A farmer asks a small child, “Where does milk come from?” The child responds, honestly enough, “From the store.”
It’s hard to blame the child, who has probably never stepped foot into a dairy barn or seen the milk from an ample udder stream into the pail all frothy and warm. But the question of where food comes from is still just as relevant to the learning of that child as it is for each of us today. That educational process can be both enlightening and disturbing.
In the child’s perception, the movement of milk is from the grocery store to Mom’s refrigerator. But before it reached the grocery store, it spend time with a distributor, which received the product from the processing facility, which pasteurized, homogenized, and bottled the milk that was shipped in from a variety of dairy farms. All of this moving around of food from one place to another tallies up to what is called “food miles.”
On our farm, it could be called “food yards” because very little has to travel far from field to kitchen to plate, but this is an exceptional situation. Tropical fruits, out-of-season vegetables, or farm-raised meats might be shipped in from Chile, New Zealand, or China. Sometimes local growers find that their market is in a distant city rather than in their hometown. At other times, companies find that fewer regulations make it more economical to fly American grown apples to South Africa to be waxed and then fly them back to be sold at American supermarkets. Economics drives these decisions—cheaper labor, subsidized fossil fuels, and even subsidized agricultural practices swaying decisions.
A study published through www.postcarbon.org cites statistics illustrating that 15% of US energy is spent on feeding Americans, which includes growing, shipping, displaying, and preparing. Pair this with the fact that nearly 50% of all the food that is grown in this country is wasted, and the environmental impact is quite disconcerting. Most of the wasted food comes from the methods of mass-production. Not everything matured in the field at the same time, so part of the crop was lost during mechanized harvesting. Not all the tomatoes or apples were the same size, so they did not crate up evenly and were discarded. Produce rotted during shipment or in a warehouse. Half of the lettuce had to be thrown away by the restaurant because it was too old or unfit to serve. I know because I have received those frantic calls from chefs when the box of green beans from their commercial purveyor arrives white and fuzzy.
Processed foods or foods with a high fat or high sugar content are the greatest offenders in the food mile problem. A recent study in Sweden quoted on www.thedailygreen.org traced the components of a traditional Swedish breakfast—apple, bread, butter, cheese, coffee, cream, orange juice, and sugar. When combining all the miles traveled by each breakfast component, it was startling for the researchers to discover that this breakfast had trekked 24,901 miles, approximately the circumference of the earth!
In America, the traditional quote for food miles (be it for a steak, a tomato, or a cake) is 1,500 miles. This is in accordance with a study conducted in Chicago. More recently, the study was similarly repeated and found that the number had jumped to 2,500 miles. This figure is for an individual product, not even a whole meal! The trip from the grocery store to your home is but one small piece of your food’s story. Find yourself a local farmer and cut out most of those miles—the farmer and the environment will thank you!
So, in light of these alarming statistics, I tried my own food mile experiment, focusing on local. Try it and see what you discover! Be empowered to know where your food comes from. In the meantime, you’ll enjoy this delicious recipe.
French Bistro Frisee Salad
1 head frisee endive (from our aquaponics greenhouse, 1/100th of a mile)
2 Tbs. olive oil (4,300 miles from Italy to New York distributor, then another 1,430 miles)
2 tsp. red wine vinegar (Same Italy number as above, plus 1,400 miles from New Jersey plant)
1 shallot (from our garden, 1/10th of a mile)
½ to 1 tsp. Dijon mustard (at least 2,330 miles from California distributer, miles for individual sub ingredients unknown)
Salt and Pepper (620 miles from the packing company)
2 slices bacon (from our pigs, to the butcher and back, 75 miles)
2 to 4 farm fresh eggs, one per person (from our chickens, 1/10th of a mile)
Tear or cut endive into bite-sized pieces. In a small bowl, mix oil, vinegar, shallot, and mustard. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set dressing aside. Fry the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until brown and crispy (about 5 minutes). Set aside on paper towel to cool.
Simmer a medium-sized pot or deep skillet of water to poach the eggs. A tiny scoash of vinegar helps hold the egg together. Crack eggs into simmering water (don’t let it get to a rolling boil) and poach until desired doneness. Meanwhile, toss endive in dressing until evenly coated. Plate up endive, crumble bacon over it, and top with poached eggs. Serve immediately.
For the food mile calculation, the bulk of ingredients were sourced locally (frisee endive, shallot, bacon, and eggs), with a total of 75.21 miles, most of which went to the butcher for the pig. Considering that this makes approximately 99% of the dish, this is an exciting achievement! For this category, the average food mile for each item is 18.8.
Consider these same items purchased from the grocery store in town (20 miles away from my home, so that will add 80 miles to the figure). The eggs could be from a caged egg factory in Nebraska (509 miles), the pigs from a confinement feeding operation in Iowa (340 miles), the endive from a mono-cropped farm in California (2,165 miles), and the shallots from a field in Ohio (863 miles). That comes to a total of 3,957 miles for the meal or 989.25 miles per item. That is one exhausted endive! By choosing local, I saved 3,881.79 food miles. The average tractor-trailer uses a gallon of fuel every 5 to 7 miles, so theoretically that would be the equivalent of 647 gallons of diesel.
The tricky part comes with the remaining 1% of the meal. For the accent items (olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and Dijon mustard), my score was around 14,380 miles—a good portion of which went to Italian imports. Understandably, it would take quite a few batches of this recipe to use a full bottle of red wine vinegar or a package of pepper, compared with a whole head of endive or a third of a carton of eggs. While it is unlikely I’ll be growing my own olives on the farm, this meal is still significantly greener than the Swedish breakfast.
Even though my food mile count is not perfect, I am choosing to make a difference by eating foods close to home. As we all learn more about our environmental impact and make changes in our daily habits towards smaller carbon footprints, together we can begin meaningful change on a greater scale. Vote with your fork. Vote local. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com