The benefits of local food

The benefits of local food

December 14th, 2009 in Opinion Times

Like Americans around the country, many Chattanooga area residents have become increasingly aware of food quality and food consumption issues. We're reminded almost daily of the dire health effects of soaring levels of obesity and disease from eating unhealthy food products larded with sodium, sugar and a staggering array of chemicals and additives. So it's not surprising that a counter-trend focused on healthy, fresh, local food has taken root here among many people concerned about proper nutrition and the quality of the food they put into their bodies.

Several wonderful off-shoots of the growing local food movement are evident. The Chattanooga Market, for instance, reports that it sold more than $450,000 in local produce, meat and bread this year. The Main Street Farmers' Market, which convenes most Wednesday afternoons in the Southside, continues to attract regular customers who want a range of fresh produce, free-range poultry, organic eggs and meat and sausages from grass-fed animals.

Many garden and farm-share co-ops also have sprung up through word-of-mouth networks, drawing people into community gardening and support of local farms through purchase of family crop shares delivered fresh weekly in bags and baskets of abundant seasonal produce. More people also are rediscovering the tasty rewards of purchasing shares of aged, grass-fed beef grown and butchered locally.

In fact, growth of the local food movement has progressed far enough to prompt broader interest in supporting its development both for health and environmental reasons, and for the benefit to the region's economy. The Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, for example, found in a 2008 survey that a five percent increase in consumption of local food would translate into a $100 million impact on the local economy -- and help staunch the sad but steady loss of local family farms.

Crabtree Farms, one of the area's first community gardens, also confirms both growing interest in the local food movement and the economic value, in addition to health and environmental values.

Developing the local food industry into a viable, healthy alternative for a larger market area, however, yet requires some organizational aid to local farms to help them meet and match the needs of potential customers.

Toward that end, the Benwood Foundation has recently issued a competitive call for projects that would work to increase the number and capacity of local growers and producers. The foundation, advised by a panel of national food-system reform experts, will award up to $250,000 in grants to individuals or groups over the next three years to advance innovative and collaborative ways to advance the local food economy.

Benwood didn't come to its grant program without diligent research on the value and potential of a stronger local food industry. The foundation organized focus groups to scope out issues in the local food economy, visits to cities that have established local food industries, and interviews with growers, producers and distributors to learn the needs and potential of a local food movement.

A revived local food industry, Benwood reasonably believes, would have multiple benefits. Foremost, it would reconnect area residents with fresher, healthier foods. That would improve health and simultaneously mitigate the downside of the giant agri-business culture that now stocks grocery stores with foods transported an average of 1,500 miles. Collecting, storing and shipping foods collected from big farms all over the country, and the world, retards freshness, uses immense amounts of fuel and energy, generates immense pollution, and allows more preservatives, chemicals and pesticides to find a way into our foods.

Consumption of fresh, healthier local foods would counter these negative and costly trends. It would also help save local farms and generate more local jobs. If restaurants, schools, hospitals and other institutions used more local foods as well, it would make for healthier customers, children and patients, and promote better nutrition for everyone.

Those are worthy goals all around for a healthier, more prosperous community and the local farms we can support.