Food miles is a fuzzy term, used to describe how far a kind of food had to travel to get to its final destination. There are more than a few ways food miles can be calculated, and even more ways to justify having fewer of them, though the typical example is like this: if a pound of food is made the same way, with the same inputs, 1000 miles away and 10 miles away, it’s better to buy the one only 10 miles away. Even if they are priced the same, supposedly more money is going into farmers pockets and other pockets in the food-supply chain if you ‘eat local’ and the fossil fuel manufacturers don’t get anything.
There are many other arguments that favor eating local food: shorter transport time often can mean more nutrients or flavor still being in the food when it reaches a person’s table, and less transport costs can make it a little more painless to splurge on organic, grass-fed, or other designations within food production. Overall, it seems ideal for a healthy food system to support at least some local production, given that rising prices for fuel will have a much greater impact on the 1000-mile-away food than on the 10-mile-away food.
This is not to say that every close-by food is a best buy — some food is much more intensive to cultivate in certain climates, and the fossil fuels expended in growing the food might actually be higher than the transport could cost. There are good and not so good ways to view food miles, but knowing more about where our food comes from makes decisions better and sometimes easier. If you know more about the foods that are efficiently produced near you, though, you might be able to get the best of both worlds.
One kind of restaurant is making food’s origins more transparent for their visitors: farm-to-table restaurants. Sure, their reputation for freshness, delicious combinations, and rustic comfort makes them a slam-dunk among the earth-loving crowd, but I thought I’d look into a few F-to-T restaurants in a popular market, Asheville, North Carolina, and see where the food actually comes from and how far it travels.
I begin with a disclaimer: all distances were determined using information on menus and websites of the restaurants and the Google Maps distance to the sources; this is already way more information than people usually get about the origins of their food, so there is a margin for error and many of these products might be even more local than I was able to deduce. I hope, rather than fixating on the specifics of each restaurant, the numbers open your eyes to one way you can learn more about what is truly local in your area, even if it isn’t Asheville, North Carolina.
At Chestnut, you can get a lot of items that have travelled only a few miles; for instance, the Sunburst Farm trout came from approximately 28 miles away. There are also delicacies, like the Manchester Farm Quail, hailing from 173 miles south of the restaurant, or cheese selections from nearby spots like the Round Mountain Creamery 27 miles away.
HomeGrown actually lists out where some of its ingredients come from, while many restaurants list a general group of farm partners rather than where individual items are sourced. Wool Branch Farm provides them tomatoes from 28 miles away, while Leaning Willow Farm keeps them in broccoli and other veggies, only 19 miles off. New River Organic Growers provide their eggs, which journey 109 miles but have “radiant yolks the color of the sun” according to the HomeGrown website, and are free-range.
Early Girl Eatery includes a lot of information about why they choose to source locally, including how it builds community between farmers and business owners, promotes more sustainable small farms, and enables the restaurant to tell more stories of real people growing the food they sell. If you order the Porky Breakfast Bowl, some of the bacon was sourced out of Smoky Mountain Country Hams, 156 miles away, and the mushrooms, tomatoes, cucumbers, and more that you get in your salads and omelettes come from Ivy Creek Family Farm, only 21 miles away.
Lastly, Table, like the other restaurants, brings in both nearby farms and slightly farther-out spots. Table sources from Gaining Ground farm, where some of their greens travel 12 miles to the restaurant. These farther-off sources are usually still small, artisanal operations, like Capriole cheese from 396 miles away or Ridgefield Farm’s Brasstown beef from 115 miles away.
In some places, it will be easier to eat locally-sourced greens, or locally-sourced dairy, or locally-sourced bacon — one doesn’t know what kinds of products are made in their backyard till they look at a “Local Partners” chalkboard in a Farm-to-Table restaurant, and looks at the signs for farms as you travel around your region. In Asheville’s restaurants, many of the farms supply multiple restaurants — some of these farms and creameries appeared over and over. Even if you determine that some foods are worth eating regardless of the food miles, learning which foods are in your 10-200 mile radius might make you more a part of a food system, with more of a relationship with the people who grow your food.
Laura Leavitt is a writer and teacher in Ohio. She blogs at www.recipeinabottle.com and has written for The Billfold, Roads and Kingdoms, and The Financial Diet.
Header photo by Amy CC BY