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Ever thought about where your food comes from? Or why most fruits and vegetables can be found year-round, even when they aren’t in season? Sure, it’s nice to be able to eat a few grapes whenever you want, but have you thought about the process of getting the grapes to where you live?

The import effect

About 50 percent of the fruit and 20 percent of the vegetables we eat in the US are imported from other countries. For example, about half of our grapes come from Mexico, Chile, and Brazil. Because the demand for year-round produce keeps increasing, fruit and vegetable imports are increasing too.

We like to be able to eat what we want, when we want it (that’s the American way, right?), but importing can have negative effects. It increases carbon dioxide emissions, can hurt local economies, and the added pollution, preservatives, and packaging can harm the environment and our health.

Become a local foodie

So how can you prevent these negative effects? “[Eating] locally grown food from local farmers means having access to fresh, healthy food while supporting low environmental impact production and strengthening local economies,” says Lilia Smelkova, campaign manager at Food Day, headquartered in Washington, DC.

Students agree. Nearly 50 percent of students we surveyed said they would rather eat “fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers, even if it means I can only get them seasonally,” according to a recent Student Health 101 survey.

Being a local foodie is something anyone can do and doesn’t involve much effort. Improving your knowledge about where food comes from can help you make healthier food choices, especially as you prepare to venture out on your own.

How to grow your own tomatoes
  1. Choose an easy-to-grow variety, such as cherry tomatoes. Seeds are cheap and can be found online or from most home and garden stores.
  2. Find a large container. A plastic 5-gallon (18.9 L) bucket works great.
  3. Fill about ¾ of the bucket with soil. Poke ¼-inch-deep holes with your finger and put 3—4 seeds into each hole.
  4. Water the soil often enough to keep it evenly moist, and make sure the bucket is getting at least 6 hours of sunlight and warmth per day. Tip: It’s best to grow tomatoes in a sunny spot outside or indoors in front of a big window.
  5. The tomatoes should be ready for picking in about 2—3 months.
  6. Enjoy them in salads, on homemade pizza, or as is!

Find out where the following foods come from

Apples

Where they may be imported from

Chile, New Zealand, Washington, New York

Likelihood of being imported

1 in 12 apples

Best place to find them locally

Every state in the US grows apples, so your chances of finding them locally are good, but Washington grows about 70 percent of our apples

Best seasons to eat apples

Summer and fall

Tip:

For a quick and healthy snack, try dipping sliced apples in peanut, almond, or sunflower butter.

Tomatoes

Where they may be imported from

Mexico, Canada, California, Florida

Likelihood of being imported

1 in 3 tomatoes

Best place to find them locally

Tomatoes are produced in each US state, but the largest producer is Florida, which has surpassed California due to the ongoing drought

Best seasons to eat tomatoes

Spring, summer, fall

Tip:

Check out your local farmers market to find tomatoes and other foods that are grown locally. You can find a farmers market near you by typing in your zip code on this US Department of Agriculture website.

Broccoli

Where it may be imported from

Mexico, Canada, California

Likelihood of being imported

1 in 10 broccoli heads

Best place to find them locally

Almost every state grows broccoli, but California is the largest producer

Best seasons to eat broccoli

Winter, spring, fall

Tip:

Broccoli is a powerhouse cruciferous vegetable containing tons of nutrients and minerals. Eat it raw with hummus, steamed with seasonings, or in a stir-fry.

Oranges

Where they may be imported from

Australia, South Africa, California, Florida

Likelihood of being imported

1 in 9 oranges

Best place to find them locally

Generally found in the southern US due to warmer temperatures

Best seasons to eat oranges

Winter, spring, fall

Tip:

Make some fresh orange juice to get a daily dose of plant sterols and stanols, which can lower cholesterol levels.

5 Reasons to eat locally grown foods

1. Freshness and taste

Ever taken a bite of an apple fresh off the tree or had a juicy tomato picked from Grandma’s garden? Did you notice how much better it tasted compared to most of the grocery store versions?

There are a number of reasons why local produce often tastes better than produce that has been imported from another country or state. For example, local produce is usually:

  • Picked at the peak of ripeness. Most imported food has so far to travel that it’s picked early and ripens on the journey. Unfortunately, this sacrifices a lot of the taste.
  • Not sealed with wax. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), many fruits and vegetables that travel to faraway markets are sealed with wax. This is to maintain moisture, prevent mold growth and bruising, and to make the food more visually appealing. But this added waxy coating can affect taste and texture, and not in a good way.
  • Less likely to be doused in chemicals. Chemicals are often used to preserve freshness or ripen food that has traveled from far away.

Most of our readers are curious about where their food comes from. More than 50 percent of students said they sometimes check the label on their food to see where it comes from, and 17 percent said they do this often, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey.

2. Reduce your carbon foot print

Eating and growing local foods may help lower carbon emissions by reducing the distance that food has to travel.

The environmental impact of food transportation:
  • In the US, most food travels about 1,500 miles from the farm to your table.
  • Food usually travels by air, truck, or train. This requires the use of fossil fuels such as oil and gas, and also causes carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Food that travels far usually requires more packaging so that the food stays intact on its journey. The production of this packaging negatively affects the environment.
What do students say?

Close to two-thirds of students said that if they found out the food they were eating was imported and had a large carbon footprint, they’d look for local alternatives (as long as the price was about the same), according to a recent Student Health 101 survey. Almost a quarter of the students surveyed said they would still look for a local option, even if they had to pay more.

3. Support your community

The more money you and your family spend in your community, the more you invest in your community.

Helping farmers helps you

Buying from local food markets allows farmers to sell produce directly to people, which may minimize the use of “middlemen,” such as giant food manufacturers. This helps support the farmers and their families so that they can continue providing you with high-quality, low-cost food.

Plus, when you’re face-to-face with a farmer, you’re able to ask how the food was grown, what chemicals were used in the process (if any), and even get ideas for how to prepare the food.

Life hacks:
  • Check out your community’s farmers markets. They often sell food cheaper than grocery store prices, which will be important when you’re on your own and on a budget.
  • If you go away to college, ask your new dorm mates or roommates to split the cost of signing up for shares of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. Buying a share usually means a box of fresh, local produce will be delivered to your home or made available for pickup. The fruits and veggies you’ll get will vary, depending on the season, and they are as fresh as can be. Learn more about CSAs and where you can find them here.

4. It’s more nutritious and delicious

How well fruits and veggies retain their nutrients depends on many factors. But generally speaking, they tend to lose nutrients over time, which is bad news for produce that’s shipped from faraway destinations.

Since local food is picked at its peak of ripeness and eaten more quickly, it retains its nutrients better and tastes better too.

5. You’ll look and feel better

Local foods may be fresher, less processed, and may retain more nutrients. Eating more fruits and vegetables in general is healthier for you and can help you look and feel better. For example, some studies suggest that a low-glycemic diet (eating foods containing carbohydrates that are processed slowly, such as green veggies and most fruits) may be helpful in reducing acne.

“Knowing where your food comes from, how it was grown, and what’s in it will help you to avoid [chemical additives] as well as highly processed foods full of fats, salt, and sugar,” says Lilia Smelkova, campaign manager at Food Day in Washington, DC.

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