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Local Food, Local Farmers

Taking “local” to a whole new level and embracing the cultural connections of our cuisine.

This post is inspired by a piece I wrote in 2015 for National Geographic when I worked for America’s Dairy Farmers. I talked with IRI about “local” on their podcast as we entered the 2020 holiday season, too. It’s a topic that deserves more attention and one you can always ask me about. Let’s dig in.

Does it surprise you to know that there is currently no agreed upon, formal definition of “local” food? One would think that with all the attention and conversation about it, somewhere along the way, there would be a bit more clarity about this to reduce confusion and make it even easier to trust and know more about the food choices we have.

In a way, that is part of the beauty of food conversations. They are personal. There is no ONE right answer or way to eat. There is room for choice to get the nutrition we need to care for ourselves and our planet.

This is also true for how we think about what “local” actually refers to. What does “local” mean to you? What does it mean to your neighbors, family, friends, and social media connections? How do your favorite companies, restaurants, and brands define it?

Here are three things you can do to master the local conversation.

  1. Start at the beginning of the story. Too often in food, we dive into the middle of a topic without setting the stage. You know how it’s super annoying to miss the first few minutes of a movie where you learn the characters and basic point of the story? Think of it like that. When you want to talk local, start by telling people what you mean. Is it in your state? The region of the country you are in? Within 400 miles of the store or market you are shopping? All of these could be right. One way to get a better grip on this is to connect with your local farm bureau, state department of agriculture, and/or check out MyPlate, MyState. There are other great resources for local food information, too. If you have kids, ask them to discover what is grown and raised near you to help them learn about their food. Don’t forget to consider local food companies in addition to farmers. It’s fun to know the story of favorites beyond fruits, veggies, dairy, grains, and protein. Your favorite treat, condiment, or spice? They are local to somewhere, too.
  2. Know that food is grown and raised where it makes sense to do so. Farmers consider the land, weather, and other factors needed for a successful harvest year after year. They choose what makes the most sense for their farm and use natural resources wisely to ensure we have a safe, abundant food supply no matter where we live. This is true around the world, so supporting local farmers is even more important than only thinking about local food. No banana farms in Illinois? Smart. Game changer to the conversation, right?
  3. Support local farmers and local food to connect on a deeper level. When we think of our family’s favorite recipes passed down through generations, there is a good chance that they are tied to where our families are from and to food local to that area. Whatever continent your family started on has a great food story to tell. Whatever town or region you were born in – you guessed it – there is a food story there, too. Focusing on this aspect of local honors our culture, heritage, and farmers around the world in a much more relevant way. Pretty cool.

Next time you grocery shop and plan a meal or snack, picture the farmers growing or raising it.

When you use that favorite family recipe passed down through the generations, consider how it came to be in that special place of honor.

Whatever you eat, wherever you are, food is a part of our story. Let’s let “local” steer us in a way that honors all of this.

By Kim Kirchherr

Dietitian and ACSM Certified Personal Trainer with farm to table expertise.

3 replies on “Local Food, Local Farmers”

Hi Kim, enjoyed the article and especially point #2 as it relates to how grocers highlight local but also help educate in the process.

Hope you are doing well!

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Great insight into the meaning of local and how it is more of a personal perspective than a circle on the map. Here in Chicago I think of Chicago Hot Dogs or Deep Dish Pizza, but my home when I was a kid was on the far south side where a lot of onion farms were. And my Hungarian heritage seems so local within my family circle. I really enjoyed your insights, thanks for sharing.

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Thank you so much, Bob, for reading and sharing your comments. Those are exactly the layers of connection we need to continue to honor and celebrate. Helping everyone see their own stories and connections within this complex, wonderfully diverse story of food and farming.

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