but otherwise consumption of fruits and vegetables – regardless of whether they are purchased at a farmers market or the grocery store – is enough to prevent such deficiencies.

Buying locally-grown foods spares energy and emissions that would otherwise be expended to transport products from a distance. This makes sense, but the situation is not so black and white. The sample size is small, granted, but of the three farmers markets I have visited in my community, none of them sold organic produce, only conventional foods. How do we weigh which is more harmful/beneficial for the environment: transporting organic produce from a distance, or pouring chemicals into our local community to grow conventional fruits and vegetables? [Note: Additionally, as a reader pointed out after I originally published this piece, the very idea that organic farming practices are more friendly for the environment than conventional methods is up for debate.]

Because their popularity seems temporary in nature and based largely on an exaggerated good/bad food dichotomy, farmers markets make my list of nutrition buzz phrases/fads. Having said that, we make no judgments regarding where people shop or for their rationale for doing so. As long as people have access to the food they need to properly nourish themselves, it’s all good.

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