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Talking Local Foods With Clients

Local foods matter and RDs are positioned to be integral in this shift in the food paradigm.

By Lori Zanteson

Local foods undoubtedly have settled into the mainstream, having established roots beyond the nutrition and wellness world. They’re now a selling point in supermarket produce departments and restaurants alike and in both high-end and smaller grab-and-go eateries. RDs are on the pulse of this movement, giving them not only the opportunity but also the responsibility to talk about local foods with clients.

The benefits of supporting locally grown foods include individual health and enjoyment, building community, strengthening the local economy, and protecting the planet. And these benefits are vital to clients—and all people.

Why Local Foods Matter

Although there’s no predetermined distance to define “local,” 100 miles or fewer is a common benchmark. The fewer miles our foods travel, the lower the emissions from transport vehicles, such as airplanes, ships, and trucks. Conventional food distribution uses more fuel and thus emits more carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases that has been linked with climate change. Local food systems rely on a network of small family farms, which usually are sustainably run, meaning they often plant diverse crops, limit synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use, practice no-till agriculture and composting, minimize transportation to consumers, and use little or no packaging for their farm products.

There’s also a personal perk to shorter food miles. “Local foods tend to be fresher. Nutrition is lost in mileage,” says Chris Vogliano, MS, RDN, a PhD candidate at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand, and cofounder of Food + Planet (foodandplanet.org), a nonprofit organization that empowers nutrition professionals to become leaders in the sustainable food movement. Produce can lose an average of one-half of its nutritional value between the time it’s harvested and when it lands on supermarket shelves, according to research from the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Local fruits and vegetables are harvested closer to peak ripeness, which means they’re allowed to ripen naturally on the plant, so they retain more nutrients than conventionally grown produce. Fresher tastes better, too—seasonally grown, fully ripened, and recently harvested means that strawberries, onions, or green beans are at peak flavor.

Local foods also help support communities by keeping dollars in the local economy, generating jobs, protecting greenspace in the area, and making local, fresh produce available to people with limited access to healthful foods. It also can bring people together to discuss foods unique to their communities or regions and related topics such as fertilizers, pesticides, animal treatment, and other growing practices, whether at the farmers’ market, local eatery, or farm-to-table dinner party with friends.

Connecting Clients to Local Foods
It’s one thing to recommend local foods to clients living in rural areas who have easy geographic access to farms, but there are some options for those living in urban areas. Farmers’ markets are the most obvious, as they’ve nearly doubled in number in the last decade. But, when they’re not an option, “one thing I love recommending are CSAs,” Vogliano says. Community-supported agriculture, or CSA, is a membership service that involves community residents investing in the farm or farms themselves through a paid subscription that includes delivery of fresh, seasonal produce to members. “CSAs are such a diverse way of getting fruits and vegetables locally,” Vogliano says. Small farms tend to grow more varieties than what consumers find in supermarkets, which can be a great motivator for clients to try different types of produce and eat more fruits and vegetables overall. RDs can direct clients to local CSAs through a resource such as Local Harvest (localharvest.org), an online directory of CSA subscriptions and community websites, many of which also have this information. Providing clients with a directory of local food sources is especially helpful.

Local Food Challenges
However, for some people, there are barriers to purchasing local foods, such as availability, access, and cost. For clients living in high-priority food areas (previously termed food deserts), or those who are food insecure, eating local foods may be an unlikely priority. But RDs can help, even if they just initiate a conversation about the benefits of including some local foods in the diet and ways to get around even a single challenge. For example, if cost is an issue, Vogliano suggests clients shop around for lower prices. Some farmers’ markets and CSA programs take SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) dollars and may participate in the Double Up Food Bucks program (available in many states), in which they match each SNAP dollar. RDs can have some prepared research on these programs in their communities to help clients get started. This program not only helps low-income families afford and access fresh local foods but it also supports local farmers and farmers’ markets. Seasonal produce tends to be cheaper, too. Alternatively, encouraging clients to grow their own food at a nearby community garden or at home is always a great and affordable option.

Everybody has the right to nutritious, fresh, and healthful local foods. With all of the benefits for individuals, the community, and the environment, it’s increasingly important for dietitians to support a thriving local agricultural system. RDs can be those liaisons between clients and the local foods that are crucial for food system resilience. Especially with the challenges of accessing local foods, initiating a conversation with clients is the beginning of positive change.

— Lori Zanteson is a food, nutrition, and health writer based in Southern California.