A lot of people think buying “local” food is a way to do your part in making sure you’re eating something sustainable. But that word is more nuanced that it may seem at first glance.

Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Farmer’s market season is winding down in DC, so I’ve been stocking up on apples. There’s nothing like the crisp crunch of a farm-fresh apple. Or even better — fresh-squeezed apple cider, warmed on my stovetop on a chilly evening.

I skip over to my favorite cider vendors at the Columbia Heights farmer’s market. They hand me a jug, I hand them $5. I stare at my juice lovingly, until I notice something that surprises me.

“Pennsylvania?” I comment, reading the label on my cider. “I didn’t realize you guys came from so far away.”

The vendor shrugs. “It’s not as far as you think.”

I have a feeling it’s farther than most people think when they walk down to their neighborhood farmer’s market for “local” produce. I’m sure I’m not the only naive urbanite who subconsciously harbored the mental image of a farm just-down-the-lane when I shelled out an extra two dollars for produce.

Where did I think that lane was going? The National Mall?

“Local” isn’t always as local was we may think, and that’s not necessarily bad

Local food isn’t necessarily grown 10 minutes away. At my favorite market in Columbia Heights, the produce comes from all over. A farm called 78 Acres is in Smithsburg, Maryland, some 70 miles away. Three Springs is based in Aspers, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles away and across two state lines. The farms that service local DC markets fall within a broad radius, and it goes beyond the region.

Because the word “local” as applied to food systems is not a hard-and-fast definition, some people have grown dubious about the term. Customers who feel they have been duped by “local” label especially bemoan the ostensible damage to the environment that comes when you expand a city’s “local” food systems.

But in many cases, especially when it comes to farmer’s markets, this isn’t always deserved. Transportation is only a small part of the carbon footprint inherent in agricultural production. The proverbial problem is buying strawberries in the winter — shipping food by air for an out-of-season shortcake. And the problem of sustainability doesn’t end with transportation. Even if their fields are in Pennsylvania, farmers with years of experience are better equipped to efficiently manage the of water, soil, and energy so that as little is wasted as possible.

This means that plenty of “local” projects, like farmers markets, are sustainable in the grand scheme of things, even if they stretch the definition of the very term. That’s good, because their food tastes better, and buying it in-season promotes genetic diversity among crops. Produce from these kinds of providers is also usually better for you; it spends less time in transit, so it loses fewer nutrients it the time between the vine, ground, or stalk and your mouth.

Buying from local farmers also offers a level of transparency — they know where they’re coming from, and they aren’t afraid to tell you — so you can decide where to draw “local” lines.

Most importantly, at least to me, buying helps support the families that I see every Wednesday night when I’m buying my groceries. Because even if I can’t walk down the road to their farm, they’re inevitably a part of my extended community.

Plus, it turns out that food grown right next door may not be so great

The most vocal response to the obsession over “local” has come from proponents of urban farming. Many urbanists have tackled the issue of local food systems by developing gardens on rooftops or small plots of land within the city. But while these projects have brought a whole new tenor to the word “local,” their costs often outweigh the perceived benefits.

For instance, studies show that urban farms can increase sprawl. City land is limited, and when these small projects are prioritized over density, the urban spaces diffuse. Urban farming can even increase carbon emissions as inexperienced (though certainly well-meaning) farmers plant crops in less favorable growing environments that require more energy and chemical inputs to sustain.

There are, of course, environmental virtues to the community gardens cropping up on city blocks — decreased air pollution, cooling down cities, building natural habitats for urban fauna — but they are not inherent to them being local food systems.

Location is just one thing. Let’s consider our habits, too.

City dwellers need to consider the scope of what it takes so sustain our urban cores. We consume and waste without thinking twice about the steps it takes to create our daily lives. We order groceries online without thinking what it took to get them to our door.

Perhaps it’s more appropriate to call these food systems “regional” rather than “local” for the sake of clarity, but regardless, making an effort to understand what “local” means forces us to grapple with the true extent of our metropolitan area.

This winter, I’m going to miss the days when I can pick up fresh shallots from Pennsylvania, apples from southern Virginia, and kale from western Maryland — but they’ll be back in the spring. Whether 25 or 250 miles away, our local farmers keep urban life tenable, sustainable, and deliciously palatable.