How far will your Thanksgiving meal travel?

1500 miles. That is about the distance from Dallas, Texas to Los Angeles, California. That’s about a 20 hour car drive, a three hour flight or according to google, a 19 day walk. Any way you put it, 1500 miles is a big distance. 1500 miles is also the average distance your food travels before it gets to your dinner plate.

That number is an average taken from a study done in Chicago in the late 1990s. Yes, the number has changed, and yes it’s different in every city, but the important issue is food miles. Food miles are the distance our food travels from farm to table. And our food travels.

Thanksgiving is a perfect time of year to think about food miles. With many people traveling themselves to be with family imagine your food up on a plane or in a big truck next to you cruising down the highway. Our food is traveling the distance not only across the country but across the world. The US trades food commodities with many other countries. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates “the typical American prepared meal contains, on average, ingredients from at least five countries outside the United States.”

Even Texas and California, two states known for their fruits and vegetable production, are importing food crops. “In 2005 alone, approximately 3 million tons of fruits, vegetables, cereals, nuts, and wine were imported from overseas into California by ship, airplane, and truck.” In 2009, the US as a whole consumed 654 billion pounds of food (or 2100 pounds per person) and 17 percent or 358 pounds per person was imported.

We import food for several reasons. Some items we can’t produce here such as coffee, tea, olive oil and cocoa, some products we prefer the quality from elsewhere and labor can be cheaper in other countries decreasing costs. Perhaps the biggest reason we import is our growing need to have access to every type of produce all year long. Gone our the days of only buying strawberries when they are in season, we can now grow them in greenhouses or import them from warmer weather climates.

We can now see that the food travels far distances. Most shrimp we find in our grocery stores and restaurants came from across the world in China where labor is cheap and shrimp are farmed with high environmental impacts. But beyond the environmental impacts of the non sustainable farming, the traveling in itself creates problems. The raw crop is often shipped to a processing plant, from there on to a packaging plant and depending on what it is, it could go on to a bakery or other manufacturing facility before finally being shipped to the store. Each traveling step comes with its own concerns:

  • Traveling long distances requires the use of artificial additives and preservatives to keep food from spoiling.
  • Most food is picked green and then artificially ripened upon arrival at the store.
  • Transporting the products by truck, plane or ship all have high emission rates increasing global warming. Planes generate more CO2 than boats but shipping is slow.

This Thanksgiving is a great time to start sourcing your food locally. Buying local reduces the environmental impact of transporting items 1500 miles from farm to table. Read your labels and find out where your food is coming from. The closer to your home the lesser the impact on the environment. Check with your local health food stores (Sprouts, Trader Joes, Green Grocer, Whole Foods, etc) to find a locally grown turkey for this holiday feast.

Accept the “100 mile Thanksgiving challenge” which challenges you to create one dish or your entire Thanksgiving meal using only ingredients sourced from within a 100 mile radius of your house. If you succeed during Thanksgiving think about giving the “100 mile diet challenge” a go!

As seen in the Katy Trail Weekly Thanksgiving week 2014. 

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One Response to How far will your Thanksgiving meal travel?

  1. Matt says:

    Hi Naima,
    I totally hear you on this one. I get the majority of my meat and vegetables during the warmer months (in Boston) from the local farmer’s market and I try purchase the rest mindfully at Whole Foods. I’m not rich, but I make it a priority to be conscientious of my food even if it costs me personally more to save the environmental costs.
    On another note, I just came across your website and thought you might have some interesting comments to share on my new website which is a source and community for creative minds. Take a look at the site and send me a email at the email provided if you’re interested in contributing or participating.

    Thanks and take care!


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