Think sustainable food is out of reach? Find out why experts say it's easier to get planet-friendly produce than you might think.

Garden of Eatin’: Is Sustainable Food Hard to Get?

Organic, locally produced, in season…or on sale? Without much time to mull over this age-old sustainability question in the produce aisle, each item you toss in the cart can seem like its own leap of faith.

Sure, many of us want to eat planet-friendly food, but figuring out just what that means can be its own challenge. Compounding the dilemma is the notion that sustainable inevitably costs more. A recent NPR-Thomson Reuters poll revealed that the majority of Americans who prefer to eat organic over non-organic cite price as the main deterrent.

But does eating sustainable produce have to be hard and/or break the bank? Nope, says Barbara Willard, an environmental studies professor at Chicago’s DePaul University. Before we get to why she thinks that’s one of the biggest EcoMyths around, let’s talk about what makes a fruit or veggie sustainable in the first place.

The Big Three: Organic, Local, and Seasonal Fare

You’ve probably heard competing soundbites along the lines of: Organic is what counts! And Local is the only way to go! It’s easy to think that one of these factors can trump the other—but it’s not that simple.

Both food transportation and its production create polluting CO2 emissions, and one does not necessarily trump the other.

What’s the environmental impact of your produce picks? (Pic by Clean Metrics)

True, locally grown produce cuts down on carbon emissions associated with transport. But the carbon savings created by growing locally is sometimes negated by highly fossil fuel-intensive production. When you consider the energy needed to power heavy-duty industrial equipment or even simple grow lights, the energy required for growing produce locally can be as high or even higher than the energy required to transport the produce from far away.

That means an organic kiwi from New Zealand could be a more sustainable option than a local tomato. If the carbon intensiveness at the kiwi production site is low, flying it 2,500 miles could still be more sustainable than growing a tomato in an Indiana hothouse in the winter, explains Willard. Alternatively, an organic veggie shipped from afar could have a bigger environmental footprint than a local, non-organic one.

How to solve that conundrum?

Know Thy Farmer

The ticket is to learn about and support farms that boast a low carbon process from production to market. For example, master gardener Erik Dayrell, MS, explains that at Elawa Farms in Lake Forest, Illinois, farmers eschew energy-intensive machinery in favor of their own sweat to produce organic, seasonal crops—which they “transport” by walking down a short path to the market.

You might think this makes for a hefty price tag on the buyer’s end, but that’s not really the case, at least at Elawa. The longer the production-to-market chain, the higher the cost can go. Not only do people have to grow, tend, and harvest that potato, but someone must also package, transport, unload, shelve, and finally sell it. With almost no transport costs to absorb, Elawa can keep its prices in check—a win-win for you and the environment.

Beyond learning about the sustainable farmers in our community, there’s one more farmer worth getting to know. You.

Getting on the DIY Train

It’s no mystery that growing enough food to live on would be pretty impossible for most of us. But growing even a tiny fraction of what you eat can yield a major return on your investment in free organic, über-local food.

A fence, soil, and a sense of adventure is all it takes to start growing. (Pic by Barb Willard)

“You can grow produce anywhere—on the side of an exterior wall even,” says Willard. “A lot of people just aren’t used to doing it, so they don’t even think about doing it for themselves. People need to know, ‘I can take an old drink bottle, cut off the top, get some seeds and some soil—and put it on my back wall to get some sun.” In other words, a little soil and a single container really can go a long way.

Willard backs her point with some serious experience, having led the efforts at to build an urban garden on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus, which features, among other techniques, an entire system of herbs and veggies growing out of Gatorade bottles.

Growing something edible can be a unique challenge for newbie gardeners. Still, it wasn’t so long ago that everyone had to grow some of their own food. In 1943, home-grown produce constituted 40 percent of vegetables consumed in the U.S., according to the USDA.

Scoring Local, In-Season Food All Year Round

It’s time to tackle the inevitable question. What happens in winter? While it’s a lot harder to enjoy locally grown produce once the ground freezes, it’s by no means impossible. You’re just going to need to get a little creative.

“How did frontier-people survive the winters here?” Willard asks. “Through canning, making jams and jellies, using root cellars, drying things—all that sort of preserving—that’s how.” And we can do it too.

A veritable cornucopia of info exists to help you on your way, from websites like to community workshops on canning and preserving, which are often free. Even simpler, you can always just freeze an item now for winter-time use.

DePaul’s urban gardeners are growing spinach and kale this winter in their low-tunnel hoop house. (Pic by Barb Willard)

Beyond that, some local, sustainable produce really is growable all winter long. Farms like Elawa use hoop houses, which are simple tent-like structures that contain the sun’s heat, and underground root cellars, which make harvested goods last longer. On the home front, you can also grow some items sustainably in winter, like sprouts and herbs, depending on how much sunlight you get.

And if you’re up for a rewarding challenge, you might consider participating in a community garden, where neighbors cultivate their own small plots of land side by side. Community gardening has taken off in cities across the country, from the Twin Cities to Knoxville to Annapolis—and pretty much everywhere in between. Participating in one will not only score you more space than your porch or garden allows, but also enables you to work together to build hoop houses and root cellars for your collective gardening pleasure.

One Green Thing You Can Do

Buy in-season foods from your local farmers market. There you can support the farmers who use organic and low-energy practices while scoring points for keeping it local, too.

More ways to help:

  • Check out the Food Emissions Carbon Calculator to see the CO2 emission count from both production and transport for specific foodstuffs
  • Can, preserve, or pickle something from the farmer’s market
  • Plant an herb, tomato plant, or other edible delight in the spring
  • Support local, sustainable farms. The more we do, the more accessible they—and their price points—will become.

The Multiplier Effect

If 20,000 of us buy one pound of local vs. non-local veggies transported over 1,500 miles—like lettuce in this case—we’ll avert the CO2 emissions equivalent to those produced by 224 gallons of gas. (For more like that, check out the EPA’s handy energy calculator.)

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