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Does Your Food Travel More Than You Do?

Posted Oct 02 2009 3:00pm
Here in the arctic tundra northeastern Ohio, it's a given that when you buy a fresh tomato, peach or bunch of grapes during the middle of winter, it could only have come from anywhere remotely nearby if grown in a hot-house. It will be June before I can head over to the organic farm stand down the road for some just-picked peas, collards and strawberries. Such is life in this climate.

But you could have blown me over with far less than a strong nor'easter today when I started looking at the labels on my produce. Ever pay any attention to those annoying little things you have to peel off your fruits and vegetables? Me neither, but you can bet I am now and so should you. We may be surprised to find that a lot of what we buy isn't grown anywhere in the United States, warmer climate or not.

Until recently, most produce in major grocery stores was anonymous. The United States Department of Agriculture issued new country of origin labeling (COOL) regulations that went into effect on September 30, 2008. Suppliers and retailers are now required to provide COOL for a wide range of products, including fresh and frozen beef, pork, lamb, and chicken, as well as fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables.

How COOL Is This?

I still couldn't find labels on all of my produce, but let's take a look at what I did find. Here's a list of fresh (and I use that term loosely) produce I ate for breakfast and lunch, where it originated from, and the number of miles it traveled to get to me. It should be noted that the mileage I list is direct from point A to point B. In all likelihood, my produce traveled considerably farther before gracing my table.

Bananas – Ecuador – 2,886 miles
Blueberries – Chile – 5,177 miles
Apples – Washington – 2,024 miles
Oranges – Florida – 817 miles
Avocado – Florida – 817 miles
Kale – California – 2,088 miles
Collards – California – 2,088 miles
Cucumbers – Mexico – 1,917 miles
Tomatoes – Florida – 817 miles
Peppers – Mexico – 1,917 miles
Onion – Washington – 2,024 miles

So by the time I had finished lunch, my food had traveled 22,572 miles. That's almost one full trip around the globe! Anyone else see the absurdity in this?
Frequent Fliers

Some food items, such as bananas, have always been imported and have wide consumer acceptance. The most obvious sources for out-of-season produce are Mexico, and Central and South America.

Check out this great resource from The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture that shows common origins of more than 95 different produce that's shipped into or across the United States each year.

Here's a list of commonly air-freighted fruits and veggies and their country of origin:
  • Asparagus (Peru)
  • Bell peppers (Netherlands)
  • Tomatoes (Netherlands)
  • Blackberries (Chile)
  • Blueberries (Argentina)
  • Cherries (Chile)
  • Raspberries (Chile)
  • Peaches (Chile)
  • Nectarines (Chile)
  • Papayas (Brazil)
The Real Price of Imported Food

Trucking, shipping and flying in food from around the globe takes a toll on the environment and on public health. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) did a study analyzing the transportation-related impacts of importing agricultural products into California's three largest ports – Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland.

The NRDC study showed that in 2005 alone, approximately 3 million tons of fruits, vegetables, cereals, nuts, and wine were imported from overseas into California by ship, airplane and truck. The California Air Resources Board estimates that 2,400 premature deaths, 2,800 hospital admissions for asthma, and approximately 16,870 missed school days were attributable to direct and indirect exposure to diesel pollution from freight transport activities within the state.

Almost 250,000 tons of global warming gases released were attributable to imports of food products — the equivalent amount of pollution produced by more than 40,000 vehicles on the road or nearly two power plants.

Keep in mind, we're just talking about California here. Pretty eye-opening, huh?
Think Global, Eat Local

It stands to reason that produce that's traveled thousands of miles is not going to taste as fresh or be as nutrient dense as something that's just been picked this morning. And yet, when we shop at the grocery store today, we don't bat an eye at the sight of strawberries in the winter or perfect tomatoes from Holland. In the space of a generation, we've become accustomed to eating food that's never grown roots in local soil.

It's time we start paying attention to those little labels on our fruits and veggies to see how far our food traveled and begin asking our favorite grocery stores and restaurants to carry more local foods in season. We can support our local farmers by purchasing produce at a farmers' market, or becoming a shareholder in a CSA. Check out Local Harvest to find one in your area. Better still, let's put our hands in some dirt, plant and cultivate our own food. It's possible, even in the dead of winter. Take some inspiration from my friend Anthony. It might be -10 degrees outside, but he's still working in his garden. Allow him to show you around.


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