From (Maryland) Farm to Table
It’s getting easier these days to eat locally and sustainably. With increased demand from consumers, this movement toward eating with community and conscience in mind can no longer be called a passing fad. As Americans—and Marylanders—continue to become more aware of how and where their food is grown, more stores, markets, and vendors are looking at the local and sustainable model and making changes to support the movement toward local and sustainable.
The search for local and sustainable food has now stretched beyond the local farmers’ markets. From the corner mom and pop store to local grocers like Roots Market in Clarksville and Olney, Maryland, to big chains like Whole Foods, there are signs placed among the fresh produce that proudly proclaim, “Grown 50 miles from here!” or labels on the butcher’s display that read, “Sustainably raised!” Restaurants like Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen use as a selling point that fact their ingredients are locally sourced, from their meats and vegetables, down to the earthly Maryland reds on their wine list.
But what does it mean to “eat local?” What makes your food sustainable? And what are the benefits to you and your community?
Support Your Local Economy
When you make the choice to eat locally, you are supporting local economies, workers, and businesses, and in turn, helping to create jobs and investing in the economic base of your county and state.
“To me, by buying local we are supporting each other,” says Laura Bavetta of Langelo Farms in Taneytown, Maryland. She says, “Large corporations don’t necessarily put their profits back into the local community,” especially when they are headquartered in another state.
Local food doesn’t just stop at produce. Steve Vilnit, Director of Fisheries Marketing for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources adds, “Two of our largest fisheries alone directly support over 5,000 watermen. That doesn’t include the processors, the check in stations, or any of the other industries that are in business because of these harvests.” Here is local food in action creating local jobs.
In Maryland there are some 12,800 farms, with the majority in the north central part of the state and in the upper Eastern Shore. These farms average 160 acres each. Agriculture remains the single largest single use of land in Maryland, and that’s not even counting the fishermen (and women) and vineyards employees who work every day to bring farm fresh food to our tables and restaurants.
Know Where Your Food Is Coming From
You may have seen the striking images of some of the terrible conditions on factory farms where animals are penned in snout to snout and beak to beak, but what you can’t see are the hormones and antibiotics these animals are fed before they find their way on your dinner plate. “I pay more attention to the food I buy now that I have children,” says Bavetta. “I am more aware of preservatives, chemicals, and other additives,” which could have unexpected consequences on health, especially in growing children.
When you know where your food is coming from, there will likely be fewer steps between you and your food, meaning it is less likely there will be contamination that happens when food finds its way to middle men processors. For instance, if there is an E.coli outbreak in bagged lettuce, how do you know its source for sure? If you buy from local vendors you know not only the name of the farm it came from, but its location, and maybe even the people who grew it. “The best way for the general public to make responsible choices is to fully understand where their food is coming from . . . buying our locally harvested product helps make that information gathering easier,” says Vilnit.
Reduce Your Carbon Footprint and Encourage Sustainability
According to a 2008 report in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, produce typically travels 1,500 miles to reach its final destination. That mileage, and its carbon footprint, adds up for every piece of food that reaches your table. Hilary Clark, Roots Market’s produce buyer says of her store’s commitment to local food: “By sourcing locally, we cut down the time from farm to table by more than 50 percent,” By buying locally, consumers are reducing the number of miles a farm is shipping its product, and by buying locally consumers are also encouraging markets to do the same.
This also applies to local aquacultures, especially in a coastal state like Maryland. Vilnit says, “Buying local certainly lowers the environmental impact of the seafood we buy. Consider that one pound container of crabmeat in the grocery store. How much fuel did it take to harvest that product, package it, and deliver it to the market? Now, look at the country of origin. Does your answer change if it was packed in Cambridge, Maryland versus Asia?”
And what about sustainability? “The most effective fishing methods may not be the best when it comes to being sustainable,” says Vilnit, but he says that by supporting sustainable foods, consumers can also encourage farmers and other vendors to adjust their sustainability practices by showing them a demand for products harvested in an eco-conscious way.
Food Tastes Fresher and Better
A tomato picked in Mexico during the middle of winter may look perfect—round and red and the perfect size to fit into the palm of your hand—but when you take a bite it is mealy and flavorless. One reason for this is that this tomato often isn’t in season. Another reason is that it was likely picked while it was still green and “ripened” with ethylene gas (which changes its color but doesn’t improve its flavor). “Most produce in the United States is picked four to seven days before being placed on supermarket shelves,” says Craig, so it makes sense that after it has traveled 1,500 miles to get to you, food won’t be nearly as fresh, tasty, or nutrient rich.
Buying locally and sustainably also means buying foods in season. When you buy in season you are getting food at the height of its natural flavorful and freshness. Nothing beats a fresh ear of sweet corn in the hot summer months, or fresh apples as fall approaches.
Craig points out that in the local season, Roots will offer as many local items as possible. “During the local season, I would estimate our selection to be 70% local, and the remaining 30% items which need to be sourced outside the region. We make a special effort to promote our local items, as we believe they are not only fresher and tastier, but better for the environment and the local community,” says Craig.
One thing about buying locally and in season though, is this, says Laura Bavetta: “Consumers may, at times, have to pay a bit more and be more forgiving of appearance.” While some local produce might not pass the grocery store beauty test, it’s what on the inside that counts. Remember, Bavetta warns, “The beautiful, shiny, perfectly round apple at the grocery store has likely been sprayed and shellacked with chemicals.”
Buying locally will also open you up to a greater variety of foods than you might not find at your local supermarket. A farmers’ market or community support agriculture (CSA) might carry sweet, red elephant heart plums, fresh spring ramps, heirloom tomatoes, whole rabbit, and quail eggs. Expand your food horizons by exploring farmers’ markets and stands and checking out grocery stores that carry local products that are uniquely Maryland.
“Where the product is grown presents its own uniqueness,” says Carol Wilson of the award-winning Elk Run Vineyards in Mt. Airy, Maryland. “One thing I learned growing up in Maryland is that wine from Southern Maryland is not the same as wine from New York or California. That’s what makes us different and our state so diverse.”
Grow Your Own Garden
What could be more local and sustainable than your very own garden? When you grow your own fruits and vegetables you know exactly the source and the conditions under which your food was grown. And if you want fresh, nothing beats straight off the vine! The total distance of farm to table is only as far as your garden to your kitchen.
Home gardening can also save you money. You can cut down on trips to the grocery store, thereby reducing your fuel consumption. If you feel limited by your space—say, you live on the third floor of an apartment building—you can still grow fresh herbs in clay pots on your fire escape.
If gardening isn’t your thing, though, there are a wide variety of places in Maryland where you can get your local food fix. We’ve listed some for you here in our pages, but we always love hearing from our readers. If you have some favorite shopping places to share, please come to our website at www.womensjournalmd.com and let us know about local farms, markets, and restaurants that we can add to our resource list!
Additional posts by Lynda Phung
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