Buying from local farmers can be an excellent way to green the economy and support climate- and community-friendly practices. Many of us do this by shopping at farmers markets or farm stands, subscribing to Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), or eating out at farm-to-table restaurants.
What you may not know, is that shopping at a grocery store can also help local farms and the local economy—if you do your research first. Try these four steps to get started.
Find Your Top Shop
First, figure out where you’re going to shop. There are different types of food stores to choose from, so investigate all the possibilities.
The best grocery store is a small, locally owned business. There are many benefits to shopping small, but when it comes to food and local farms, small businesses are best specifically because they often source locally (see the next section). Independent grocers who own their own stores are community fixtures, often personally knowing both customers and local farmers. Through these connections, they’re able to supply specific and fresh groceries and invest profits back into the community.
Other great stores to get your food from are local food cooperatives, or co-ops, that are worker-owned or consumer-owned. They often have more ethical operations and workplace practices, and they may source more products from other co-ops and green businesses. Workers who own their own shop benefit from profits, as do consumers from co-ops where they are owners.
There’s no dearth of these stores across the country: In Glen Ridge, New Jersey, you can find the Purple Dragon Co-Op and Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco.
Unionized grocery stores mean workers have more power over their pay, safety, and other important issues. Even if a unionized store does not have a large local food selection, supporting a unionized store supports workers and a more ethical economy. Many big box supermarkets are unionized and label local foods. The United Food and Commercial Workers union, for example, represents over 800,000 supermarket employees at Kroger, Albertsons-Safeway, and more. Costco is another unionized grocery seller, while Walmart and Target are not.
The rule of thumb when it comes to food shopping with local farmers in mind is knowing what’s in season and where it grows.
Each locale boasts its own fresh produce, depending on the season, from summer cherries to winter leeks and spring asparagus. Throughout the year, farmers will grow seasonal foods, taking advantage of a product’s natural growing and ripening rhythms.
For many products, grocery stores rely on a global supply chain, resulting in imported foods. Local farmers aren’t growing these crops, they’re often being shipped from commercial agriculture operations and adding more greenhouse gas emissions through transportation. Be sure to check, though—what’s advertised as seasonal food, like cranberries in the fall, isn’t always local. When you do find locally sourced foods, purchase them to demonstrate customer demand.
Plus, in-season produce tastes better and is more nutritious: a 2019 article in the International Journal of Food Science found artificially ripened produce lost nutrients like vitamin C and protein and tested higher for toxic chemicals.
To learn what grows when, explore the US Department of Agriculture’s Seasonal Produce Guide.
Grown Locally > Nationally > Internationally
Imagine you’re in a store and in front of you are four different jars of honey— how do you choose? The one sourced closest to home (origin is usually printed on the label) is the best one to get for community and planet.
Look for these products first locally, then from your or neighboring states, then from the continent, then from a country on another continent. Local vendors might flaunt their proximity, like “from New England cows” or “California-grown.”
- Produce—fruits and veggies, as well as juices and dips
- Dairy products
- Meat: When it comes to meat, it’s nearly impossible to source local products at the grocery store because of four companies’—Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill, and Marfrig—monopolies on beef, poultry, and pork. Instead, organizations like Good Meat Breakdown can help you find local meat producers to source from directly, with benefits like better nutrition, grass-fed, hormone-free, and avoid mass-produced options.
- Seafood: Look for products wild-caught in the US or farmed sustainably. Use Seafood Watch to find ethical seafood choices. Imported seafood, like shrimp from Asia or salmon from Chile have been linked to human rights abuses and overuse of antibiotics—not to mention the large carbon footprint from shipping.
Make Your Requests
Grocers want to sell what will be bought. So, if you want to buy locally grown, speak up and request more products sourced from community and independent farmers.
Maybe it’s never crossed your mind, but if you want to buy a specific product, and your local store doesn’t stock it, ask if it will—including at branches of national chains. Talk to people in your community and encourage them to make requests, too, and show there’s high demand.
This can also help local farmers and other food producers like small, independent bakeries develop more connections to grocers and ways to sell their products, resulting in fresh food for you and more business for them.
At small and independently owned grocery stores, you may be able to speak directly to the person who orders the store’s stock. For bigger supermarket chains, ask at the customer service desk, submit an online comment, or ask to make an appointment with the department or store manager.
The good news is that you can be part of bolstering local food production in your area. Local farmers know what grows best in your area and when, meaning supporting them and buying your groceries from them—or via indirect ways that support them—is the best, healthiest, and tastiest option for you.
Pro Tip: Make Requests From Local Farmers!
One of the great things about local farms is that you get a front seat to how they harvest their food—including their use of pesticides, regenerative agricultural practices, crop rotation, and more. Make your voice heard and encourage healthier crop growing in your community. From animal conditions to seed-sourcing, ask your farmer questions.
You can also use the Regenerative Farm Map to find farms near you that prioritize regenerative agriculture and encourage a grocery store to source from these farms specifically.