Business & Tech

CONSUMER ALERT

For produce, ‘local’ doesn’t always mean close

With so many produce options touting their local cred, how can an aspiring locavore make sure she is really getting what she wants?

In the winter and early spring, when buying locally grown tomatoes is not an option, I have come to rely on tomatoes from Vermont Hydroponic. It turns out tasty, ripe tomatoes for most of the year. But recently when I went to cut into a Vermont Hydroponic tomato, I noticed something unexpected on the sticker: “Product of Quebec.” Yes, despite the brand name, the tomato itself was not from Vermont. That discovery got me thinking about the tricky nature of trying to buy local food.

In recent years, consumers’ appetite for foods locally grown and produced has steadily increased. Consumers like the sense of connection with farmers, the often superior flavor and freshness, and the reduced carbon emissions that can come from not having to ship foods over long distances. Farmers markets have proliferated, and even major supermarket chains have started sourcing some produce from area farms to satisfy demand from customers.

Advertisement

Yet there is no legal definition of “local.” An apple labeled with the term could be from down the street or from hundreds of miles away. With so many options touting their local cred, how can an aspiring locavore make sure she is really getting what she wants? Watch out for these pitfalls:

 Local-washing: Sure, it’s an awkward term, but it is a real peril. Knowing the allure of local food these days, farmers market vendors will often stock their tables with conventional wholesale produce, trusting that the market will create a “local” vibe. These tables can often be identified by the signs labeling some of the items “our own.” But chances are, not everything comes from nearby. Ask questions — vendors will generally be upfront about their sourcing when asked directly.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

 The mixed bag: Especially at supermarkets, locally sourced produce can get mixed in with veggies from further afield. Butternut squash from Western Massachusetts might share a bin with items from Michigan. Read the stickers on individual pieces to be sure you’re actually buying local.

 The all-or-nothing mentality: Making your menu a bit more local is a laudable goal. But getting everything from your backyard is rarely feasible. Ultimately, I was fine with my Canadian Vermont tomato because Quebec is still much closer than California or Mexico. Strive for better, not perfect.

Have a consumer question or complaint? Reach Sarah Shemkus at seshemkus@gmail.com.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.