12 Ways to Keep Your Food Economy Local (and Why it Matters!)

by Leah Butz

For most of human history, we ate local food, but the past century has seen our food travel farther and farther before it reaches our plates. However, not all people today have the time to go out to the closest farm or grow their own food, which has led to the unsustainable system we have today, even though eating locally-sourced food supports sustainable food systems. If you don’t have the space to start your own home garden, there are still many ways to source the food you consume locally. Try out these twelve ways to bring your food economy closer to home.

Purchase directly from farms and producers

About: Many growers and food producers, such as local farms, orchards, breweries, and bakeries, sell their products straight to the consumer as well as to wholesalers and retail outlets. 

Immediate benefits: By purchasing goods directly from the producer, customers often have access to a wider range of products, including limited-edition or small-batch food items. Plus, taking a trip to a place that makes food is often a fun and educational activity, as many food producers provide tours of their facilities. 

System-level impact: Buying food directly from the source helps customers engage with where their food comes from even more than they would purchasing from a farmers’ market. Over the long term, this connection can lead to greater respect between supplier and consumer. It also helps the environment, because fewer big trucks carrying goods from the manufacturer to the grocery store means less fossil fuels being burned. In addition, money is put into the hands of the producers much faster, which is always better for small businesses. 

Trade-offs: Not all people have access to transportation to farms, especially when living in New York City. Going straight to the farm, while fun, can also be very time-consuming, requiring a day trip out of the city. 

Ease of entry: Medium

Resources to get started: 
NYC Online Directory of Certified Businesses

Learn more: 
The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr
Food, Inc. (documentary)
What to Eat by Marion Nestle

Farmers’ Markets

About: The USDA defines a farmers’ market as a place where farmers can sell agricultural products directly to customers at a common, recurrent physical location. Usually, many different vendors set up outdoor tents and customers can browse the various options. Despite the name, it is not only farmers but also many local food producers (from honey, to kimchi, to ice cream) who sell at these locations. Farmers’ markets are located all over New York City, and many are open year-round. 

Immediate benefits: When making purchases from a farmers’ market, you have the opportunity to engage directly with the people growing your food. These connections provide opportunities for you to learn preparation tips, ideal storage practices, and other information directly from the grower while possibly making friends along the way. Plus, produce purchased at farmers’ markets is generally fresher than items from a traditional grocery store, because it doesn’t have to travel as far. 

System-level impact: Farmers’ markets have two major effects—on the environment and on the economy. Reduced travel distances means less fossil fuels being burned to transport food from the farm to the consumer. And, because these farms are usually local, money is kept within the local economy, stimulating economic growth in the community. 

Trade-offs: Farmers’ markets can be a bit more expensive than grocery stores, and are not open as often or for as long. Additionally, the produce is seasonal, so you probably will not be able to find the same items year round. 

Ease of entry: Easy

Resources to get started: 
USDA National Farmers Market Directory
GrowNYC Greenmarkets & Youthmarkets
Down to Earth Farmers’ Markets
Harvest Home Markets
RiseBoro Farmers’ Markets

Learn more: 
Five Tips for Farmers Market Shopping by Lauren Jones
The Impacts of Local Markets by Cheryl Brown and Stacy Miller 
Local Flavors by Deborah Madison
The Local Food Movement by Roslynn Brain

CSA Boxes

About: Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a way for farmers to sell their produce directly to consumers using a “shares” system. Members purchase a share in the yield at the beginning of the season, taking on all the potential risks associated with farming. They then receive weekly boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables directly from the farm. The boxes are either sent straight to the member, or can be picked up at a designated location. The produce varies week-to-week, depending on what is ripe and available, and many CSA programs will tell members what the produce of the week will be a few days before pickup/delivery. 

Immediate benefits: Some programs deliver boxes, making this perhaps the easiest way to buy local food products—members  might not even need to leave their own homes. Because the boxes usually follow a subscription model, produce is no longer something that needs to be bought at the grocery store or supermarket. Members are also regularly introduced to fruits and vegetables they otherwise would not have purchased or eaten. 

System-level impact: The direct relationship between farmer and consumer means that cash is available to farmers earlier than if they had waited to sell all the produce to customers at a farmers’ market. Long-term subscribers to a certain farm’s CSA box often trust and support the farm by purchasing extras beyond the contents of the box, lessening the cultural divide between rural food producers and city-dwelling food consumers. 

Trade-offs: CSA boxes often do not give the consumer many opportunities to choose the produce provided in the box, so if a consumer has many food allergies or aversions, this might not be the best option. And, unfortunately, New York also does not have many options for meat CSAs. 

Ease of entry: Easy

Resources to get started: 
USDA Community Supported Agriculture
Brooklyn Grange CSA (Brooklyn)
Turtle Bay CSA (Manhattan)
Feisty Acres poultry CSA (multiple locations)
Garden of Eve (multiple locations)
Golden Earthworm Organic Farm (multiple locations)
Sang Lee Farms (multiple locations)
Stoneledge Farm (multiple locations)

Learn more: 
Booker T. Whatley’s Small Farm Plan
When Community-Supported Agriculture Is Not What It Seems by Julia Moskin
What’s a CSA? A Guide to Community Supported Agriculture by Lily Zaballos

Seek out sustainable seafood

About: New York City’s location close to the Atlantic Ocean means there are plenty of nearby locations for procuring fresh, locally-caught seafood. In fact, the City has plenty of resources for learning how to fish in numerous spots across the five boroughs. If you don’t want to do the fishing yourself, however, small fisheries make their products available in many neighborhoods and often set up stands at farmers’ markets. 

Immediate benefits: Like any locally-sourced food, local seafood is fresher and usually there is more variety at a local fishmonger than at a regular grocery store. 

System-level impact: Overfishing is a major issue around the world. If consumers become more discerning regarding where their seafood comes from, their buying habits will inevitably shift, and sustainable fishing practices will increase. 

Trade-offs: Certain fish will have to be avoided during certain times of year, or possibly altogether. Fortunately, there are common substitutes for many endangered fish species, but they may be less widely available at seafood markets because they are less popular.  Consumers will have to educate themselves about the local and sustainable options and where they can be purchased. 

Ease of entry: Easy

Resources to get started: 
I FISH NY Fishing Map/Guide
Long Island Fisheries Guide by South Bay Seafood

Learn more: 
“Get to Know Your Seafood from Ocean to Plate” video by NOAA Fisheries
Seafood Watch Northeast Consumer Guide
The Billion Oyster Project
The End of the Line (documentary)

Learn the seasons

About: Perhaps the most important thing consumers can do to bring their food economy closer to home is to learn when various food items are in season and make their purchases accordingly. Produce or fish that is not in season is likely to have been grown or caught very far away, traveling hundreds, even thousands of miles to get to the consumer. Learning the seasonality of different items takes patience, but it results in better quality food. 

Immediate benefits: Food that is purchased when it is in season is undeniably fresher, because it probably did not have to travel all the way from the southern hemisphere. Most of the time, this produce is cheaper as well. Learning more about the nature and climate of their own region also might introduce consumers to new, highly seasonal fruits and vegetables, encouraging culinary experimentation. 

System-level impact: Fossil fuel consumption will be reduced as more people opt out of purchasing imported food. 

Trade-offs: Consumers will have to adjust their eating habits, and pass up strawberries in February or pumpkins in April. Depending on each individual’s tastes, this might require some creative thinking to avoid eating the same meals every week in the winter, the season when local produce is most limited. 

Ease of entry: Medium

Resources to get started: 
USDA Seasonal Produce Guide

Learn more: 
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Japanese Temple Cuisine Is the Original Ultra-Seasonal Diet by Justin Nobel

Food co-ops

About: A food co-op is a member-owned (and sometimes member-operated) grocery store. While many food co-ops are willing to sell to non-members, members usually receive a discount. These establishments often try to source their food from local producers. 

Immediate benefits: For members, food co-ops often provide discounts that can make local food as affordable as grocery store food. Furthermore, working at the store gives members a chance to get to know their neighbors and become involved in the community. 

System-level impact: The food co-op system keeps money circulating locally, and the cooperative nature of ownership means that co-ops are very unlikely to move out of the community where they start. Furthermore, work requirements and collective ownership can introduce members to the basics of entrepreneurship and how to run a business. 

Trade-offs: The membership fee can be a barrier to potential customers, as can the work requirement of some co-ops. This time commitment is not feasible for all people. 

Ease of entry: Easy, but more difficult than farmers’ markets

Resources to get started: 
Flatbush Food Co-op (Brooklyn)
Bushwick Food Cooperative (Brooklyn)
Park Slope Food Coop (Brooklyn)
Greene Hill Food Co-op (Brooklyn)
4th Street Food Co-op (Manhattan) 

Learn more: 
Food For Change (documentary)

Home gardens

About: If you have the space, planting your own garden can be an incredibly fruitful endeavor. From backyards to windowsills, home gardening in New York City is not only possible, but encouraged by numerous organizations that hold classes and provide online guides. Home gardens are extremely flexible and varied, but potential urban gardeners need to learn how to care for what they want to grow, the climate it requires, and its seasonality. 

Immediate benefits: Tending a home garden gives many people a feeling of connection with nature and the world around them and also provides the freshest and most local produce possible. Gardeners get to know the food they eat more intimately than they would have by purchasing it from the grocery store. 

System-level impact: More plants are always a benefit to any city, because they consume carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, filtering some pollution from the air. Additionally, urban gardens add to the beauty of their communities, providing aesthetic benefits even to neighbors who do not tend them. 

Trade-offs: Starting a home garden is not something that can be done in one day. Vegetables and fruits take time to grow, and gardens require plenty of planning to conform to seasonal weather changes. In cities, home gardening is a privilege, as many residents simply do not have the space to plant anything. 

Ease of entry: Difficult

Resources to get started: 
NYC Urban Gardening Tips
New York Botanical Garden Gardening Classes
Wave Hill Garden Adult Learning

Learn more: 
The Gardener (documentary) 
Farm City by Novella Carpenter
How Rage Gardening Is Bringing Me Comfort by Shanna B. Tiayon

Community gardens

About: For those without the privilege of space, community gardens are an alternative way for city-dwellers to engage with nature. There are hundreds of community gardens across the city growing a wide range of produce for members. Some also grow food for pantries and many s also run educational workshops where people can learn about various aspects of urban gardening. 

Immediate benefits: Like produce grown at home, food from a community garden is as fresh as it can get, and provides gardeners with a chance to engage with the environment. And community gardens have the added bonus of getting to know other environmentally-minded neighbors. 

System-level impact: Community gardens beautify and unify the neighborhoods where they are located. Volunteering their time to help maintain a community garden allows all residents to experience small-scale planning and activism.

Trade-offs: There is no one ruler of a community garden, and participants may disagree about everything from what to grow to what portion of the crop each member is entitled to. Furthermore, allowing only members to enter may create tension with non-members in the surrounding community. 

Ease of entry: Difficult, but easier than home gardens

Resources to get started: 
NYC Parks GreenThumb
New York Restoration Project gardens
GrowNYC Community Gardens

Learn more: 
Urban Community Gardens as Spaces of Citizenship by Rina Ghose and Margaret Pettygrove
The Garden (documentary)
Jenga Mwendo Strengthens Community Through Gardening in New Orleans by Andrea King Collier

Compost locally

About: Most vegetarian food scraps can be composted, a process that slowly transforms them into nutritious soil that is ideal for fertilizing gardens and parks. There are composting sites, many of which are supported by the Department of Sanitation, located throughout the city. Many of these sites use the resulting dirt to enrich local parks and community gardens replete with rich soil. People who bring their scraps to a city compost site are, therefore, contributing directly to the local ecology. 

Immediate benefits: When a household begins composting, there are immediate benefits they might not even have considered. First of all, home garbage does not smell nearly as bad, because most of the smelliest kitchen waste items can go into the compost. If you have the room, keeping compost scraps in the freezer before taking them to the composting site helps reduce smells. Additionally, after a few weeks of seeing how much food they’re composting, people will begin to think more critically about waste while doing their grocery shopping. 

System-level impact: Food waste sent to a landfill releases a huge amount of methane, which is far more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Piles of non-food garbage cut off the oxygen supply to this waste, creating an environment perfect for methane-emitting anaerobic decomposition. Composting requires free-flowing oxygen, inviting aerobic decomposition, which does not emit methane. 

Trade-offs: Each composting site has different rules regarding what types of food scraps they accept. Some accept everything, some accept only fruits and vegetables, and some are even more stringent, not accepting citrus or onions. Compost is not a guilt-free alternative to a landfill—it is only one way to alleviate the larger problem of food waste. 

Ease of entry: Medium

Resources to get started: 
BK Rot
The NYC Compost Project at Big Reuse
Earth Matter
LES Ecology Center

Learn more: 
Wasted! The Story of Food Waste (documentary)
“Stuff You Should Know: Composting” (podcast episode)
New York’s Composting Revolution by Kate Krader

Other at-home food production

About: In New York City, residents are allowed to try their hand at more than just gardening. With a few stipulations, it’s legal to keep bees and chickens in residences across the five boroughs. Beehives must be registered with the Department of Health, and that registration must be renewed each year. Chickens do not need to be registered, but they must be hens. Roosters are not allowed, nor are any other type of poultry including turkeys and ducks. 

Immediate benefits: Fresh eggs and honey are the most obvious benefits. Honeybees will pollinate your garden, helping plants produce more seeds. Chickens are omnivorous, and can eat many types of food scraps in addition to their regular feed. 

System-level impact: As mentioned above, honeybees are incredibly important pollinators in the global ecosystem, and any contribution to the honeybee population will have a positive effect on local plant life. 

Trade-offs: Maintaining a beehive or a chicken coop is an immense amount of work and should not be taken lightly. Plus, many people in the city simply don’t have the space to take on such a project, and if they do, they should have regular conversations with their neighbors about noise and safety concerns. 

Ease of entry: Difficult

Resources to get started: 
The Backyard Chicken Project: Cities
New York City Beekeepers Association

Learn more: 
Honeyland (documentary)
How Caring for Backyard Chickens Stretched My Emotional Muscles by Ivan Kreilkamp

Farm-to-table restaurants

About: The farm-to-table movement has roots at Chez Panisse, an internationally famous restaurant in California established by chef Alice Waters. Food is selected by restaurants straight from farmers, ensuring freshness, seasonality, and flavor. Many New York restaurants have jumped on the farm-to-table movement, locally sourcing anywhere from a few items to their whole menu.

Immediate benefits: The farm-to-table movement is often at the cutting edge of new restaurant and food trends, so customers at these restaurants are exposed to some impressively creative meal options. Menus change with the seasons, so the fare can be quite varied. 

System-level impact: Farm-to-table restaurants boost the local economy by dealing directly with farmers, rather than working through food distributors. Farmers are respected for their work, contributing to a better relationship between producers and consumers. 

Trade-offs: These restaurants tend to be expensive and are often considered places for special occasions rather than daily lunches. Furthermore, there are no rules or regulations attached to using the phrase “farm-to-table,” so there have been instances of restaurants using the label dishonestly. 

Ease of entry: Easy

Resources to get started: 
18 New York City Farm-to-Table Restaurants

Learn more: 
Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters
Farm to Fable: Deception, fraud, and honest mistakes in the farm-to-table movement by Troy Johnson
“Chef’s Table: Dan Barber” (documentary TV episode)

The Eco-Friendly Food Challenge

About: This Australian challenge was developed as a way for consumers to confront the sources of the foods they already have in their kitchens, and think more critically about the environmental impact of what they eat. Over a four-week period, participants go through their pantries and seek out sustainable alternatives to their non-locally sourced foods. The boot camp-like approach to sustainable eating is designed to help people learn quickly about where their food comes from.

Immediate benefits: There is a different goal for each of the four weeks, and by the end of the challenge participants should feel more knowledgeable about what they’re eating. Week one focuses on reducing food waste by measuring scraps being thrown out and thinking about the disposable packaging included in food purchases. In week two, participants try to find local sources for their favorite fruits and vegetables, or make substitutions as necessary. Week three’s challenge is to discover how much of the food already in a participant’s kitchen is imported. Then, in the final week, participants must cook two vegetarian recipes with legumes as the main source of protein.

System-level impact: Collectively, the energy saved from not transporting food items by air or car has the potential to be significant. Fourteen percent  of the energy expended in the U.S. food system is used for transportation. 

Trade-offs: Finding sustainable and local alternatives to common grocery items can be expensive and, depending on the item or location, often impossible. Participants must be willing to go without certain foods for the duration of the challenge. 

Ease of entry: Difficult

Resources to get started: 
The Eco-Friendly Food Challenge

Learn more: 
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
U.S. Food System Fact Sheet

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