The cost of eating green

Local is the new organic -- and a great way to cut your carbon footprint. But unless you get creative, you'll end up paying more.

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By Ann Monroe, MSN Money

There are a lot of areas where saving the earth also saves you money. But when it comes to your eating habits -- one of the most important tools you have for slowing global warming -- there's no question that it's going to cost you.

With food, what's good for your pocketbook is bad for the earth. Really bad.

Why? Because the huge companies that grow, process and ship most of the food that most of us eat don't have to pay what their business operations actually cost. They don't have to pay to clean up the nitrogen that their chemical fertilizers pour into our waterways, or for the carbon dioxide that's spewed out when our food is shipped thousands of miles. Video: Visit a local pig farm

Just think about this: For every mile traveled by a huge tractor-trailer to haul our food, according to a University of Iowa study, 3.74 pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted. So shipping, say, one load of strawberries from California to New York puts more than 11,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere -- more than 4 ounces of carbon dioxide for each 12-ounce box of strawberries. Making matters worse, perishable foods are increasingly being flown long distances in refrigerated cargo planes.

Those transportation costs are tax-deductible for the big food corporations, meaning that taxpayers get the bill. So as we look harder at how we're contributing to global warming, these food miles are surfacing as one of the big problems.

It's a problem you can't necessarily solve by eating organic. Growing food organically does cut down on pollution, including the pollution caused by the manufacture of all those chemical fertilizers. But as its popularity grows, organic food is increasingly moving into the commercial food distribution system, which means it's shipped as far as any other kind of food.

But you can eat in a way that cuts almost all of those food miles. The secret? Eat locally. Video: How far your food travels

It's an idea that's being embraced more widely by chefs, writers and a growing number of ordinary folks. Already on the bandwagon: Alice Waters of famed Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse and authors Michael Pollan, Bill McKibben and Barbara Kingsolver.

In response to student demand, college cafeterias are going local. When the cafeteria at Yale's Berkeley College switched to local food, students from other Yale colleges started counterfeiting ID cards to get in. One of Google's cafeterias serves only food grown within 150 miles of the company's headquarters. Promise Academy in Harlem serves local food and sponsors a farmers market.

There's no denying that eating locally can cost more,

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depending on the season. In early June, for instance, local strawberries were $8 a quart at my local farmers market, while a local Pathmark supermarket was selling two quarts (from California, about 3,000 miles away) for $10. On the other hand, in November, apples were going for $1 to $1.50 a pound at the farmers market -- about the same price as Pathmark's. And the farmers market apples were a lot fresher. Video: A floating greenhouse?

Why are many local foods so much more expensive? The way our economy is structured, the cheapest way to produce food is to grow it on huge farms, process it in huge plants and then ship it around the world. In fact, our food system is so transport-oriented that food isn't sold locally even when it is grown locally.

An example: Although New York state grows 10 times as many apples as its residents consume, 75% of the apples sold in New York come from the West Coast or overseas (if the U.S. were to adopt a carbon tax, that economic equation would change fast). That means you can't eat local from your local supermarket or your local Wal-Mart or even, for many products, your local Whole Foods grocery.

But here's the good news: Buying local food is getting easier. It doesn't have to cost a ton. When you buy local, you can be pretty certain the food you're eating has been treated better than traditionally grown food. And buying it is a whole lot more fun than a trip to the supermarket.

Where do you find local food?

Start with the fastest-growing segment of the food system: farmers markets, whose numbers more than doubled between 1994 and 2004. Video: See a farmers market

If you haven't been to a farmers market lately, you might be surprised at what you can buy: fruits and vegetables, sure, but also flowers and plants; pastured chicken and eggs; meat, milk and cheese from grass-fed animals; and breads and pastries made with non-GMO flour. (GMO is short for genetically modified organism, a bête noire of green-thinking foodies.) Look it up: What does 'free-range' really mean?

When you're buying from the people who grow the food, shopping can shift from being a chore to being a source not just of delicious, fresh-off-the-farm food, but also of entertainment, information and satisfaction.

The sense of being part of a community is even greater when you join a CSA farm, another rapidly growing local food source. CSA stands for community-supported agriculture; when you join a CSA farm, you pay upfront for a share of the farmer's crops, which you pick up weekly from the farm or from a drop-off point.

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Some CSA arrangements include more than one farmer, and you can often get meat, eggs and flowers in addition to fruits and vegetables, at prices usually below farmers markets'. The CSA farm that I belong to charges $325 for a 23-week vegetable share; that averages about $14 a week for roughly eight to 10 pounds of vegetables.

Most food co-ops also try to buy locally, so if you live near one, check it out. Some charge a membership fee; others ask you to spend a few hours a month working. In return, you get local and organic food for below (sometimes way below) supermarket prices. My local co-op in Brooklyn sells everything at just 21% above wholesale -- versus a typical 40% markup at the supermarket and as much as 60% at health-food stores -- and buys locally whenever possible. Video: Go shopping with Ann

Most of us can't buy all of our food locally, though some of us, like McKibben and Kingsolver, have tried, at least for short periods. Video: Hear how Bill McKibben ate local

We probably shouldn't try -- because a lot of very poor people around the world rely on our appetites for treats such as coffee, chocolate and bananas. When you buy goodies like that from organic and fair-trade growers, you know they're raising their crops sustainably and earning a fair return. That does a lot to make up for all those food miles.

Eating locally does take some getting used to. For one thing, it means eating seasonally: asparagus in spring, tomatoes in high summer, and lots and lots of broccoli and cabbage in the wintertime. But honestly, have you ever bought a tomato in January that didn't taste like plastic?

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Produced by Peggy Collins / Graphics by Hakan Isik

Published Dec. 17, 2007