Ultra-local food: the proximity principle

I’m going to admit it.  I’m privileged.  And it has nothing to do with what’s sitting in my bank account.

The privilege I’m referring to is the food I eat and the ingredients I cook with. Vegetables of all colors and varieties, apples, pears, peaches, plums, melons, grapes, berries, locally produced wines, beer, vodka, and cheeses. All can be found within a twenty-minute radius of my back door here in Columbia County in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Close to home

Even now, in chilly March, I’m privileged to be able to travel a scant 3.6 miles to WildWood Farm to purchase fresh produce. There, Warren, a retired plant pathologist, and Lenny, a retired schoolteacher, tend their one-half acre field and a 20 x 40–foot greenhouse, harvesting a yearly crop of approximately three-to-four- thousand pounds of specialty organic vegetables and greens.  Warren and Lenny’s careful selection of seed stock and their skill as small-scale growers yield the most deeply flavored produce I’ve ever tasted.  One word in particular captures the taste treat of their bounty: freshness.

From farm to table:  a journey of more than 1,500 miles

Unfortunately, for most Americans it’s not easy to eat fresh. If you’re eating supermarket fare, most of it travels long distances via an industrial food network that transports consumables that could never honestly be labeled “fresh.”  Fifteen hundred miles is the average distance from field to table for bland-tasting supermarket foodstuffs harvested prior to peak ripeness and then packed on refrigerated planes, trains, ships, and semi-trailer trucks.

Consider two examples: a carton of strawberry yoghurt and an industrially farmed carrot.  A 2005 study in Iowa found that the milk, sugar, and strawberries in a container of yoghurt collectively travel 2,211 miles just to get to the processing plant—even before the yoghurt is transported to supermarket shelves and packed into children’s lunch boxes. The carrot is a bit closer to home.  It travels a mere 1,838 miles from dirt to salad bowl.

Consider another astounding fact about the food that ends up on our plates.  The typical American meal contains ingredients grown in five countries outside the U.S.—even though we have 470 million acres of our own arable land in cultivation. In the last decade alone, food imports from China, South America, Europe, and the Middle East have quadrupled.

With food miles measured in the thousands from farm to distributor to consumer, the use of fossil fuels to feed our hunger for year-round produce is staggering. An astounding one-fifth of our total consumption of fossil fuels is devoured by the planting, fertilizing, chemical spraying, distribution, processing, and packaging of foodstuffs. In California alone food imports arriving by plane—such as fruits, nuts, and vegetables—release 70,000 tons of CO2, which equals the equivalent of 12,000 additional cars on the road.

How far our food travels from farm to table has become an issue of national import as we’ve become more aware of the relationship between the gluttonous burning of fossil fuels and its role in climate change.

 The world is going urban

Demographic change across the globe will also force a change in how we think about our food supply. According to a study published by the World Health Organization, for the first time in history, more people live in cities than in the countryside. Every year the number of urban residents across the globe is increasing by a jaw-dropping 60 million.

Although the U.S. has an urban growth rate that is lower than in the developing world, every year one million acres in the U.S. are lost to cultivation due to urbanization, suburban sprawl, expanding transportation networks, and industrial expansion.  The future is clear. More people clustered in cities farther from food sources, and fewer families growing their own food as they leave the land for city dwelling.  As cities grow to make room for an ever-increasing population, fertile land is gobbled up by urban sprawl.  Add to the mix escalating fuel costs and environmental degradation, and you have a perfect storm that demands radical change—the necessity for a more sustainable model.

 The imperative for local food

The growth of farmers’ markets nationwide is proof of widespread support for local sourcing.  In 1970, there were 340 farmers’ markets.  Today the number is 7,175 and growing. Consumers are buying at local markets because they’re finding that locally produced food in season is similar or lower in cost than supermarket fare. The local carrot—harvested within 100 miles of consumption—beats out the industrially farmed carrot not just in lower-transportation costs but even more importantly in taste and food value.  Recent nutritional studies confirm that fresh foods retain more nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

Although local food production represents less than 1 percent of total food production in the U.S., it’s growing at an annual rate of about 10 percent.  In 2002, locally grown food was worth $4 billion.  This year, it is estimated that locally grown food could top out at $7 billion.  And those billions are vital to sustaining local communities as local-food dollars flow directly back into the local economy.

 Ultra-local startups

We’re now at the start of a second-wave of sustainable food production. It’s been labeled ultra- or hyper-local.  Both names refer to food grown either on-site at food retailers or in close proximity to food-distribution centers.

Pioneering ultra-local entrepreneurs have held their fingers to the wind, taken a measure of the ever-increasing cost of transportation, and concluded that the tipping point for financial viability for ultra-local may be now.

 A handful have jumped into the game.  Among them are Gotham Greens and BrightFarms of New York, Sky Vegetables of Needham, Massachusetts, and PodPonics of Atlanta.

Gotham Greens operates a 15,000 square-foot hydroponic greenhouse located atop a warehouse in an industrial area of Brooklyn.  The company grows nine varieties of lettuces and four types of herbs that are distributed to supermarkets and restaurants across the metropolitan New York area.  The success of their first greenhouse has led to the construction of a second that will be dedicated to growing tomatoes.

BrightFarms designs, finances, builds and operates hydroponic greenhouses on-site at supermarkets.  The greenhouse is built on a supermarket’s roof or a nearby building at no cost to the retailer. A one-acre BrightFarms greenhouse is capable of growing up to 500,000 pounds of produce using up to 14 times less land and 10 times less water per pound. The first of BrightFarm’s greenhouses has opened at a McCaffrey’s Market in Pennsylvania. Five national chains, including Whole Foods, are currently in negotiation with the company.

Podponics, based in Atlanta, calls their model a “local everywhere” approach because it is a “modular system that may be installed anywhere from Atlanta to Abu Dhabi.”  Theirs is a modular system using recycled shipping containers converted into controlled-environment growing pods.  Podponics is currently supplying a variety of lettuces to local restaurants in the Atlanta area from their facility located near the Atlanta International Airport.

Two California retailers, Bi-Rite of San Francisco and Woodlands Market, are pursuing a slightly different path toward urban-food sustainability by farming their own produce.  Whether you’ll be buying food from a local field, from a rooftop greenhouse or a retired shipping container, it seems that the privilege of truly fresh food at an affordable price may be coming in the not too distant future to a supermarket near you.