MONTPELIER, Vt. – A committed “locavore,” Robin McDermott once struggled to stock her kitchen with food grown within 100 miles of her Vermont home. She once drove 70 miles to buy beans and ordered a bulk shipment of oats from the neighboring Canadian province of Quebec.
Six years later, she doesn't travel far: She can buy chickens at the farmers market, local farms grow a wider range of produce, and her grocery store stocks meat, cheese and even flour produced in the area. A bakery in a nearby town sells bread made from Vermont grains, and she's found a place to buy locally made sunflower oil.
Nationwide, small farms, farmers markets and specialty food makers are popping up and thriving as more people seek locally produced foods. More than half of consumers now say it's more important to buy local than organic, according to market research firm Mintel, and Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan called the local food movement “the biggest retail food trend in my adult lifetime.”
Strict locavores stick to food raised within a certain radius of their home – 50, 100 or 250 miles. Others may allow themselves dried spices, coffee or chocolate.
“I don't treat it as a religion,” said Valerie Taylor, of Montgomery, Ohio, who tries to eat locally when she can but won't go without a salad in the winter or an avocado if she wants it. She estimated 95 percent of the meat and 70 percent of the produce she eats is local in the summer, but not in the winter.
McDermott has eased up after eating locally during a Vermont winter, which meant a lot of meat and root vegetables. She now allows herself olive oil and citrus and in winter, greens.
“In 2006, I felt like a Vermonter of years past,” she said. “You know, I was going down into my root cellar and saying, ‘I guess it will be potatoes again.'”
Two of the more common standards used by locavores are food produced within 100 miles or within the same state that it's consumed. A new locavore index ranked Vermont as the top state in its commitment to raising and eating locally grown food based on the number of farmers markets and community supported agriculture farms, where customers pay a lump sum up front and receive weekly deliveries of produce and other foods.
The 2012 Strolling of the Heifers Locavore Index – which relies on U.S. Department of Agriculture and census figures – ranks Indiana at 30. The Hoosier state, with a population of more than 6.42 million, has 171 farmers markets and 273 CSAs. Allen County has several farmers markets during the summer, including Historic West Main Street Farmers Market on Fridays – which opened this week – and the Barr Street Market on Saturdays.
But the bottom of the index raises questions. Florida, which produces much of the nation's citrus, strawberries and tomatoes, was in the bottom five with only 146 farmers markets and 193 CSAs for 18.5 million people.
“The whole purpose of this is really to stimulate the conversation about locavorism, which fits into the mission of Strolling of the Heifers,” said Martin Cohn, a spokesman for the group, which works to save farms in New England.
USDA spokesman Aaron Lavallee said the definition of local varies from state to state and region to region depending on the season. In small New England states, food from 100 miles away could be from another state, while food could travel hundreds of miles in Texas or Montana and still be within the borders.
In cases where produce is labeled “local,” with no point of origin, he advised consumers to ask sellers where it was raised.
The locavore movement grew out of consumer concerns about how and where food is produced, following episodes of contamination in spinach, meat and other foods. People committed to it buy locally produced foods to support farmers, because the food is fresher and to reduce the environmental effect of trucking it across country.
But there's more to it, said Jessica Prentice, a San Francisco Bay-area chef who coined the term locavore.
“Really what it's about is moving into a kind of food system where you're connected to the source of your food,” Prentice said. “You're buying from people that you know or can meet and you're buying food grown in a place that you can easily drive to and see.
“This is more about creating an oasis really in the context of a globalized food system that's completely anonymous.”
But James McWilliams, a Texas State University professor who has written a book critiquing the local food movement, said people often think it solves more problems than it does. “There's this sense that because a food is local there's automatically nothing wrong with it, and the fact is even on a local level certain foods are more energy intensive to produce than others,” said McWilliams, a vegan. “Specifically, animal-based products, even on a local level, while they may be more efficient, pound for pound are still significantly more energy intensive to produce than plant-based products.”