Dissecting a North American staple: can the hamburger survive the local food challenge?

Photo by powerplantop | flickr.com

Photo by powerplantop | flickr.com

Very special thanks go out to James, Gurpreet, Mozafer, Neha and Sonam for all of their hard work and contributions to this article.

Many of us choose to buy our food from grocery stores rather than markets supplying local foods because of the perceived convenience, selection, and apparent price advantage that it provides. But what if our preconceptions are ill advised? What if eating local was easy, convenient and did not leave a gaping hole in our wallets? As part of a class project, a few friends and I sought out to investigate this possibility through analyzing a delicious staple of our Western diets—the hamburger—fully equipped with warm bun, sliced tomatoes, crispy lettuce, succulent beef patty and decadent mayonnaise. Our research included independent investigation, interviews with local Hamiltonian vendors, Ontario farmers, and restaurant owners. What we found was surprising, and we hope it will inspire you to rethink some of your everyday food dilemmas.

Macroeconomic and social benefits of eating local

When an item is purchased from a grocery store, on average, only 30% of the price of the item returns to the local economy. The rest is spent on shipping, packaging and advertising, all outsourced for convenience and profit. Choosing local foods eliminates all the middlemen and gives farmers the full market price, which allows them to stay competitive in a rapidly evolving market. As we witnessed firsthand, buying local means that people become more actively engaged in their communities, which allows them to view grocery shopping as a social activity. For example, the Hamilton Farmer’s Market offers cooking lessons, live bands, and community socials that foster the development of social networks and celebrate the perseverance of local producers despite strong competition.


Another common barrier to eating local is seasonality: what sorts of foods may be purchased when the local weather does not allow for the growth of fruits, vegetables and grains essential to our diets? The use of greenhouses allows some local foods to be available longer than usual. Additionally, vegetables can be frozen while in-season and defrosted as needed. Let’s take the lettuce from our hamburger as an example: It is grown seasonally within Ontario between June and October. However, local greenhouses provide lettuce year-round at relatively stable price points, allowing us to enjoy succulent salads year-round. Other foods available throughout the year in Ontario include eggs, honey, wine, baked goods and maple syrup.

Tasting the difference

Not being conscious about the origin of our food means that it may have to travel very far to get to our dinner tables—particularly during the winter. Let's use as an example the tomatoes found in our burger.  In Ontario grocery stores, tomatoes may originate from Mexican hydroponic plantations, Florida fields or even Canadian hothouses.  Yes indeed, Canadian markets are swamped with regional tomatoes…but is it worthwhile to choose these over apparently similar imported varieties? The simple answer is a resounding yes! Tomatoes that are imported have far more additives; in Florida, for example, farmers use 5 times more fungicide than California to accommodate for the environment. The farther tomatoes have to travel, the more preservatives they require in order to maintain an adequate shelf life. These preservatives act as antimicrobials and antioxidants.  For example, sulfites are used to prevent discoloration of light-colored tomatoes and to help them maintain a longer shelf life; however, these modifications can greatly alter the taste of the foods we love. Thus, in general, tomatoes from Leamington, Ontario will taste fresher and richer than tomatoes imported from the US or Mexico. 

Local foods tend to be minimally processed

Another important advantage of eating local is the tendency of small scale and family-owned companies to grow and produce natural, minimally-processed foods. Processed foods, or 'junk foods' are of minimal nutritional value, crowd the middle aisles of supermarkets, generate enormous profits for their producers and last forever on the shelves. The food industry has crafted many of these foods to be so convenient and palatable that they are habit-forming, effectively turning entire societies into conditioned over-eaters that are unable to recognize hunger or satiety. As a result, it is no surprise that processed foods are a leading cause for obesity and its associated complications, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. As a general rule of thumb, the Rule of 5 ingredients is helpful in determining whether a food is 'junk' or minimally processed. Alternative, if the ingredient is too difficult to pronounce, chances are it is not very natural. Processed varieties of mayonnaise, for example, contain refined oils, processed sugar, preservatives, and starches made from corn. Alternatively, it is possible to prepare hearty mayonnaise at home containing no preservatives using eggs, vinegar and olive oil, all of which can be generally found within a local context. 

But can I afford local?

Many people complain that local food is too expensive. We sought to explore this question further at the Hamilton Farmer's Market, where we found that common ingredients, such as local aged Cheddar, are in fact cheaper than their imported counterparts. Many other products are priced similarly between local and imported varieties:  some examples that we noted are tomatoes, squash, potatoes and onions. In fact, a dozen locally grown, grain-fed, organic eggs were found to be much cheaper ($3.50) than an equivalent grocery store variety ($4.59). 

The meat and potatoes of the argument

Now onto the most important part of the burger-- the meat! It's not very often you see cattle just walking around, yet we rarely stop to think where our beef actually comes from. The largest importer of beef in the world is the US; additionally, the US produced almost 12000 metric tons of beef in 2009 alone.  With imported beef, there are many steps form the time a cattle is born to the time it is found on our grocery shelves. These include the auction market, stocker, feedlot, slaughter, packaging and distribution--- the total distance traveled to accomplish these processes can often be upwards of 7000 miles! This staggering number is a testament to the gross inefficiencies of this process, and equates to an immense carbon footprint. Buying local beef, however, diminishes the need for costly transportation, packaging and refrigeration. In fact, careful analysis of other staple foods—including potatoes, for that matter-- reveals that a local food approach is not only sustainable for the environment, but is achievable. This was best exemplified by one of our group members, who successfully followed a strict local food diet for a week despite eating only Halal meats.

Personal motivators for taking the ‘local plunge’ are widespread: maybe you care about the economy or long for the freshest and best-tasting foods. Perhaps you want to adopt a healthier lifestyle or you are on a strict budget. All of these things can be accomplished in a sustainable manner that fosters community...just head down to your neighborhood farmer's market and ask! Help yourself, help your neighbors, help the world: Eat Local!

We are eager to hear what you have to say about eating local. What are your personal motivators to seeking local alternatives to a conventional diet? What challenges remain in order to make local food more accessible and appealing? Leave your comments below!

Dissecting the Burger educational module:


Eating local resources & references:








Manuel Arias