When it comes to our food, what do we really mean when we say local?

As part of my role with National Dairy Council, I wrote this post which originally appeared on National Geographic’s site.  You can see it here: When it comes to our food, what do we really mean when we say local?.

Where does our food come from? This question is top of mind for many people these days, especially when selecting food and making the best choices we can to support our health goals. As we become more removed from the farm (most people are at least four-plus generations removed from farming), we are intrigued by farmers, and want a closer connection to our food.

It feels good to say we support local farmers and ranchers, but what does “local” actually mean?

As a dietitian, whether counseling patients one on one after a diabetes diagnosis or to lose weight, or addressing a crowd about healthier choices and what that means, it’s my job to make nutrition make sense – take the science and turn it into information that informs people how to take the next step to better health from wherever they start.

Nutrition education used to focus on specific nutrients, or managing mealtime from a disease-state perspective. Then the food conversation got bigger. Time and skill for cooking lessened. It wasn’t just about the best food choices from each food group anymore, but now includes how to prepare foods that may not have made their way to the menu before.

Fast forward a few more years, and we see choices for what makes it into the grocery cart influenced by how people feel about where food comes from, how it’s grown or raised, and its overall impact not only on one person or one family, but on the community and world as well.

That’s a whole lot to consider! Here are three ways to make mealtime matter one food choice at a time, one meal at a time, and one person at a time:

Define “local.” It may be surprising that local doesn’t have a definition that everyone agrees about. We generally know what we mean when we hear or reference local, but if shopping and supporting local farmers and ranchers is a passion think about what this means to you. For example, if you live in the Midwest, but love bananas, your definition of local may mean finding bananas that are grown and raised with environmental considerations in their native climate. Check out how your favorite grocery store defines local, or talk to the farmers. You’ll see they are responding to our desire for a closer connection to our food, too. In addition to the traditional grocery store, they are finding new ways to connect with us, like Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) services, help bring the farm to fork and fork to farm concept to life.

— Sassy Cow Creamery is one farm making the shift to fulfil peoples’ interest in local food. “In 2008, after much discussion and research, we thought the timing was right to build our on-farm food facility and provide our community with locally produced milk and dairy foods under the Sassy Cow brand,” explained James Baerwolf, one of the farm’s owners. The creamery has since hosted two community dinners with Outstanding in the Field. “We’ve had great conversation around the table from a diverse group of chefs, farmers, cheese makers and other local food artisans,” said Baerwolf.

— For local farmer, Emily Jackson, her family has been raising dairy cattle outside of Waco, Texas for over five generations. The Jackson family provides nutritious dairy products to their community and also raises beef cattle, corn and wheat that is used for bread! As a member of a milk cooperative, Emily adds, “All of our milk goes to the co-op and they are able to bring it straight to the local community. Butter and cheese from our farm can be found on our local grocery store shelves. We also enjoy welcoming people to our farm to learn more and continue to be confident in the care we give our animals and in the safety and quality of the food my farm provides.”

Manage food waste. Did you know that a third of the food produced in this country is wasted? Sometimes, making a difference locally can literally start in our own homes. Organize your pantry, freezer and refrigerator to make it easy to see what you have on hand, and find recipes that use these items. Make a grocery list to complete meals from these recipes, and mealtime becomes a snap. Learn about expiration dates, sell by and use by dates, too, so food is not discarded before its time.

Use resources wisely. Did you know a fully stocked refrigerator and freezer aremore energy efficient? Or that using the right size pot for the burner, or using the lids to your pots saves energy? The steps we take at home to better manage our resources makes a difference locally.

In addition to managing time and resources, planning ahead helps you take charge of what you eat. If you make it, you know exactly what goes in it. Can you eat healthier on a budget? Yes! Check out the USDA Thrifty Meal Plan for ideas on how to plan your meals better and help ensure that the food grown for us is honored by making it stretch as far as it can go.

No matter how we each define “local”, connecting with local farmers and ranchers helps connect us with our food and deepen our relationships within our own communities. Food brings people together and we look forward to more conversations that lead to deeper understanding and appreciation of the hard working families that ensure we have food on our tables to nourish and sustain us.

my pic wi
late afternoon on a Wisconsin farm I toured