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Mike Rosmann, Published August 15 2013

Rosmann: Why local foods, variety benefit consumers

Most of us don’t like to eat the same foods day after day. And that’s important for agricultural producers to know.

It is a reason why community supported agriculture (CSA) is a rapidly growing agricultural enterprise.

People who affiliate with CSA producers like seasonal variation in the vegetables and fruits available to them. Doing without certain foods throughout the year builds expectations – even cravings – for seasonal delights.

We relish fresh greens and vegetables like asparagus in the spring because they are high in vitamin C and iron. These nutrients were less available to people in bygone eras when foods had to be stored for consumption during winter.

Most foods lose vitamins in storage. Now, growing fresh produce in hothouses and rapid methods of transportation make these items available year-round in grocery stores.

Livestock that graze also relish the first green shoots of grass each spring, which are rich in the nutrients they need. In the fall and winter, many animals, especially those that hibernate, seek carbohydrate-rich foods to accumulate a reserve of fat to supply energy as temperatures drop.

Many people also like “heavier” foods during cold weather, for many of the same reasons as animals. Appetites for certain foods had survival value for the human species in past times and remain with us yet today.

There is a downside to craving variety in our foods. In their June 29, 2011, review of dietary research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Drs. Nicole Avena and Mark Gold concluded that people eat more when their foods have variety, leading to a greater risk of obesity.

The authors also noted when people had to consume the same food for every meal over several weeks, they habituated to it and ate less. Obese people habituated more slowly, suggesting obese people may be less able to regulate food intake, and strengthening the hypothesis that for some people eating food is addictive.

Many large retail food stores now sell locally produced foods in earnest. They promote foods raised locally for several reasons.

The large chain store managers know their customers like to support local producers. Having local suppliers improves their image in the community where they do business.

Purchasing locally grown food also helps cut costs. Retail chains can often reduce or eliminate wholesale marketing and packaging expenses as well as save on transportation costs.

Eighty percent of food costs can be attributed to processing expenses, shipping/transportation, marketing and advertising, according to a CBS News Report that was cited in Money Watch on Feb. 23, 2011. That means only 20 percent of the retail price goes to the producer.

Most agricultural producers are aware – as the report says – only 8 cents of an 18-ounce box of cereal that sells for $4.39 is paid to the grain producer. About $1.30 of a $3.99 price for a gallon of milk is paid to the dairy producer.

Costs for shipping food items to their final destination contribute about 10 percent to the retail price, according to Iowa State University Extension economist Chad Hart, in a 2012 interview for the Waterloo Courier. Of course, shipping distances, methods of transportation and fuel costs vary considerably.

A 2009 article in World Watch Magazine cited research undertaken by the Leopold Center at Iowa State University that indicated the average distance food items traveled to reach their U.S. destinations was 1,500 miles.

Such long-distance transportation creates a “carbon footprint,” contributing about 4 percent of the food system’s greenhouse gas emissions. Eighty percent of greenhouse gas emissions occur on farms where the food was raised, with animal production and related products (e.g., eggs, milk) contributing the greatest share of the “carbon footprint.”

We should buy locally for the reasons I’ve identified, preferably from local producers directly at farmers’ markets, CSAs or stores operated by farm producers. They willingly explain how their food was raised and form partnerships with customers.

These producer/marketers cut out the “middle-man” entirely, which increases their profits. Their home-grown profits stay in the community.

Most local producers spend a good portion of their income, time and energy contributing to the local community. The workers they hire usually are local residents who also benefit their communities.

Probably the main reason chain food stores buy locally is they know consumers like seasonal variety and will buy more food, not because it contributes to the local economy but because it makes a larger profit for their corporations. That food consumers like seasonal variety gets us back to the obesity issue.

What we eat and how much, are behaviors under our control. We can obtain the variety of foods we crave and enjoy, but we can cut back on portion sizes.

It’s a “win-win” if we buy food locally, especially when we purchase it directly from producers in our communities. Happy eating!

Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann, go online to: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.