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Eating locally is actually pretty easy, and that's good news for reducing food waste
A new study claims that most Americans could eat food grown within 50 to 100 miles of where they live. But is buying locally really worth it? - photo by JJ Feinauer
Upwards of 80 percent of Americans could restrict their eating habits to food grown within 50 miles of where they live, according to a new study published by the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California, which means that if consumers want it, there's more than enough potential to buy food exclusively from local markets.

But is that really necessary? Or is "buy local" just another trend in the high-turnover world of food fashion?

According to The United Nations, anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of produce goes to waste, "because it doesn't meet retailer's cosmetic specifications." Buying locally, according to Michigan State University's Beth Clawson, might in fact help to reduce some of that waste.

Though it might sound too simple, simply "buying only what is necessary" can go a long way to reduce waste, Clawson wrote in a post on the university's website in 2012. And it's much easier, according to Clawson, to buy unnecessary amounts of food in bulk from a supermarket. Farmers markets, as well as restaurants and grocery stores that rely on locally grown food, are less likely to sell you more than you can possibly eat.

"Buying in bulk can save you money, but not if you wind up throwing half of it and your savings away because it went bad before you could use it," she added.

But for many years, "buy local" advocates struggled with convincing the population that relying on locally grown food was practical.

"All the romantic things that come with local food small farms, seasonal produce, less guilt are difficult to provide when cities like New York house almost 10 million people," The Washington Post's Roberto A. Ferdman wrote in his assessment of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute study.

But, as Ferdman points out, the SNRI study may be a game changer when it comes to understanding the feasibility of a mass movement toward locally grown produce.

"The takeaway isn't that we can flip the food system on its head overnight, but rather that a good deal more of the country might be able to eat locally than previously thought," Ferdman concluded.

While the study found that 80 percent of Americans could feasibly have a diet of food grown within 50 miles of where they live, the number jumps even higher to 90 percent when the area is extended to 100 miles.

There are profound social and environmental benefits to eating locally," the study's author, University of California, Merced professor Elliott Campbell, said of the study's implications. And as Clawson argued in 2012, reducing food waste may be one of those benefits.

As I wrote in April, the idea that poor food distribution is a major factor in world hunger has gained steam in recent years. The Brookings Institution recently did an assessment of food distribution that found that overproduction is, by far, more of a problem than underproduction.

"Reducing food waste can have a significant impact on the availability of food," Brookings' Heinz-Wilhelm Strubenhoff wrote in April. And it seems as if local food markets might be an easier solution to that problem than we thought.
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