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Why buying local is good for you, and where you live

Canadians are becoming more and more interested in buying local. The growth in popularity is driven by a multitude of factors—food quality, health and nutrition, food safety, supporting farmers and concern for the environment.

The definition of “local” is typically based on minimizing the distance from harvest to sale to consumption. One study looked at how Nova Scotians define local—100 per cent agreed products from within their community are local, 99.1 per cent would say the same about products from within their county, 97.3 per cent agreed for products produced within Nova Scotia, 75.3 per cent for products from within the Maritimes and 22.3 per cent would say products produced within Canada are local.

Currently, 30 per cent of all the foods consumed by Canadians are imported products. When it comes to fruits and vegetables in particular, 80 per cent (fresh and processed) are imported; only 20 per cent are grown in Canada, and that’s Canada wide, not necessarily locally. The high import rate is in part due to our high consumption of bananas and citrus fruits. For fresh fruits and vegetables, 40 per cent are imported. Furthermore, Canadians could use a boost in their fruit and vegetable intake.

Health wise, the advantages of eating more fruits and vegetables is a no brainer but you may not be aware of the multiple advantages of buying locally and in season.

Supports the local economy

Money spent on local products puts money back into the community. In fact, buying local has three times the financial impact on our community compared to buying imported items. Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ont, found that if five million Ontarians spend $10 of their weekly grocery budget on local foods it would contribute $3 billion to their economy. We can assume a comparable impact would be seen in all provinces.

Since 1941, the number of farms in Canada has been on a steady decline; from 2006 to 2011 alone, there was a 10.1 per cent decline. From a buyer’s perspective, teaching today’s youth the importance of buying local ingrains good purchasing habits and support from generations to come.

Preserves the land

Supporting farmers provides sustainability for local farming operations; it helps to maintain the value of the land and decreases the risk of residential and commercial development on good, arable land in rural communities. Looking out for our furry and feathered friends, the development of rural land results in loss of natural habitats for wildlife too.

Straight from the horse’s mouth

Building a relationship with the farmer instills personal pride in the money we spend and the foods we eat. As we learn how our food is produced, we appreciate the labour behind the cultivation. It also provides an opportunity to find out more about the use of pesticides and fertilizers if that’s a personal concern, and reassurance that our food is cultivated in accordance to government regulations, as opposed to some products that come from other countries.

Reduces the carbon footprint

Imported produce can travel thousands of miles by truck, plane, boat and train. The pollution created by this travel has a significant negative impact on the environment. Also, local products often use less packaging and less refrigeration.

Looks can be deceiving

We’re so used to the taste of imported produce that it’s easy to forget the true flavour and texture of fruits and vegetables. Imported strawberries, for instance, are available all year round and for a reasonable price but the flavour is usually bland and the inside is often dull in colour. Remember how a strawberry should taste? The deep red juices burst in your mouth, paired with that sweet tangy strawberry aroma and taste. Tomatoes are another example. A tomato should be deep red, juicy and full of flavour. We are often left with a pale, dry and tasteless product.

The majority of our imported foods come from United States, Chile, and Costa Rica. These countries cultivate high quality produce but in order to endure the long travel, foods are frequently picked unripened, resulting in a gradual shrinking of their cells and decreased juiciness, as well as flavour deterioration as the sugars start to turn to starch.

Frozen fruits and vegetables have their nutrients locked in but many would argue you don’t get the same texture and taste as fresh, and it’s not a method that works for all fruits and vegetables.

Weighing the trade-offs

Of course, buying local can have barriers as well. It limits variety compared to the magnitude of imported options in the grocery stores, and it’s not as convenient, often requiring multiple stops typically to the grocery store and market/fruit and vegetable stand. The hours and days of local operations may be limited and local products can be more expensive, especially if purchasing non-seasonal local produce. Large retailers may have the advantage of lower prices due to bulk buying and higher supply and demand. Overcoming these barriers means more dedication and organization is needed on the consumer’s end. It all comes down to balance. It’s not to say you can never eat another banana in Canada, just try to be more mindful of where your food dollar goes and aim to improve where you can. Any support—big or small—is good for you, and the local economy.

Maureen Tilley is a registered dietician and author of Hold the Salt! and Hold that Hidden Salt!*

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