Is Eating Locally Grown Food Healthier for You?
Your grandma. Your mom. Your doctor. You probably got a lecture from each of them at different points in your life about why it's healthy to "eat your fruits and veggies." But they likely didn’t tell you that it's healthier to buy them at a local farm stand instead of the produce section of a grocery store.
A trend that's here to stay is buying locally grown fruits and vegetables instead of produce that's been trucked cross-country. While many people have gotten on board, some are wondering if the hype over the health benefits of locally grown food is all it’s cracked up to be.
Here’s what you need to know.
What does ‘locally grown’ mean?
Food is “local” if it’s grown and harvested within 100 miles of your home or the restaurant where it’s served. It doesn’t come from large commercial farms, and it isn’t transported over long distances.
Locally grown foods are found at farm markets, roadside farm stands, pick-your-own food farms and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. Some grocery stores also have added fresh foods from local farms to their produce departments.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers markets in the U.S. has increased in recent years. There were fewer than 2000 in 1994 and, today, there are more than 8,800 markets listed in the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory. Restaurants that cook with local meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables also are a growing trend, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Is locally grown food healthier?
The main health benefit of locally grown food is that it’s fresher. Fruits and vegetables begin to lose their nutrients within 24 hours of being picked, so fresher produce is more nutritious. In addition, locally grown food is picked at its peak ripeness, when it’s most dense with nutrients.
Most produce in the grocery store is harvested before it’s fully ripe so it can make the trip to store shelves without rotting. Air, artificial lights and temperature changes during transport lower a food’s nutritional value as well. By comparison, local food is healthier because it’s only transported short distances and isn’t exposed to chemicals, gasses or waxes used to preserve food for long-distance transport.
Eating local also means you can meet the people who grow your food. You can ask them questions about their farming methods and pesticide use (if any). Local farmers typically focus on soil health and safe growing practices, especially if they’re farming organically. Better quality soil and more sustainable farming practices typically mean better tasting, more nutritious produce.
Is locally grown food more expensive than store-bought food?
Fresh produce is usually more expensive than processed, canned or frozen foods, but you can save money on fresh, locally grown food by eating it when it’s in season. If you buy local produce during the growing season it’s around the same price (or maybe even less expensive) as produce in the grocery store, and preserving foods by canning or freezing can help you save money during the off-season.
Some farm markets accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits. If you use these programs, you and your family can buy a variety of fresh and healthy foods to supplement your grocery store purchases.
With the goal of improving health and ensuring good nutrition in under-served areas identified as food deserts, Virtua offers a Mobile Farmer’s Market that provides access to produce year round. Food deserts are those areas defined as lacking in reliable access to sufficient, affordable and nutritious food.
The Mobile Farmer's Market, a 23-foot bus brimming with fresh produce, sells fruits and vegetables at significantly reduced prices in communities throughout Burlington and Camden counties 4 days a week.
Why should I consider buying locally grown foods?
By eating locally grown food you support your local farmers and help grow your local economy. Buying locally also cuts transport energy costs and reduces food waste.
Farm markets also are great places to find new foods to try. That’s because smaller growers often offer heirloom produce (grown from seeds that haven’t been cross-pollinated with other plants) and other varieties that you may not be able to find in the grocery store. Eating a wider variety of colorful fruits and vegetables gives you a broader range of antioxidants and phytonutrients (substances in plants that help fight disease) and may even encourage you to expand your food horizons. Your local grower may even provide you with a new recipe or two.
Need help locating locally grown food in your community?
Virtua’s registered dietitians can help you find farm markets and locally grown foods, and can teach you how to incorporate in-season foods into a healthy eating plan.
If you need help creating a healthy eating plan, call 888-847-8823 to schedule a telehealth appointment with a Virtua registered dietitian.
Updated September 14, 2020