Building the Local Food Economy

July 20th, 2021

By Emily Wargo MS, RD, DipACLM, LDN

Summer is here!! There is plenty about the summer season to be grateful for; warm sunshine, lazy days by the pool, but ultimately my favorite part of summer is abundance fresh fruit!

One particular summer memory I cherish is centered around blueberries. One hot, humid July afternoon a few years ago, I found myself being recruited to help pick wild blueberries on my friends’ expansive family property. We got to work picking the delicate berries, staining our clothes, hands, and mouths a deep purple-blue, evidence the berries made it to our bellies instead of the buckets we were instructed to fill. The berries were delectable; the snap of the bite through the skin, the pop of sweet juice, warm from the summer sun.

It was hard not to feel a profound sense of gratitude for the Earth and its innate ability to produce the food we need to thrive. But it also got me thinking, why doesn’t supermarket fruit taste this spectacular? Why do mass-produced blueberries from the grocery store lack that pop of sweet juiciness I longed for? A blueberry is a blueberry, no matter the source, right? 

The U.S. spends about $239 billion each year to bring food to our tables, 80-90% of which is used in the areas of post-production (processing, packaging, shipping, storage, and retail operations). Freshness and taste are not at the forefront of large-scale farming processes. Our food is produced for durability; specifically, the ability to withstand extensive harvesting techniques, travel, and shelf life. The average distance produce travels from farm to supermarket is an astounding 1,500 miles.

Most consumers choose conventional supermarkets for a variety of reasons. Convenience is a major contributor towards supermarket purchases, as well as food cost. Here in the Greater Lehigh Valley (Northampton, Lehigh, and Berks Counties), about $2.7 billion is spent on food per year. Only about 1% is purchased directly from local farms. In other words, most of our food dollars are leaving the Lehigh Valley when we purchase food imports. Once these dollars leave, it is unlikely they will return. 

Sustainable food sales have a notable impact on local economies due to the multiplier effect: the number of times a dollar circulates in a community before leaving through the purchase of an import. The multiplier for food-related farming activities in the Lehigh Valley is 1.449 (IMPLAN calculation by Penn State University 2014). This means that for every dollar received by food-related farms in the Lehigh Valley, 45 cents is generated for economic growth.

In comparison, a case study conducted in Midcoast Maine (1) found that national chain stores yield a return of only 14 cents to the local economy. If each Greater Lehigh Valley household spent $10 per week on locally grown food, it would generate $207 million for local farms and $93 million for local businesses. That is an extra $300 million put back into the economy! 

A resilient food economy is nothing without the resources needed to sustain it. Most conventionally-produced food takes a sizeable amount of natural resources to procure. The farther food must travel, the greater the fossil fuel dependence and CO2 emissions, both of which cause ecological disruption.

Sustainable food systems highlight soil conservation, known as Regenerative Agriculture, to recover soil health and prevent further erosion. Healthy soil = healthy crops! No-till farming is an example of a sustainable farming technique to reduce soil disturbance and keep the soil rich in nutrients plants need to grow. This yields heartier crops with less pest infestation, and an overall decrease in use of harmful pesticides.

Apart from soil health, drip irrigation often used in sustainable practices consumes 50% less water than conventional irrigation methods. At large industrial farms, high-yield produce varieties often come with a price: nutritional quality. Production methods that deplete soil health are apt to yield crops with lower nutritional content.

Additionally, supermarket fruits and vegetables can spend upwards of 2 weeks in transit. The nutrient content of produce that has been picked early and forced to ripen during transport is often lower than those allowed to ripen on the vine. Even as you peruse the produce section of the grocery store, it is apparent the food present is lack-luster with mushy centers, bruised skin, undetectable flavor, and a gloomy exterior. 

I believe responsible consumerism has the power to establish a more sustainable food system by demanding transparency and accountability, from farmers all the way up to governing agencies. Supporting your local economy prioritizes the long-term health of the community instead of short-term industrial profits.

Support towards the food economy in your geographic area can manifest in a variety of ways; farmer’s markets, farm-to-table restaurants, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, harvest calendars for seasonal produce, pick-your-own produce, road-side produce stands, even a trip to tour a farm is encouraged! Putting the local food economy first conveys the message that everyone is invited to the table.

When community is prioritized over convenience, only then can we rise to the challenge of sustainable living for all. And when that day comes, a blueberry will indeed be a blueberry, no matter the source.  


1. Institute for Local Self-Reliance. (2003). The Economic Impact of Locally Owned Businesses vs. Chains: A Case Study in Midcoast Maine. 


Emily Wargo MS, RD, DipACLM, LDN is a dietitian within the St. Luke’s University Health Network in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She recently received her credential in Lifestyle Medicine as well as a certificate in Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training. She primarily works in the outpatient setting, counseling clients on a variety of nutrition topics including sports nutrition, mindful eating, and plant-based lifestyle. She enjoys reading anything she can get her hands on, spending quality time in nature, cooking, and yoga/meditation. 

Posted by: Talia Follador

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