For the most part, I think the answer to that question is yes, buying local food is better. With local food, not only do you lower the cost (both economically and environmentally) of your food, you help bolster the local economy. But let's look at the pros and cans and see what the food tells us.
Sustainability has become extremely important to both individuals and businesses these days. With climate change looming, we have begun to look at our carbon footprints to measure how well we are doing with the global, national, or even local/personal sustainability goals. Because of these assessments, transportation has come out as both easily changed as well as largely influential. In the United States, sometimes consumer products (including food) will travel up to 5,500 miles within the US from manufacturer to retailer. And for most of those travels, the products travel a much greater distance than necessary.
Basically, what I am saying is that when our food (or any other product) has to travel a great distance to get to us, often they travel more than necessary, and that costs money. The greater the distance, the greater the cost. And that is part of the price that we pay for the food. You might notice that your favorite vegetable changes price when it is out of season. The reason is that when it is out of season where you are, it has to be shipped from somewhere farther away.
And so, your economic costs for food are lower when you eat local.
When you buy local food, you are then giving your money to a local business. This means you are bolstering your local economy. You are taking your cash and helping those that you would interact with. It means that those local farms or manufacturers will be able to keep producing. It means that you are helping to increase the wealth of your community. Which really means you are helping yourself in the long run. Just something to think about...
Talking about the quality of your food in terms of local vs. not is hard, because it all depends on your definition of quality. I value fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables more than processed foods. This means that I think most local foods (which are typically your animal products and fresh fruits and vegetables) are of a higher quality than things that travel farther (which are typically your frozen and processed foods). This has more to do with the shelf life of the products than anything else. With a longer shelf life, the product can travel farther without an effect on it's edibility. With a shorter shelf life, the travel can only be so long, because it must still be good when it gets to the retailer.
As a side note about quality, being local does not actually tell you anything about the food itself. If you want to eat local in order to help the environment, or eat healthier, make sure that the foods you get are actually sustainably produced and/or are actually healthy. Just because the food says that it is local or says it was made in your home state, doesn't tell you anything about quality. Do the research and find the foods that you actually want.
What do we find in the dumpster?
I find that fresh foods are more often found in the dumpster. This likely means more local food is found in the dumpster. So, is local food actually better? If more of it gets thrown out, is it actually better? I can't tell you the answer to that, but I can tell you that I think more people need to eat more local food. We need to waste less of the local food, which is actually probably healthier.
In addition to what we find in grocery dumpsters, think about local gardeners. If you have a good year, you have a lot of a few specific foods. You can sell them at the farmer's market or give them away to friends, but what if you still end up with more than you can eat before it goes bad?
We would use as much as we can: my mother cooks tomatoes down and makes spaghetti sauce that is then frozen until needed; we freeze our raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries when we get more than we can eat; she makes applesauce that is canned and lasts forever with the apples; etc. And if we don't get it in time, the bad stuff goes into the compost. But not everyone is as insistent on using everything as we are, and food gets wasted. So sometimes local food gets wasted even more than regional or imported food because it just doesn't last as long.
So, what's the verdict?
I think, overall, local food is better. The concept makes sense and if we can do more to lessen the waste, there is no downside. We save on transport, get healthier foods, and hopefully waste less. But if it's all going to be wasted, it doesn't really matter if the food is local or not. So, what do you eat?