Food Wellness
Apples iStock/for PhillyVoice

One good thing about local [food] is you typically can reach someone to have your questions answered.

September 20, 2017

What is a locavore?

'Infrequently Asked Questions' seeks the answer

Never before have there been so many dietary labels to add to our vocabulary: vegans, pescatarians, paleos – the list of terms to define could go on and on.

And among the more recent words to surface? "Locavore."

Eager to get a run-through of what locavore means, we reached out to Jonathan Deutsch, professor of culinary arts and food science for Drexel University's Center for Food & Hospitality Management, for an explanation.

The umbrella question: What is a locavore?

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It's a relatively new term, this century, so it shouldn't surprise you if you're not familiar with it. And basically, what it means is someone who either prefers to or exclusively eats local food – food that was grown within 100 miles. Some expand a little bit, but someone who prioritizes eating local food.

Wouldn't that be limiting your diet?

It certainly would be. There are a lot of things we love and take for granted not grown in all of the continental U.S., things like coffee and tea, bananas, pineapples. So if you really take it literally – for someone in Philly that means no lemons, no citrus of any sort, no avocados and on and on. That said, there are people who are really into it or who prefer to eat that way given the choice between the carrot from our region and a carrot from California. But that's probably not a hardcore locavore.

Some people see "local" and see it as synonymous with healthy. But it's not as if local farmers don't use things like pesticides, too. Right? 

Yeah, you know, there are some definite advantages to eating local, and environmentally, a lot of our fossil fuels go into just transporting food from one place to another. So there's this concept called "food miles," which you can actually do some research and document how far the things you eat have come to get into the food you're eating. And with each mile put onto that food, there are more carbon emissions. There's some benefit there to eat locally. Supporting local economies – a lot of food is imported, and if someone cares about supporting our region and job creation and keeping money local, with some multiplier effect, there's a benefit there to eating local [foods]. 

Nutrients, with produce in particular, the longer you eat it after harvest, typically it will lose some micronutrient value like vitamins. The idea could be that corn in the summer, for example, is going to be sweeter and more nutritious if it was picked the same day you eat it locally. I think Mark Twain said you have to put the pot of water on for the corn and then pick it, for maximum sweetness.

If [food has] been sitting on a truck, it will decline in flavor and nutrient quality. There are advantages, but you're right that just because it's local doesn't mean it's prepared better. If you're looking just for organic food, certified organic would be a better signifier. However, one good thing about local is you typically can reach someone to have your questions answered.

Is it climate change that's made this more of a recent term?

I'm not sure how much climate change has played into it. One detail about climate change is, farmers I've spoken with have found they're able to grow different types of crops and not as able to grow things that have been easier for them historically. Types of foods are changing and the windows of the season are changing. [But] I wouldn't say it's a new term specific to climate change.

Climate change might be seen as an economic boon to farmers, in some sense. If people buy more locally as a result.

Creating local food systems and economies around them can also be beneficial in that you're cutting out a lot of the middlemen. So at a farmers market, for example, or for restaurants, if farmers can contract directly with a restaurant or consumers at a farmers market, they have some security and have some comfort in terms of price. Whereas a lot of problems in terms of agriculture prices are because there are so many steps in a commodity chain. Between farmer and consumer, and everyone takes their cut.

What are good items to buy local, if you're acting in moderation? 

The things that we're known for in Pennsylvania and Jersey – this is the end of corn and tomatoes, but leafy greens you can get year-round. It's the start of apples, pumpkins, cranberries and pears, and we're at the end of peaches and nectarines. 

In spring, radishes and peas. Butternut squash. Anything like that, if you can get locally, it's generally going to be tasty and nutritious and supporting someone in the region. Even outside produce, clams, in South Jersey – most people don't think of that as a local product, but there's a big plant in Cape May. Seafood caught from the Jersey Shore that is line-caught is more sustainable and local than getting whatever general seafood.

You can get meat; there are a lot of local options for beef and poultry. Pretty much anything. The products you really can't get locally are obviously tropical. Dairy you can do well locally. If you exclude things like chocolate, coffee, tropical fruit, tea, you can have a diverse diet being a locavore.