Why we should all be shopping locally

For years consumers have been told it’s important to shop locally and in season. But even though we all probably accept this is the case - do we really understand why? 

Do we even know what local is? As a guideline, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) defines local food as being from within 30 miles of where it’s being sold. Depending where you are in the country, that’s a potentially rich radius to consider. 

While many people have been duped into believing myths such as ‘eating local honey will alleviate your hay fever symptoms’ - there are actually several real benefits to buying local produce. 

Drawing on the expertise of industry campaigners, and with the help of AO’s newly released Farm to Fridge project, we’ll investigate why buying locally and in season is so important.

AO’s Farm to Fridge survey highlighted some really interesting consumer thoughts. Digging into what the Great British public thinks about the food they buy - from whether they care where it comes from to whether they would consider changing the way they behave when it comes to buying and consuming.

Shorten the supply chain and connect communities

According to the survey, buying locally is most important to people in Northern Ireland and Wales and least important to those in the East Midlands.

The fact that people in the East Midlands don’t find buying locally as important contrasts sharply the sheer amount of farmland in their region. Defra statistics show us that this region has the third highest amount of total farmed area and the third highest average farm size at 100 hectares. So does this mean there’s a disconnect between consumer and farmer, even when those consumers are in close proximity to local food produce? 

Graeme Willis, Food and Farming Campaigner for the CPRE thinks so. He told us it’s important to support local farmers to regain a sense of community:“I think we are becoming increasingly disconnected from the countryside. Buying local produce shortens supply chains and means you can actually meet the farmer. 

“It better connects you to local producers and this is important for so many reasons - making that connection between the person producing it and the people eating it.

This was brought to Graeme’s attention even more so when he spoke to a farmer at a recent conference: “He was explaining to me that farmers get a higher sense of satisfaction - even hope and optimism - when they know the people benefiting from the produce they’ve worked so hard to provide. 

“They look after and nurture their animals and produce for a long time and put in an incredible amount of work - it’s understandable that once it’s sent to be sold and consumed in other countries the farmer becomes disconnected from it.

“Once the connections are shortened, people value the produce, producer and consumer a little more. There’s an important circularity in building these connections.”

Reduce climate change 

That alone might be a powerful enough reason, but there are other benefits to be had from shopping for locally grown food. One key one - that has drawn particular prominence recently - is the carbon footprint of a weekly shop.

When we think about this and look at food labels, you can see how far have the peppers and avocados in your trolley have travelled to reach your fridge. By switching to buying locally sourced and seasonal produce we can all help to reduce climate change by individually lessening our carbon footprint. 

Let’s take an example into consideration - buying and eating strawberries in the UK outside of the standard May to September season means they’ll need to be imported from countries such as Spain, Israel or Morocco. 

The use of plastic packaging is an extremely important issue too. While it’s been a problem that’s needed fixing for a long time, it’s been brought into mainstream consciousness with the help of Sir David Attenborough in his epic documentaries.

We know from the AO survey that 35.5% of people think buying locally is important for the environment - making it the second biggest benefit in the eyes of consumers - and CPRE’s Graeme Willis thinks it’s important that even more people adopt this mindset for the long term:“Eating more seasonally helps us become in tune and helps with climate change when food isn’t travelling thousands of miles before it reaches us. 

“It also means less packaging, as ultimately the packaging is there to assist with the transportation process. We can just get rid of all that awful plastic we don’t need! 

“Being aware of plastic biodiversity is so important, especially at this time - it’s such a topical and vital subject.”

Increased nutritional value, flavour and taste

When your food hasn’t had to travel thousands of miles, it’s inevitable that it will be fresher. Therefore taste, flavour and nutritional value are also far higher when buying local produce.

Graeme Willis explained: “Buying locally and in season is a great way to eat more veg to improve our diet. Sourcing our food locally means we eat things that would be graded out in supermarkets - perfectly good quality produce that would otherwise go to waste.

“When you’re eating food from a local source you will feel the benefit of it being fresher and tastier. I’m part of a veg bag scheme from my local community farm which is based four miles away from where I live. 

“It’s picked in the morning and I get to eat it in the evening - not only do get to talk to the farmer, it tastes zingy, fresh and fantastic.”

More control over what you consume

Shopping in supermarkets involves buying produce in packets or tins with lots of things pre-packed or readily mixed. One huge advantage of sourcing your produce locally is that you can control what goes into meals for you and your family. 

Graeme Willis also suggested it’s a great way of trying something different. He said: “Shopping for local produce helps encourage people to try different things as supermarket shopping has taken away a lot of this. 

“We can learn cooking skills using raw materials and this can be far cheaper than using produce from a supermarket that does all the work for you.”

Shopping for fresh, local produce can work out to be more cost-effective if you put in time to plan meals and reduce waste. However, AO’s research found that more than 60% of people are actually happy to pay more (21% more, in fact!) to buy from local providers, proving the appetite for local produce is there.

But how easy is it to buy locally?

We now understand why it’s so important to source what we eat locally, and on a seasonal basis, but are there options for you to buy local produce in your area? The chances are there are a range of options for us all to make changes to shop more locally.

However, we first need to be willing to make the switch - 71.2% of people are willing to stick to buying produce when it’s in season with people in the South West and Wales the most likely. About one in five (19.3%) of 16-24 year olds think it would be simple to buy all of their food from local providers - quite a gap compared to 7.3% of over 55s. Both figures show how people don’t believe it would be simple to switch to shopping locally. 

Interestingly, 53.33% of people in the East of England say there are not enough options to buy all their food from local sources. According to those earlier mentioned Defra statistics, the East is the second highest region in the whole country for total farmed area with 15% and the second highest average farm size. 

Does this stem back to the previously mentioned disconnect? Do we need more schemes like Graeme’s veg bag or is it simply that supermarkets are more visible and it’s easier to get everything you need in one place? 

According to the AO survey results, more than 70% of us think it’s very or quite important to buy locally sourced produce, but these thoughts need to be translated into actions. Reducing plastic waste, buying from local providers and even growing produce ourselves can not only benefit the environment, but us as consumers. By taking more time to think about why local produce is good, we can ensure more people do take positive action to change their buying behaviour.

Keep up with the top stories from Reader’s Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter.