Hungry for Answers

Local experts tackle common questions about eating sustainably

Q: What exactly does it mean to eat locally?

 A: Eating locally means choosing food that has been grown and produced close to home. This may mean eating from your own backyard, shopping at a local farmers’ market or selecting food that was grown in the state or region where you live. At its core, eating locally is about supporting sustainable food systems that do not depend on heavy use of fossil fuels or chemical inputs to provide nutrition, enjoyment and sustenance.

How our food is grown, processed and packaged really does matter. Our food choices influence our health, the quality of our environment, jobs in our community, and the culture and diversity of our society.

Buying locally and sustainably grown food is good for YOU. Food tastes better and is more nutritious when it's fresh. Foods grown using organic farming practices come to your table with no harmful pesticides. And in these times, when obesity and diet related illnesses are on the rise, replacing heavily processed foods with whole fresh produce will improve your health.

Buying locally and sustainably grown food is good for our COMMUNITY. Keeping our local farmers and producers in business supports our local economy. Dollars spent close to home tend to stay close to home. Our local producers understand our community and work to provide nutritious affordable food for all our citizens. The more we feel connected to the people who produce what we eat, the better we preserve our regional food heritage. Rural and urban—we're all connected.

Buying locally and sustainably grown food is good for FARMERS. The current national food system is dominated by very few large corporations which are forcing farmers to accept lower prices, grow only "travel-tolerant" varieties, grow bigger, use more chemical inputs or leave the farm altogether. When farmers sell directly to their neighbors, fewer middlemen cut into their profits. Farmers can afford to stay on their land producing an abundance and variety of food while being good stewards of the land.

Buying locally and sustainably grown food is good for the ENVIRONMENT. Most of the food we eat travels an average of 1,500 miles from the farm to our table. By reducing the travel distance our food takes, we save energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. By buying whole local foods, we also reduce packaging, further saving energy and resources. And sustainable farming practices protect the quality of our water and soil, while preserving green space for healthy native habitats.

– Erin Courtenay, REAP (Research, Education, Action, and Policy on) Food Group

Q: I’d like to join a CSA but where do I start?

A: Joining a CSA farm is a fantastic opportunity to join in a partnership with your local food producers to keep family farming viable and get the freshest, most delicious food for you and your family. It's a great investment in your community, local economy, environment and health. However, since we are fortunate to be in a region that is home to an amazing diversity of top quality producers, it can be overwhelming to find your farm.

Here's some advice if you're thinking about joining a farm:

Decide with your friends and family who will share your share about your goals for farm membership. Are you interested in visiting the farm? If so, it will be important that you join a farm that is not too far away to ensure that you can make it to farm events. Do you have a pickup location area in mind, near your work or home? This can be a great place to start. Find a farm that delivers to your neighborhood, or a farm that is in your town and has on-farm pickup locations. Make sure that you're able to commit to the time and location of your pickup every week during the season. Your farmer will grow your food, but you've got to get it and eat it!

MACSAC's website has farm profiles and information about pickup locations for all forty-two MACSAC farms. By checking out the pickup location map you can narrow your search down to a few farms that would be convenient for you and then take the time to look at their profiles to learn about the farmers, farm culture and unique offerings of each farm.

Once you've joined your farm you'll be welcomed into the farm community. Most farms provide newsletters (online or in print) or blogs to keep members up to date on the farm activities and informed about the contents of their weekly boxes. Since you'll be provided with a weekly box of the freshest, seasonal produce you may find unfamiliar items in your box. CSA members who are willing to try new items and incorporate the freshness of the season into their cooking routines will be rewarded with the most nutritious and delicious flavors that come and go with the Wisconsin seasons.

Many farms also offer autumn, winter and/or storage shares to keep your cupboards stocked with local produce through the cooler months. August and September are great times to plan ahead for the winter months by signing up for storage boxes, preserving the extras in your box through freezing, canning or pickling, and setting yourself up for local eating throughout the year. MACSAC offers food preservation and wse workshops taught by local experts to help CSA members make the most of their shares throughout the year.  

– Kiera Mulvey, Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition  

Q: What’s a food co-op and how does one work?

A: Co-ops (or cooperatives) are businesses owned and controlled by their owners. In the case of consumer co-ops like Willy Street Co-op, that means customers who join can become owners and have a voice in how the organization is run. Owners also receive special benefits that other customers do not. Some of the owner benefits at our co-op are 0wner-only sale prices, free tickets to our Annual Meeting & Party—we served 2,400 dinners last year), voting in elections and on important changes to the co-op (like opening a second store), and the potential for a patronage refund during profitable years. (Details on the benefits are here.)

Although everyone can shop and everyone can join, there is a ten-percent surcharge on purchases by non-owners. Individuals can join for a one-time payment of $58 or can pay $10/year for seven years. With the first payment, you start receiving owner benefits. Details about that is here.

Unlike non-cooperative grocery stores, any profits we make are either reinvested in the co-op or distributed to owners (via patronage refund). Our board generally requires us to aim for a 1–1.5 percent profit at the end of the year—that's deemed enough to keep the co-op successful in typical years, but we want to keep our prices fair and pay our staff and vendors fairly as well. Ultimately, we exist to serve Willy Street Co-op owners.

Also, given the topic, I want to let you know about our Eat Local Challenge—we're challenging Madisonians to eat local food August 15th to September 15th, and the more local the better! The details are here.

– Brendon Smith, Willy Street Co-op

Katie Vaughn is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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