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It’s Easy Being Green: The New Organic Helps Save the Planet

SOURCE: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Michelle Obama sets a good example and shops at a farmers' market for local produce near the White House.

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Four women in San Francisco coined the term “locavore” in 2005, and since then many similar groups have popped up all around the country. Each has the same idea: eating locally helps the environment, improves health, stimulates the local economy, and simply tastes better. For these reasons locally grown and produced food has been called “the new organic.” The New Oxford American Dictionary even named locavore their word of the year in 2007.

Today, the average conventionally grown vegetable travels more than 1,500 miles to your neighborhood grocery store. Brook Levan, from the documentary film, “Locavore,” comments on the journey of food in the film, saying, “We’re eating oil, right now, and we’re eating out of trucks, and that’s not going to last for much longer.”

He’s right. Every trip to the grocery store adds to our carbon footprint. In fact a 2005 study in the journal Food Policy found that eating local foods is greener than eating organic foods because the miles traveled by organic food create environmental damage that outweighs the benefit of buying organic in the first place. Additionally, a study in Iowa found that by eating locally, one consumes 17 times less oil and gas than a typical diet with food shipped across the nation.

These kinds of facts show how important it is to make more of an effort to eat locally, and there are plenty of resources to help you get started.

Jennifer Maiser, editor of the blog Eat Local Challenge, says that the first step to becoming a locavore is determining what local means to you, be it creating a radius of 10 miles or 100 miles. There are even online tools to help you do this. Additional steps include shopping at your local farmers’ market, lobbying your grocery store to invest in more local foods, signing up for a local community supported agriculture program, starting your own garden (like Michelle Obama’s White House garden), or even hosting a locavore Thanksgiving.

Eating locally doesn’t restrict you to your own kitchen, either. Many restaurants are making an effort to use more local ingredients—some exclusively so. And if you’re looking for a low-key way to start joining the locavore movement, try to pick a few foods that you can commit to buying locally each week, such as those currently in season. Lucky for you, there’s an iPhone app for that.

Besides environmental benefits, eating locally tends to put more fruits and vegetables on families’ plates, which is essential to any healthy diet. It’s not yet clear whether local or organic foods have more nutrients than conventionally grown produce, but several locavores claim that eating less processed foods leads to a noticeable increase in general well-being. There are economical benefits as well. Every dollar spent locally can generate up to six times as much income for the local economy. Plus, most local produce at farmers’ markets has been picked within 24 hours and tastes fresher and better than food shipped from thousands of miles away.

Locavores have their critics, like Stephen Budiansky, who claims that locavores promote “arbitrary rules” and misunderstand concepts such as “food-miles,” leading them to misrepresent reality. Budiansky claims locavores incorrectly see local eating not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. But the important thing to remember is that your efforts really do make a difference. Eating locally is the number one thing consumers can do to cut carbon emissions and energy use. If everyone ate one meal a week from a local source, over 50 million barrels of oil per year could be saved.

A locavore in the documentary by the same name said, “If more people had gardens…yeah, I think it’d be a better world.” She’s right. More gardens, more farms, and more locavores will help make the world a greener place. So what are you waiting for?

(If you’re curious about what it’s like to be a locavore, check out these testimonials from LocavoreNation, a group of 15 individuals who throughout all of 2008 tried to get 80 percent of their food from local, organic, and seasonal sources.)

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