The Strong Towns Strength Test features this important question: If you wanted to eat only locally-produced food for a month, could you? In most towns, the answer is probably "no." Below are five ways to shift the dial in the direction of "yes."
For those of us in the north, it can be a little hard to think about local food in the dead of winter. The only local food available in my city is probably frozen, canned, or at least refrigerated from last year's harvest. But now is actually the perfect time to consider ways to support your local food system because the planting season will begin before you know it and some of these activities require planning ahead.
Here are 5 ways to prioritize local food in your daily life:
1. Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).
CSAs have been around for decades and have grown to serve cities and towns across the country. In a CSA, farmers ask for a financial investment from residents in their area who then receive regular deliveries of produce from that farm during the harvest season. Data from the USDA indicates that at least 12,617 farms across the United States have some sort of CSA system in place (and that data is from 2012 so I'm guessing the number has grown since then). Chances are, there is a CSA option near you. A CSA offers a way to not only enjoy fresh locally grown food on a regular basis without a trip to the grocery store, but it also provides a connection to the farmers growing your food. Many CSAs invite their members to visit their farm, help out on big harvest days, and share meals. The CSAs I've been part of in the past sent out newsletters with their deliveries, offering updates on the growing season and even recipes for the veggies included in the week's haul. These days, I encounter more and more CSAs that are also selling eggs and meat as optional add-ons to the regular produce deliveries. You really could do most of your food purchasing through a CSA.
Right now is a great time to research CSAs in your area because many are taking sign-ups for the 2017 harvest. I'm in the process of signing my family up this week. You can look up your nearest CSA using this national database, or through an easy google search.
2. Visit a local restaurant.
Local restaurants that prioritize using locally-produced food are another good way to support your community's food system. Restaurants may be able to access food that you, as a regular consumer, are unable to purchase because you're not buying in bulk or you don't have the relationship with the farmer that a restaurant can have. Many restaurants in my city now proudly list their local suppliers on their menus or on the walls of their cafe, and I've seen it in other cities too. Even if something's not publicly listed, it's always worth asking about at your favorite spots.
As a bonus, a restaurant can provide an entry point to a local farm for an individual consumer. It was through a dinner at a Milwaukee-based farm-to-table restaurant called Braise that I learned about the farm where I recently purchased a quarter pig and am now planning to join a CSA. Braise has actually pioneered an RSA (restaurant supported agriculture) which supplies other area restaurants with locally produced food. How cool is that?
3. Start a home garden or join a community garden.
Short of living on a farm, a personal garden or community garden is the closest you can get to local food. That's the definition of local. Even though it's not the high growing season yet, now is a good time to start planning your home garden (considering what you'll plant, where you'll get your seeds and supplies, how you'll make time to tend your garden, etc.) or to research and join a community garden. I wrote about my experience with a tiny garden (and I don't event have a yard) last year, so truly, anyone can do it. If this is your first time gardening, start small and easy with some herbs or tomatoes. Ask your friends, neighbors and family members who are good at gardening to give you some tips. Joining a community garden is another good way to learn from (and meet) your neighbors.
4. Be your own local food producer.
To answer "Yes" to the question If you wanted to eat only locally-produced food for a month, could you? we can't just focus on growing local food. We also need to make sure that there are local options for processing, cooking, baking, and preserving our food. Supporting local bakeries, butchers, and coffee roasters is a good way to do that. Another way is learning to do those things yourself.
Whether it's simply teaching yourself basic cooking skills (and using a friend, YouTube video or class to help you) or developing more advanced skills like bread baking, canning, cheese making, etc., taking food production into your own hands can save your family money and ensure that, when times are tough (or when global food prices are high), you have options.
I spent my Sundays in 2016 honing my bread baking skills and trying out different bread recipes. Producing delicious loafs for my family's weekly lunches and dinners (and sometimes the lucky neighbor) cost me nothing more than the occasional bag of flour and packet of yeast (and now that I've graduated to sourdoughs, I don't even need store-bought yeast). By no means do you need to spend your weekends baking bread in order to learn basic food production skills, but that's how it manifested for me. And now I have a skill I'll carry with me for the rest of my life.
5. Shop at a farmers market.
According to the USDA, there are more than 8,600 farmers markets currently operating in the United States. That means you have no excuse for not visiting one. Farmers markets usually operate on a weekly basis during the summer and fall months, or more often if you're lucky to live in a temperate climate or a big city. Farmers markets are an easy and cheap way to get to know local food and purchase whatever looks tasty. They're also a way to meet farmers and other local producers (candle makers, jam canners, etc.). While a CSA requires a time and financial commitment, a farmers market is a simpler opportunity to get yourself eating food from nearby farms.
Local food options are a key component of a strong town because, quite simply, we all need food to survive. If you rely heavily on food shipped in from other states and other countries, you are at the whims of those production cycles and costs. In order to be truly strong, your town needs multiple reliable sources of local food. You can help your town get stronger by trying out one of the five methods above.
(Top photo by Saskia2586)