Local Food and the Unsustainable Absurdity of the Average American Diet

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Whatever happened to local food? Have you ever thought about how wildly unrealistic and unsustainable our current diets are?

For example, items that don’t grow within the same season are commonly consumed together. Things that don’t grow on the same continent are combined into all sorts of meals. We eat blueberries in December and drink pumpkin spice lattes in the summer. We eat tropical fruit with Midwestern grains. Without the transportation system, there would be absolutely no rhyme or reason to our “normal” diets.

What is a typical breakfast in the United States?

A typical start to one’s day in the US could be a bowl of Cheerios with milk with a banana sliced on top, and a glass of orange juice. This sounds pretty normal, right? It’s not – it’s actually quite exotic if you think about it.

Imagine if the grocery store supply lines shut down. If you had to eat what you could acquire without the national food transport network, how likely would it be that you could replicate that breakfast?

It seems simple, but it’s not going to happen. Think for just a moment about how ridiculous such a combination would have seemed to our ancestors. Let’s forget for a moment that the breakfast mentioned is processed and loaded with GMOs. Let’s just think about the origins of the food. If you live where wheat is growing, it is not too likely that there will also be bananas and oranges growing. You’ve just invalidated the typical American breakfast in that sentence.

What on earth about any of this would classify as local food? Perhaps the wheat, that’s it. But what does a meal look like with local food?

Local food. It’s what’s for breakfast.

Here’s an example of breakfast you could have at the right time of year without a visit to the store. It took less than 5 minutes to make – it was indeed as fast as that hypothetical bowl of cereal with the sliced banana. 

We picked the berries ourselves a short walk from our home on Friday. The duck eggs came from a nearby farm. It was filling, healthy, and delicious. You could easily add some local meat to the breakfast or a bowl of porridge made from whatever grain grows nearby (like corn, rice, oats, or quinoa, depending on your location). Nearly every agricultural zone has a grain that grows well if you wish to acquire or farm them.

Does your diet need to change?

It’s time to look at your diet very differently. I can almost guarantee that the transit supply line won’t be there indefinitely. And even if stores do remain open, how long will food be financially viable? Even if you can acquire food at your local market, the prices will continue to increase dramatically, and getting food from far-flung locales will be out of the price range for the average person. 

Many signs point to an economic collapse and for many different reasons, rapidly rising food prices.

This article is not about building a good stockpile. While that ensures you won’t go hungry within a finite period, being able to feed yourself from the resources in your area is even more important than a fully loaded pantry. Many people are so enmeshed in the food transportation system that it would never occur to them to change their lifestyle to a less fuel-dependent one. By adjusting the way you eat to your environment now, you’ll be that much further ahead while the system disintegrates.

What would your diet be like if there was no food transit system?

So what would you eat if you had to get everything relatively locally?

An excellent place to start is your farmer’s market. (Find one in your area HERE) If it is a market that is genuinely for area farmers (i.e., not one that allows vendors to purchase things in the nearest city and present them as fresh and local), then it will give you a good idea of what is in season and what grows well in your area. The less expensive the food, the closer you are to the heart of the season for that particular fruit or vegetable.

Ways to learn about your area’s agriculture:

  • Join a gardening group. Even if you are apartment-bound and don’t have the space for a garden of your own, joining a group of local gardeners or homestead-minded people can help you learn about the local growing scene. Facebook abounds with local groups. The bonus is that you can make some friends and learn some skills while researching the area.
  • See what grows wild. Where I live, there are blackberries everywhere – so many that they are considered an invasive plant! We go blackberry picking several times throughout the summer to help ourselves to nature’s bounty. You can often find fruit and nut-bearing trees along a hiking trail. By learning what grows wild, you can make the best choices for creating your own orchard or garden. If it can grow without any help, the plant will absolutely thrive with a little nurturing.
  • Most importantly, see what doesn’t grow in your area. No one grows wheat in the locality where I live. The soil here is simply not right for it. They don’t grow bananas because the climate is not right for it. But fresh corn grows like a weed, as do berries and nut trees. If no one farms it in your area, you will pay a premium price if you continue to eat the food while costs escalate.
  • Check out your county extension office. There are some fantastic resources there for gardening, cooking, and preserving. All of the information you receive follows regulations from the USDA, but it is still a great (and free) educational resource. In fact, next month, I’m taking advantage of a class at my resource office to learn more about making jerky.

How to use local food

This is just one example of seasonal foods. In a few weeks (as of when I’m writing this), peaches will be at the perfect ripeness here in our local orchards. After that, Roma tomatoes will be at their peak. Then it will be apple season. Throughout the summer, there is a decadent amount of fruits and vegetables.

This week, I bought a basket of garden overrun from the lady who supplies us with fresh milk. I got a tremendous amount of vegetables – more than we can possibly eat this week. I am going to preserve them for later use during the year when produce is not as abundant. 

When you look at that photo entire meals and more should come to mind. For example: 

What about the winter when nothing is growing?

Many foods can be accessed year-round, such as meat, eggs, and dairy. However, in many areas, with the right set up, you can also grow throughout the year. There are lots of different agricultural zones, and this is where your county extension office can come in handy yet again. 

We purchased one of those inexpensive greenhouses at the end of the season this year. We plan to erect that in our yard in the fall. This winter, we should be able to grow some hardy greens for salads and stir-fries. During the coldest, darkest days of winter, we grow tender lettuce and herbs in a sunny windowsill.

In some regions, hoop houses and cold frames can extend your growing season 1-2 months on either end of the regular growing season. This forces you to have to plan ahead like our ancestors did. Winter has been coming every year for a long time now – it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that it’s happening again this year and that they need to prepare for it.

Now is the time to pick and preserve so that you can feed yourself throughout the winter. I’ve canned jams, fruit, coleslaw, tomato juice, pickles, and salsa, and I’m just getting started. This is the busy time of year for those seeking an agrarian lifestyle because it’s time to start seedlings for a fall garden.

Learn more about canning HERE.

Learn more about dehydrating HERE.

Learn more about fermenting HERE.

Learn more about root cellaring HERE.

Seasonal eating is very healthy.

If fruit needs a passport to get to you, it can’t really be considered “fresh fruit.” When you demand produce that is out of season, it’s coming from across the globe. This means the items were picked before they were actually ripe, which means that the nutrients had not fully developed. The vitamins and minerals contained in produce begin to decrease the minute the food is picked. The harvest item immediately begins to die and decompose. By the time the food arrives at your local grocery store, it might already be 3 weeks old – and sometimes it’s even older.

What’s more, the packing plants take great pains to be sure that the fresh fruits that grace your table at Christmas look pretty. Many packagers add a waxy, glossy coating to produce before shipping. The coating not only looks shiny and inviting, but it also slows down the decomposition of the fruit or vegetable. Some foods are sprayed with preservative chemicals, as well, to help them survive the arduous journey to your supermarket.

Reducing the distance your food travels isn’t the only health reason to eat seasonally. Nature provides certain foods at certain times because that is when your body needs them the most. They are also less likely to be drenched in pesticides, fertilizers, and fungicides if the plants are growing as nature intended them to.

Tender leafy sprigs like lettuce, kale, peas, and pea shoots, and asparagus provide vitamins K and folate, which support blood health, bone health, and cell repair. These fresh, delicate foods are light, low in calories, and rejuvenating to the body as you gear up for the upcoming warm weather. Feasting on these waistline-friendly foods is a great way to get rid of that insulating layer of fat that you may have acquired during the winter.

In the summer, delicious berries actually provide protection against the intense rays of the sun. In-season foods like corn, peppers, and tomatoes are light on your stomach during the blazing hot weather. Many summer vegetables can be eaten raw and require no cooking, so you don’t have to heat up your house to prepare them.

In the fall, you should begin to look for foods that provide more warmth – carrots, sweet potatoes, apples, and pumpkins, to name a few. The beta-carotene in many of these autumn treats will boost the body’s germ-fighting cells to strengthen your immune system for the upcoming cold and flu season.

Finally, in the winter, you should consider eating more carbohydrates like those from root vegetables – they help the body sustain a little more weight, which is needed to insulate against the cold weather. Warming vegetables like potatoes, cabbages, carrots, onions, rutabagas, and winter squash all store well in cool, dark places, providing energy and comfort throughout the winter.

Adding more fish to your diet during this time of year is also beneficial for the warming effect, the higher calories, and the high levels of vitamin D (the vitamin you get directly from the sun during the warmer months).

Vitamin D is essential for good mental health and a robust immune system. Nuts, which store well for the winter, are loaded with Omega 3 fatty acids, which help moisturize your body from the inside out and heals the dry winter skin so many of us suffer from.

Seasonal eating is excellent for your budget!

By growing what you can and acquiring things when they are most abundant, you’ll save a lot of money. As I discussed above, several current economic issues are going to cause the costs of our “average American diets” to skyrocket. Reliance on long-distance food at the grocery store will simply be financially unsustainable.

When gas prices continue to climb, that cost will be pushed off on the end consumer: the person buying that food from the store. The further the item has to come to get from you, the more fuel it takes to get it. Soon, those December blueberries will be out of reach for all but the wealthiest of families. Why not pick your blueberries in the summer and can or freeze them if you want to have blueberries in December? 

You must also take into consideration extreme weather over. Droughts in California have meant that many farmers had to let formerly productive fields lie fallow to concentrate their limited water supply on the remaining fields. This causes a shortage of particular foods, which will make them more expensive, based on the laws of supply and demand.

However, this doesn’t have to affect you as severely as it will those who rely solely on the grocery store to get their food.

Things are still growing, and they are probably growing near you. I cheerfully take those huge zucchini clubs that my neighbors don’t know what to do with and preserve them for the winter ahead. There is still a lot of abundance in our country, the thing is that abundance near you is happening right now, not in 6 months.

You have to think ahead by getting things while they are at their peak – at this point in time, people with gardens have a tremendous amount of overflow. The key to making this help your budget is saving that overflow for later when it will be outrageously expensive to get it from the store.

You don’t have to be an expert to grow food.

Well, I sure hope not. Otherwise, we’ll starve.

I have grown gardens before. Some have been so successful that they looked like a lush jungle in my yard, while others have wilted, laying down in defeat in the blazing sun. I’m definitely not a master gardener. I wouldn’t even say I have a green thumb. (Just summon a medium and ask some of my victims – I am like the serial killer of once-thriving house plants).

I’m telling you this so you know that anyone can do it if they desire to do so: no genetically inherited alien-colored digit is required.

You don’t have to be an expert, but you do have to be determined. You have to be willing to ask others in your area who have been growing for years. You have to observe the things growing in your region. You have to be ready to put in hard work and get dirty. And if something dies, you have to cut your losses and try something else.

I recently thought I had killed my herb garden during the last heatwave. I uprooted everything – it was all wilted and semi-dead looking, and re-potted in containers, which I moved to a shadier location. I lost some plants, but more than half of them surprised me by bouncing back. From this I learned two things: 1) Where not to plant herbs next year and 2) If it’s already dying, what can it hurt to try something new? It might finish the plant off, or it might give it a chance to rejuvenate.

Most of all, realize that if you keep plugging away at it, you can grow food. If other people in your area are growing food, it can be done. If it can be done, you can do it too. For centuries, this was how people got enough food to eat, and the human race hasn’t died out yet. This means that, given a little bit of space, you can grow food too.

Chime in!

What’s growing in your area right now? How are you preserving it? Do you have suggestions for those who are in a situation where they can’t grow a garden? How are you increasing your local food intake?

Local Food and the Unsustainable Absurdity of the Average American Diet
Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is an author and blogger. She's the single mom of two daughters and credits extreme frugality and a good sense of humor for her debt-free lifestyle. She is the author of numerous books, the editor of TheOrganicPrepper.com, and is the founder of a small digital publishing company in the emergency preparedness niche.

5 thoughts on “Local Food and the Unsustainable Absurdity of the Average American Diet”

  1. Well said! The general public is going to lose their ever-loving minds when they can’t pop into the grocery stores for their customary food combos. Most don’t even understand from where their foods are arrive. We’ve lived in Eastern Europe and southern Mexico and I am so very thankful for those experiences. Things are about to get whole lot similiar in the US.

  2. Getting in touch with the earth, the seasons and your local farmers and ranchers is the best thing you can do for your health and the earth. Eating locally is great, and keeping a garden, herb garden, even pots in your home with some plants is great. It was almost $5 for a few leaves of basil, and sadly mine has perished for the winter. The long cold winters here prohibit me from really even growing this amazing herb indoors (-26 F the other day, my windows are extremely cold and thus the sunlight is not adequate). I’ve certainly tried. It’s reassuring to know I have canned goods from the garden, the farmers market and in my freezer to make so many meals. start small, work your way up. it takes years to really grasp all of these ideas. you will be shocked how far you come year to year.

  3. People interested in this can decide they’re only going to eat items grown in their country, state, county, or within a certain mile radius. The Hundred Mile Diet for example, eventually the 100 Acre Diet and even the Hundred Foot Diet. Looking at what people traditionally eat in your USDA hardiness zone in areas around the world can give ideas of what can be grown in your area as long as the light, precipitation, etc are similar (example zone 6 desert vs. zone 6 forest vs. zone 6 bog). It’s possible that things in some areas of the world can grow very well in your area and vice versa as long as they are a close climactic match. You can check worldwide hardiness zone maps and climate match maps. Be willing to try things from areas that are the close climate match to your area.

  4. After seeing the acronym game from such phrases as “Average American Diet” (AAD) and other such literary classics, I thought of one from years ago that conveys the perfect spirit for today’s article — the “Standard American Diet” aka the SAD.

    The discussion of how a food’s nutrition diminishes the farther away and longer time it has to travel to reach you could also benefit from knowing another cause of nutrition loss. Years ago Tammy Gangloff of Dehydrate2Store.com mentioned that while canning tends to preserve a little under 50% of a food’s nutrition value, dehydrating can preserve closer to 90% (at least for the majority of foods for cooperate well with dehydrating). That suggests a wonderfully beneficial way to make those soon-to-become out-of-season goodies available year around — and if done and stored correctly … for many years to come.

    There’s also a division of labor issue that I remember from both of my pair of grandparents who grew up in the pre-rural-electrification era of homesteading. The women were consistently the gardening and child care experts while the men worked like dogs to hold things together with the animals and the fields. Sometimes when there was some really strong muscle needed in the garden the men would step in, but otherwise the women provided most of the gardening attention and expertise — including the food preservation effort as well whether pressure canning other.

    Today if you are a “one-man-band” that classic division of labor system doesn’t work. You have to cut back somehow and trade your efforts, skills and cash for things you simply don’t have the hours or space to do or produce. Exceptions might include some inside vertical gardening or some Kratky style non-electric hydroponics for the very determined souls with sufficient circumstances.

    Another matter I recall from both sets of grandparents. When they both retired from farm work, they moved into a smaller house in a small town within walking distance of the local grocery. They had no intention of planting an in-town garden because they chose a place without such space.

    The point is that for some people’s circumstances, DIY gardening isn’t a workable strategy although some kinds of food preservation can still be. And the story of one grandmother having a post-WWII pressure cooker (manufactured with a poorly chosen metal alloy) blowing up and splattering beans all over her ceiling) left unforgettable memories. Stories like that unfairly trashed the reputation of pressure cookers for a long time.

    –Lewis

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