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The Challenge of "Eating Local" in the Global Food System

March 20, 2019

The challenges of eating local food in our global food economy were highlighted by Dr. Roxanne Zimmer, CNR associate professor of communication arts, when she spoke to students, alumni and community members gathered in Romita Auditorium at The College of New Rochelle on March 7.

The global economy that refers to the human and ecological cost of the food we eat, has been drastically changing since the 1950s. Before this time, food had very specific geographical limits, and perishable goods were always provided locally or regionally, grown within four hours of any location. The advent of refrigerated shipping containers, the interstate highway system, air transportation, and the rise of cheap labor worldwide have all contributed to our global food economy, as has our desire to have certain produce all year around.

"Thanks to our fairly new global food system, we as consumers are able to buy foods in grocery stores that were once only a dream, like specific chicken parts instead of the entire chicken, exotic fruits out of season or that don't grow here, like kiwis, and a plethora of international cuisines and spices,” said Zimmer.

While we may capitalize on the convenience of this massive surplus, what effect does this mass production have on the food we ingest? Dr. Zimmer cited author and food activist Michael Pollan, who claims, “The average food item on our plate has traveled over 1,500 miles.” A prime example of this can be found within the fishing industry, specifically with cod. The majority of cod is caught off the coast of the North Atlantic, but instead of processing and shipping straight from the source, the fish is sent to China to be filleted because the cost is cheaper, then shipped worldwide to be sold. This means there are at least 8,600 miles clocked for each piece of fish.

The rise of multinational food corporations like Walmart, the largest food distributor in the entire world, and Aldi has significantly contributed to our dwindling food economy. Dr. Zimmer noted that increasing preferences for processed food have made the sale of ketchup more profitable than the sale of tomatoes, thus making Nestle the largest food producer in the world.

“The main issue with the global food economy is that we don't really know what is happening with our food, because not every nation follows the same food guidelines as the United States,” she said. “It's important we keep in mind where our food is sourced from, like knowing that 70 percent of the apple juice we drink is actually from China, not the U.S.”

So what can we do to offset the side effects of a global food market and better our health in the process? Dr. Zimmer's best piece of advice is to start a garden, and if based on where you live, that’s not possible, then join a community-supported agriculture program (CSA). “We need to start solving the problem ourselves, as taking on the corporate food giants is not easy. We can start enjoying the food of our region by planting a garden, or shopping at your local farmer's markets.” Farmer's markets have the advantage of selling regional produce, while assisting local farms with revenue in the local economy.

Dr. Zimmer closed with this helpful tip: “It's important to remember to be mindful of where our food is sourced from, and while it may not be feasible to plant an entire garden, you can start a small one with just an empty milk jug, some soil, and a few seeds. Keep the jug in sunlight, water regularly, and in a few weeks, you'll have your very own mini garden.”