Have you ever stopped to think how wonderful southeastern North Carolina can be? Living along swamps, oceans and rivers with hot, sunny summers and mild winters. One of my favorite things about this environment is the variety of local foods. Have you been to a farmers market this time of year? It’s a colorful scene of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, and berries, among others, in all different shapes, colors, and sizes. During the pandemic, the conversation around local food systems has intensified across the country, and you can find plenty of information online about the benefits of local foods. Often the information found online can be confusing or misleading. In an effort to clarify current research on local food systems, Dara Bloom, Rebecca Dunning, Joanna Lelekacs, and Emma Brinkmeyer of NC State Extension authored a publication comparing research on common consumer expectations of local food.
One of the most common reasons people choose to eat local is the environmental benefits, largely due to “food miles” or the use of more environmentally friendly growing practices. Producing, processing, packaging and selling food produces most greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption, not necessarily transportation. The amount of food moved must also be considered, in the global food system such amounts of food are moved at the same time that the transport emissions per unit can be lower than in a local food system. Sustainable growing methods can be an important consideration for many local food consumers, and while local food does not guarantee any specific growing method, consumers have the opportunity to build a relationship with the farmer and ask questions about cultivation methods and other sustainable practices.
Many local food consumers choose to do so because of the health benefits. While eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is essential to a healthy diet, local foods are not necessarily healthier than non-local foods. Some advantages of buying local are that produce usually has the advantage of being picked at the peak of maturity, farmers can choose different varieties of produce which may not be suitable for long journeys but taste better, and eat from seasonally encourages consumers to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. You hesitate to buy local products because you have heard that it is more expensive? Research has shown that, on average, local fruits and vegetables sold in direct markets are cheaper than those sold in grocery stores. Many of our local farmers’ markets accept SNAP benefits, and some match those benefits up to $20 for fresh produce.
What I love most about participating in the local food system is that it happens at the community level, whether it’s local markets, community gardens, agritourism, or community-supported agriculture. community. When I go shopping on Saturday mornings, I know I’ll see and chat with farmers, meet people I’ve met at the market or in town, and maybe even hear some music. Research shows that developing the local food system increases the overall sense of community unity, creating more social connections that could lead to more civic engagement and a sense of community pride.
There are plenty of opportunities to shop at local markets, visit a farm, or volunteer at community gardens in New Hanover County. If you haven’t shopped at a local market I encourage you to try and stop and have a look, even if you don’t buy anything you can learn more about what people of your community make and grow. For more information on local foods and the full publication, please visit https://newhanover.ces.ncsu.edu/local-foods-guide/.
Morgan King is the Family and Consumer Sciences Officer at the NC Cooperative Extension Center – New Hanover County Center and Arboretum. The arboretum is free and open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., located at 6206 Oleander Drive, Wilmington. Contact King at [email protected] or 910-798-7660.