Week of 08/01/10

Dear EarthTalk: I know that local food has health and environmental benefits, but my local grocer only carries a few items. Is there a push for bigger supermarkets to carry locally produced food?

—Maria Fine, Somerville, MA

By eating locally sourced foods, we strengthen the bond between local farmers and our communities, stay connected to the seasons in our part of the world, promote crop diversity, and minimize the energy intensive, greenhouse-gas-emitting transportation of food from one part of the world to another. Also, since local crops are usually harvested at their peak of freshness and typically delivered to stores within a day, customers can be sure they are getting the tastiest and most nutritious forms of the foods they like.

Luckily for consumers and the environment, local produce and other foods are now more widely available than they have been for decades. The first national grocery chain to prioritize local producers, perhaps not surprisingly, was natural foods retailer Whole Foods, which was buying from local farmers and ranchers since it opened its first store in 1980 in Austin, Texas. Today each of the company’s 270-plus stores in 38 U.S. states prioritizes local sourcing—so much so that its customers take it for granted. Whole Foods" relationships and distribution arrangements with local producers serve as models for the leading national grocery chains, many of which are beginning to source some produce locally when the season is right.

Some are taking more initiative than others. Perhaps most notable is Walmart. Back in 2008 the company committed to sourcing more local fruits and vegetables to keep produce prices down and provide affordable, fresh and healthy choices. Today more than 2,800 Walmart Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets across the country rely on a diverse network of small local growers to provide produce—making Sam Walton’s company the nation’s largest purchaser of local produce. During summer months, at least one-fifth of the produce available in Walmart stores is grown within the same state as the given store.

Locally-produced foods are now more widely available than ever. To find local food near you, visit localharvest.org, which lists organic food sources by zip code. Pictured: the Kootenay Country Store Co-op in Nelson, British Columbia.© Donkeycart, courtesy Flickr

The company’s Heritage Agriculture program encourages farms within a day’s drive of one of its warehouses to grow crops that the company would otherwise have to source from so far away that freshness would be jeopardized and the fuel burned and greenhouse gases emitted in the process would be substantial. While the Heritage program currently accounts for only four to six percent of the company’s total domestic produce sales, the company is aiming for 20 percent within the next few years.

Other big grocery chains aren’t far behind. Safeway, one of the top three grocery chains in the country, prides themselves on local sourcing, getting nearly a third of its produce nationwide from local/regional growers. In heavy agricultural regions like California, the figure can be as high as 45 percent. The company has also made a big push into organic products, just like its biggest competitor, Walmart.

If the chain grocer near you doesn’t do a good job stocking locally sourced food, there are alternatives. Community Supported Agriculture programs, in which consumers "subscribe" to the produce of a given farm by paying monthly dues that entitles them to a box of fresh produce every week, are more popular than ever, as are local farmers" markets, food co-ops and independent natural foods markets. To find local food near you, visit the Local Harvest, which lists organic food sources by zip code and offers a wealth of resources for those looking to learn more about where their food comes from and how it is produced.

CONTACTS: Whole Foods; Walmart; Safeway; Local Harvest.

Dear EarthTalk: How are wild turkeys faring in the U.S.? Occasionally I"ll see some crossing the road, but how well could they be doing with all the development going on around them?

—Harley Barton, Hingham, MA

By the early 1900s, only 30,000 wild turkeys roamed the continental U.S., having been exterminated across almost half their former range. Today, as many as seven million roam the countryside across every U.S. state except Alaska . Pictured: Wild turkeys photographed near Little River, Georgia.© Vicki DeLoach, courtesy Flickr

No one can be sure how many tens of millions of wild turkeys roamed what was to become the continental United States when the Puritans dined on them at the first Thanksgiving in 1621 near Plymouth Rock, but there were obviously enough of the birds to make them easy prey. By the late 1700s turkeys across the frontier were being harvested with reckless abandon. The food shortages that accompanied the Civil War accelerated demand for wild turkeys, and their numbers started to dwindle to startlingly low levels. By the early 1900s, only some 30,000 wild turkeys remained; the birds had been extirpated across almost half of their former range.

But things started to turn around for wild turkeys in the 1920s. For starters, millions of acres cleared by the pioneers began to regenerate into the type of woodland habitat where the birds could thrive. But the real boost for wild turkeys came in the form of legislation. At the urging of hunters, state wildlife agencies, and the firearms industry, Congress passed the landmark Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (Pittman-Robertson Act) in 1937, which placed an excise tax on guns, ammo and other hunting gear. A portion of the billions of dollars raised from the law have been and continue to be allocated toward restoring wildlife habitat across the country.

By 1959, wild turkey numbers jumped sixteen fold, topping half a million birds across the U.S. A 1973 wild turkey census by the then newly formed National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) turned up something like 1.3 million birds. NWTF, which was founded by hunters to aid in turkey conservation efforts, would turn out to be instrumental in shepherding the wild turkey’s recovery by channeling hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable donations and grants into habitat recovery and bird relocation projects. Although the birds will likely never return to the population levels pre-dating white settlement, they haven’t been healthier in 300+ years. These days as many as seven million wild turkeys roam the countryside and can be found in every U.S. state besides Alaska.

Of course, our success in restoring habitat for wild turkeys has also been beneficial for a wide range of wild animals. Conservations credit the visionary Pittman-Robertson Act (along with the hard work of dedicated wildlife managers) as instrumental in the recovery of not only wild turkeys but also once struggling populations of white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, wood duck, beaver, black bear, Canada goose, American elk, desert bighorn sheep, bobcat, mountain lion, and several species of predatory birds.

Besides the animals and biodiversity benefitting from species recovery, hunters can also rejoice, especially given that it has been their money that has funded many of the projects to restore habitat where they hunt. Turkey hunting is traditionally an autumn pursuit, culminating at Thanksgiving, of course, but each state has its own laws regarding when and where turkey hunting is allowed. NWTF provides a free online state-by-state "Fall Turkey Hunting Guide" with hunting season dates and other pertinent information to help hunters plan their next trip wherever it may take them in the continental U.S. The website also serves as an invaluable resource for information and resources pertaining to conser

vation, hunting and other topics related to wild turkeys.

CONTACT: National Wild Turkey Federation.

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