Shopping Your Local Farmers Market Can Be Healthy For the Earth Too

Read time: 8 mins

Going to a local farmers’ market can be great for many reasons. First it is a great way to support local farms and small businesses, since most farmers’ markets today are a myriad of food and craft vendors.  Shopping at farmers’ markets means fresh food, and consequently eating healthy meals. But buying food at your local farm stand can also mean less waste- food waste, packaging, and energy- if you are willing to contribute. Here are some simple ways for you to feed you, your family and friends healthy meals while reducing your carbon footprint.

Walking among aisles of vibrantly colored food, smelling the aromas of sweet fruit, and herbs mixed with fresh dirt makes you feel like you might be in a giant Beatrix Potter book, walking amidst Mr. McGregor’s precious plants. The freshly harvested selections can inspire your next delicious meal. If you frequent your local market it is easy to meet the farmers themselves, or people who work closely with the producing farm. They are friendly people who will freely offer advice about how to pick veggies, which fresh food will be available shortly and even recipes, or ideas on what to do with your purchases!

Buying food from local farmers not only stimulates the local economy, but also cuts out middlemen. In 2008 small farms made 81% of their profits through direct sale, such as farmers’ markets and roadside farm stands, according to a study completed through the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (1).

If you are a reader from the U.S., click here to check out an interactive Compass Foods map. It not only contains points for registered farmers’ markets, but highlights many other programs associated with the local food movement including, green schools, community gardens and meat processors throughout the U.S. I was excited to see how many schools have created a school garden program!

Free taste samples are another perk, and not just if you are hungry! In fall there is ample apple sampling and it gives you the chance of trying new kinds of apples before you buy. In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan writes about how there is an unknown number of possible combination of apple types, but large producers mainly focus on cultivating large monocultures of a few strains (2).  Small scale farms and orchards allow the farmers to diversify their apple crops because they aren’t using large scale equipment and techniques.

One of the most convenient things about the farmers’ market is that you can get exactly what you want (or within season anyway).  Have you ever bought an entire bag of full size carrots, but your recipe only calls for one to be used? Buying directly from the farmer lets you buy the quantity you need, and not what the box stores want to sell you.  Even if the farmers have bundled certain items, they are more reasonable amounts, or if you ask, most will be willing to sell you whatever you need.

In the October 2014 edition, National Geographic printed a compelling article about food waste that said, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, one third of all food produced is wasted (3). Now, not all of this waste can be combatted by not letting your perishables perish, but every bit can count! A portion of food waste happens during harvest, transport and storage of food, but if you buy local food, there is less time for these issues to be contending factors. Other sources of waste are retailers, restaurants, and processing plants (3). I was captivated by this photograph that was shot by Robert Clark for National Geographic to create a visual display of how much food an average family of four wastes each year.

Dana Gunders, writer of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, reported that an average family of four in the US spends $1,500 on food that will be thrown away (4). Certain things we cannot really change to completely eliminate food waste because I know I am not going to start eating my orange rinds or bell pepper seeds in the foreseeable future, but shopping smart can make a difference.  

Tips for Smart Shopping

  • Find recipes before you go to the farmers market or grocery store to have a framework of what you need to reduce impulse buying that may lead to spoilage

  • Look in your fridge or pantry to see if there is anything you need or want to center your recipe search around. This can make it easier to find recipes and use up food before it goes to waste

  • Note the amounts of food needed for certain recipes on your grocery list to avoid overbuying

  • Think about your schedule for the week and consider how much time for cooking you might have before you buy

Another aspect of farmers’ markets that is usually overlooked is that you can control the packaging. To be more eco-friendly you can politely decline the plastic bag, or reuse last week’s produce bags by bringing them back to the market with you. Reducing the use of plastic bags and plastic packing wraps can greatly reduce your carbon footprint.  Packaging is one of the most disposable things in everyone’s daily life and it often seems hard to curtail.  While not all box store food has primary packaging or plastic wrap in direct contact with the produce, it has to have gotten on that shelf somehow. Most likely have been transported in boxes or crates, which have to be stacked and shrink wrapped onto pallets (5).

There is a bit of debate surrounding the exact carbon footprint of plastic grocery bags, but it’s around 10 grams of CO2 per standard plastic bag. Really thin plastic bags can be as low as 3 grams of CO2 and paper bags are 12 grams of CO2 if they are recycled (6). Even if these seem like small numbers on paper the Earth Policy Institute states that worldwide almost 2 million bags are used each minute, which figures out to be a trillion bags each year (7). To really put it into context the energy required to make only a dozen plastic shopping bags could drive a car for a mile. If a trillion bags used each year that same car could drive around the circumference of the Earth over 3 million times*, or a roundtrip journey to the Moon over 174,000 times**! If you consider the life cycle of the plastic bag, the energy consumed, the CO2 emitted and consider that most plastic bags are made in Asia and then distributed around the world; a whole new picture of consumption starts to emerge.

No matter what the actual numbers are for CO2 emissions for thin produce bags versus plastic grocery bags, the real question is do you need a bag at all? This is where being an eco-friendly consumer can factor in. Do you need to put all of your different kinds of fruits and vegetables in their own plastic bag? Can you reuse your produce bags from last week? I personally use produce bags occasionally at my local grocery store for leafy greens to keep them together, and reduce the risk of tearing, but I bring my produce bags from any store and no one has ever bothered me about it.

Plus there is an array of fashionable and functional market baskets available. My favorite kind is this collapsible tote type because there is ample ground space, which reduces the chance of squishing or bruising your fresh food. Plus the fact that it is collapsible makes it easy to store in your car so it is always there when you need it. I also like this chic woven tote, which is more of a basket, because it also provides a lot of support to reduce damaging your delicate food. In the event that you forget your favorite market basket, any reusable bag will work!

Regardless of what kind of market basket you use, or even if you aren’t going to your local farmers’ market, simply being conscious of the plastic packaging can help. Being an eco-conscious consumer can help you choose better options to reduce your carbon footprint. Next time you are standing in front of a giant selection of snacks and don’t know which one to choose, check out the packaging and maybe it can guide you to the best option for you and the planet!

 

Calculations

* 10^12 /12 = 8.333^10

8.333^10 / 24901 (circumference of Earth in miles according to Google) = 3,346,585

** 10^12 /12 = 8.333^10

8.333^10 / 238900 (distance to Moon in miles according to Google) = 348,820

348,820 /2 = 174,410 times round trip to the Moon

 

Sources

(1) Low, Sarah A., and Stephen Vogel. Direct and Intermediated Marketing of Local Foods in the United States, ERR-128, U.S. Department of of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, November 2011. < http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/138324/err128_2_.pdf>.

(2) Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World.New York: Random House, 2001. Print.

(3) Royte, Elizabeth. “One-Third of Food Is Lost or Wasted: What Can Be Done.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 13 Oct 2014. Web 18 Nov. 2015. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141013-food-waste-national-security-environment-science-ngfood/.

(4) Gunders, Dana, and Emily Cousins. “Food for Thought-National Resources Defense Council.” Medium. 29 Sept. 2015. Web 27 Nov. 2015. https://medium.com/natural-resources-defense-council/food-for-thought-a9756e8dd47c#.o11wyue1n.

(5) “Factsheet: The Carbon Impact of Packaging.” Soil Association. Web. 17 Nov. 2015. http://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=4WUuz5QnJJM=&tabid=1482.

(6) Snyder, Trick. “Reduce Your Carbon Footprint.” Green Living Online. 7 Apr. 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2015. http://greenlivingonline.com/article/reduce-your-carbon-footprint.

(7) “EPI Releases – Plastic Bags Fact Sheet EPI.” EPI Releases. 16 Oct. 2014. Web 29 Nov. 2015. http://www.earth-policy.org/press_room/C68/plastic_bags_fact_sheet.

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