Homegrown healthy living

Joyce Rabb began to buy local produce three years ago for the health benefit.

It costs more, but Mrs. Rabb started growing some of her own vegetables this spring, which helps keep costs low.

"You get a bit better of a deal buying at the supermarket, but that doesn't matter so much when I'm talking about my health," the Evans woman says.

As grocery prices rise, advocates of eating locally -- food produced within 100 miles of the home -- say they fear consumers will opt for cheaper goods, regardless of their source.

"The past two years especially, this movement has gotten big," said Kay Pittman, of Persimmon Hill Farm in Clarks Hill, S.C. "More and more people have been getting into it."

In 2006, the United States Department of Agriculture tallied 4,385 farmers markets -- up more than 50 percent from the start of the decade.

Mrs. Pittman said she'd hate to see the local food movement stagnate in the throws of current economic woes.

"I have kids who write to me thanking me for their vegetables. How often does that happen?" she asked.

Five years ago, Mrs. Pittman began offering Community Supported Agriculture, a model that offers customers weekly shares of the farm's crop for a fee.

Twenty years ago, fewer than 60 farms like Mrs. Pittman's existed. Today there are more than 2,000 nationwide.

Mrs. Pittman says their popularity has grown because they offer farm-fresh foods without trips to the farmers market or pick-your-own fields.

"People have something that's usually seven to 10 days old by the time it reaches the market. With (Community Supported Agriculture), it's hours, maybe a day old at most," she said.

Julie Phillips started buying local food 31/2 years ago after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I started doing some research and discovered that I could boost my immune system by eating local fruits and vegetables," the Aiken woman said. "Our body needs the local pollens to ward off things like allergies."

Fresher foods do provide some benefits, said Blond Simmons, nutrition educator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service office in Aiken.

"The fresher they are, the more nutritious they are. Food can lose its nutritional value, especially if it's been stored the wrong way," Mrs. Simmons said. "If they're week-old vegetables, you're not getting the same benefits."

Now cancer free, Mrs. Phillips says, "I'm a 100 percent committed to consuming locally grown foods, if I can get my hands on them."

Finding local sources for all the foods in the grocery store is a challenge, Mrs. Phillips said.

Because she's a vegetarian, she only looks for local fruits and vegetables, but dairy, beef and chicken suppliers are available regionally, too.

"It is more expensive to seek it out," Mrs. Phillips said. "It's worth it to pay for confidence in your food. I just ate a nectarine. It said 'grown in the U.S.,' but it never says where it's grown. I find it interesting that we just don't think it's important where our food comes from anymore."

She feels better knowing where her money goes, too.

The USDA reports that on average, 20 cents of every dollar spent on food goes to the farmer.

At Bob and Jan Perry's new food co-op, 90 cents of that dollar go to the farmer.

The co-op allows customers to order online from a handful of farms in the region and pick up their orders once a week at the couple's Harlem home.

"It's basically an Internet-based farmers' market," Mrs. Perry said. "It's farm-fresh without having to be at the farmers' market first think in the morning."

Their site, http://augusta.locally grown.net, supplies beef, herbs, flowers and vegetables, among other products.

When she was younger, Mrs. Perry said she would have never thought to seek out local sources of food like the co-op she has started.

"I never gave much thought to food growing up. I ate the standard American diet," she said.

The onset of health problems made her to rethink her habits.

"I made a total change in the way I ate," Mrs. Perry said. "I can't imagine going back to the grocery stores."

Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or kelly.jasper@augustachronicle.com.

LOCAL FOOD SOURCES

For listings of local food producers across Georgia, see www.buylocalgeorgia.org">style="bold">www.buylocalgeorgia.org . For South Carolina, try www.certifiedscgrown.com">style="bold">www.certifiedscgrown.com.

On www.localharvest.org">style="bold">www.localharvest.org , consumers can search for farms and markets by zip code.

To locate a specific item that is grown locally, search ga.marketmaker.uiuc.edu">style="bold">ga.marketmaker.uiuc.edu. The site is run by the University of Georgia's Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Cooperative Extension.