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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

PeasAbout 50 percent of the fruits 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, former campaign manager at Food Day, headquartered in Washington, DC.

College 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 most of us can do, and it doesn’t involve as much effort as you think. Improving your knowledge about where food comes from can help you make choices that are healthier for you, your environment, and everyone.

Where does your food come from?

AppleApples

Imported from
Chile, New Zealand, Washington, New York

Likelihood of being imported
1 in 12 apples

Best place to find locally
Every state in the US grows apples, so your chances of finding them locally are good. Washington grows about 70 percent of our apples.

Best season to enjoy
Summer and fall

Tip
Dip sliced apples in peanut, almond, or sunflower butter, or sprinkle with cinnamon and microwave for quick “baked” apples.

TomatoTomatoes

Imported from
Mexico, Canada, California, Florida

Likelihood of being imported
1 in 3 tomatoes

Best place to find locally
Tomatoes are produced in each US state, but the largest producers are Florida and California.

Best season to enjoy
Spring, summer, fall

Tip
Even if you’ve tried (and failed) to love tomatoes, give local ones a shot. They pack way more flavor than store-bought varieties. Chop them up for a fresh salsa or combine with local basil.

OrangeOranges

Imported from
Australia, South Africa, California, Florida

Likelihood of being imported
1 in 9 oranges

Best place to find locally
Generally, oranges are found in the southern US due to warmer temperatures.

Best season to enjoy
Winter, spring, fall

Tip
For maximum benefits, like a big boost of Vitamin C and fiber, eat the whole fruit rather than drinking the juice.

BroccoliBroccoli

Imported from
Mexico, Canada, California

Likelihood of being imported
1 in 10 broccoli heads

Best place to find locally
Almost every state grows broccoli, but California is the largest producer.

Best season to enjoy
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.

How to go local without breaking your budget

Sure, eating locally grown food ups your nutrients, satisfies your taste buds, and supports your community. But how do you do it on a student budget or make a difference at your dining hall? Here are some student-friendly strategies for making it work.

In charge of your own food prep?

  • Check out your community’s farmers markets. They often sell food at cheaper prices than grocery stores do.Icon of a carrot

Find a farmers market: USDA National Farmers Market Directory 

  • Join a CSA. Ask your roommates to split the cost of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm share. Buying a share means a box of fresh, local produce will be made available for pickup weekly. It’s usually cheaper than buying fruits and veg from the store. To cut the cost more, ask about volunteering on the farm in exchange for produce.

Learn more about CSAs and where you can find them 

Depend on the dining hall?

  • Talk to your school administration or food service provider about the importance of eating local food and showcasing where your food comes from. Ask them to indicate when ingredients are sourced from local farms and build relationships with community food growers.
  • Join (or start) a club that focuses on the environment or sustainability. You may be able to use school land to start a student garden, grow herbs in your res hall, host a farmers market on campus, or even plant an apple orchard for future generations to enjoy fruit grown on campus.

Team up with the Real Food Challenge to focus on making sustainable and locally grown food available on your campus

Here’s why you should try growing your own food

Growing your own food can be an awesome hands-on science project and a way to better know ourselves and the natural world. “The more we are exposed to different fruits and vegetables and ways to eat them, the more likely we are to find something we like and continue eating it,” says Karen Moses, director of wellness and health promotion at Arizona State University.

Budgeting tip: Life can be expensive, especially when you move out of your parents’ house. Why not save a little money by learning how to grow your own food?Icon of an apple

These foods (and more) can be grown inside in front of a window:

  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots
  • Microgreens (vegetable seedlings)
  • Oregano
  • Mushrooms (careful, these can be stinky)
  • Mint
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme

The nationwide FoodCorps program employs young adults to teach high school students how to grow fruits and vegetables. It’s a full-time, low-paying gig, and a year’s service gets you a $5,000+ stipend toward school. For some, it works as a gap year between undergraduate and graduate programs.

Visit FoodCorps

tomatoes

  1. Choose an easy-to-grow variety, such as cherry tomatoes. Seeds are cheap and can be found online or at home and garden stores.
  2. Find a large container. A plastic 5-gallon (18.9 L) bucket works great if you add drainage holes.
  3. Fill about 3/4 of the bucket with soil. Poke 1/4-inch deep holes with your finger and put 3–4 seeds into each hole. Thin them out as they grow.
  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. Prop up the plants as needed. The tomatoes should be ready in two to three months. Enjoy them in salads, on homemade pizza, or as is!

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 the garden? Did you notice how much better it tasted compared to most of the grocery store versions?

There are a number of reasons 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.

“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, former campaign manager at Food Day in Washington, DC.

2. Reduce your carbon footprint

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

The environmental impact of food transportationIcon of a watermellon

  • 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

When you buy local goods, you invest in the economic and social vibrancy of 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.

4. Get a nutrient boost

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. Eating fruits and veggies helps you look and feel better

Local foods may be fresher and 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.

Want to up your happy? Up your fruit and vegetable intake. Students who ate fruits and vegetables felt happier until the following day, even after other influences had been ruled out, according to “Many Apples a Day Keep the Blues Away” (2013), a British study.

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The local food movement: Food Day

Gap-year opportunities: FoodCorps

US Department of Agriculture: Find a farmers market

Take action on campus: Real Food Challenge

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Article sources

Karen Moses, EDD, RD, CHES, director of wellness and health promotion at Arizona State University, Tempe.

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