The United States’ complex and large-scale food system provides me the ability to walk into any grocery store and pull from the shelf any food I love, whenever I want them.

That way, I can enjoy my morning coffee from Colombia, fresh peaches from Georgia, and an occasional juicy cheeseburger from Texas, without a second thought. 

This is a luxury me and millions of other consumers took for granted. Today, market disruptions from COVID-19 have spurred nation-wide food shortages.

Short on “thyme”? Try the speed read.

The scoop With increased pressure on supply chains from COVID-19, food systems are seeing a shift toward local-purchasing. For environmental purposes, maintaining local food supplies post-pandemic will be crucial.

Support farmers markets, food hubs, and community-supported agriculture. Ride the wave toward more resilient and sustainable food systems.

Things to know

  • Large-scale and complex food systems buckled under the unpredictability and immeasurable pressures of a global pandemic
    • Millions of pounds of food products lost across the US
    • Grocery stores are dealing with food shortages
  • Consumers are shifting to purchasing locally and local farmers face an increased demand for local food
  • We need resilient and sustainable food systems even after the pandemic
  • How to support local and shop small:
    • Farmers’ Markets
    • Community Supported Agriculture Programs
    • Food Hubs

Bottom line Eating local should not be expensive or exclusive. You can buy local food based on what fits your schedule and budget. Sustainable and local food systems rely on consumer behavior.

There is no doubt a major increase in local purchasing during COVID. However, reaching sustainable development goals and building resiliency in food systems requires your action to support local farmers. Buy local.

Dig deeper → 5 min

Relying on global food systems

COVID-19 sent shock-waves through large-scale agriculture production, distribution, and consumption. The disruption caused severe economic and product losses for farmers nationwide.

At the start of the pandemic, lagoons and manure pits filled with thousands of gallons of fresh milk, millions of onions filled constructed ditches, and perfectly ripe vegetables found their home plowed underneath soil.

As schools, restaurants, and hotels shut their doors, they also shut off a market stream for producers. These food-makers planned and planted their fields well before a global pandemic was in sight.

Large-scale farmers and producers suffered from devastating and heartbreaking losses. The complex food supply chain broke under the immeasurable and unpredictable pressure of COVID-19.

The global pandemic forced consumers to question our reliance on this food system designed to bring the lowest-priced goods as quickly as possible.

A shift toward local, sustainable systems

COVID-19 catalyzed the importance of a local, sustainable food movement. Local food systems successfully pivoted and maintained resiliency during a crisis. They also support the environment, local communities, and local economies.

There are many reasons to support eating local. You can reduce your environmental footprint, you can stay healthier, you can help build up your community. We can even take a look at the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and see that local eating plays a huge role in Goals 2, 11, 12, and 13 (seen below).

Figure 1. Sustainable Development Goals Supported by Local Purchasing

Apart from sustainability awareness, the impact from COVID-19 brings a previously unmatched call to action for supporting local businesses and communities.

As people start to settle back into their busy lives at the office or in the classroom, it is critical to keep the momentum strong behind local food.

How do we keep this momentum moving? Or, if you are new to bringing local eating into your life – how do you even start? Keep reading for some resources to help!

‘Romaine’ Calm – Your Guide to Supporting Local Food Systems

It is no secret, starting to eat local can be overwhelming. I grew up on canned vegetables and did not know how to cook fresh food until a few years ago. I was on a diet of pasta and chicken patty’s y’all!

The “local food scene” felt so intimidating. In addition, as a college-student strapped for cash, I was nervous that buying locally would cost me money that I did not have.

However, not only did I learn that people are excited to share and talk about food (without judgement) but also my grocery bill didn’t need to raise a cent. In fact, sometimes I even saved money eating locally, and you could too!

Lettuce’ Try – Farmers’ Markets

The first step that I took was to look at what I could start buying locally. I didn’t want to change my diet all at once nor did I know how to do so economically.

So I picked two or three grocery items and started buying them at local markets. I loved the atmosphere, the community, and my fresh veggies.

If finances are a barrier to buying local, ask farmers if they have any seconds available. Seconds are bruised, misshapen, or may have an insect bite or two and often cannot be sold for regular market value. You can often find them at deeply discounted rates.

One small farmer told me “If you can buy something full price, you should. But if not, ask about seconds because that farmer is still making money off of a potentially lost product”.

Despite COVID-19, farmers’ markets across the country are still open, with safety precautions of course. You can find markets close-by with Local Harvest.

Let the good ‘thymes’ roll — Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Programs

Community Supported Agriculture or CSA programs were my next step. CSAs provide fresh, locally grown food throughout the farm’s growing season.

Community members essentially buy into a share of the farm and in turn, receive a portion of the farm’s harvest each week.

My CSA program (and many others) provide recipes, invitations to events on the farm, and a sense of community around food. It was an awesome opportunity for me because I did have so many questions about the nasturtium or garlic-scapes I found in my basket alongside tomatoes and potatoes.

I talked to Mary Lemmon, operator and owner of “Mary’s Farm” in Central Pennsylvania. Mary’s CSA membership filled up quickly and she is hoping to expand her operation by 30% next season.

Figure 2. Mary's Farm Weekly CSA Share of Fresh Vegetables, Photo Credit – Mary Lemmon

“I have heard my CSA members say they never really had time before to think about enrolling in a CSA program or about the health of what they put into their body even though they have always wanted to”.

Support local CSA farming

With the new consumer demand, local CSA farmers are expanding their operations but need consumers that have recently started purchasing locally to keep purchasing locally. “Farmers create their field plans and buy seeds in the winter with their best guess of what the market will be”.

As a consumer, by supporting CSAs and signing up for a share early you help relieve some uncertainty producers may be facing and commit to supporting local even post-pandemic.

Local Harvest provides information about CSAs local to your region so you can find a farm that fits you! Or, if you are located in Centre County, PA consider supporting Mary’s Farm.

Community Building Tip: If one CSA share is too much food for you, consider splitting a share with a friend. My experience doing so was awesome and empowered me to expand my community around food systems and cook new meals.

Un“beetable Business Models

Food Hubs & Restaurants Supporting Local Producers

It wasn’t until last year that I learned about food hubs. They are this amazing arm in the local food system that increases the accessibility of local foods by aggregating and distributing products from local farmers.

I spoke with Travis Lesser, the Founder and Executive Director of Appalachian Food Works in Central PA. Appalachian Food Works is a farmer-focused, non-profit food hub working to build a more equitable food system by providing Central Pennsylvanians greater access to food grown and raised in Central Pennsylvania.

Travis has pivoted numerous times since the inception of the Food Hub from wholesale to retail to being a broker for local farmers.

During the peak of the pandemic, Appalachian Food Works started home delivery services. Later, as restaurants in the area started to re-open at 25% capacity, Travis and his team worked hard to bring farmer’s products to restaurants.

When asked how consumers can support local food systems during and post-pandemic, Travis encouraged them to support restaurants in their region that buy from local farmers.

“While it is important and impactful to buy a pound of tomatoes from a market stand, the impact is more far-reaching when a farmer can sell 35 lbs. of tomatoes to one restaurant on a weekly basis”.

Appalachian Food Works encourages consumers to ask restaurants “What’s Local” when they eat-in or dine out and search for restaurants in the area that support local farmers.

If you are in the Centre County area, Appalachian Food Works has created a guide to do so. If not, there are often other resources online for each county to find restaurants committed to supporting local farmers.

I am ‘Root’-ing for You

There is no perfect one-fits all size way to start eating local. But there are ways to either start or continue integrating more local foods into your diet despite your budget or familiarity with fresh foods.

Speaking as someone whose diet used to be canned vegetables and chicken patties and had no spare money to spend – I know you can do it!

Michael Pollan wrote; “The wonderful thing about food is that you get three votes a day. Every one of them has the potential to change the world”.

It does not matter if you start with one vote, half a vote, or all three towards a more local, resilient, and sustainable food system. You just have to start voting.

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