Food is one of the most basic needs known to mankind. And when it comes to choosing what we eat, more people are thinking about being socially, economically and environmentally responsible.

The growing "slow food" movement - a conscious rejection of our "fast food nation" - focuses on small and local options. It takes into account the environmental, economic and social impact of where our food comes from, how it's made and how our everyday choices affect where we live.

But this approach to food is still largely a luxury enjoyed by the affluent. On Long Island, even though we have well-developed systems to deliver food throughout the two counties, there are still basic problems of food accessibility and affordability in some of our communities. According to a recent study by Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, an estimated 285,000 Long Islanders face the possibility of going hungry every day.

Long Island also has an agricultural heritage and many farms, but local farmers' markets and farm stands are few and far between, particularly in lower-income communities. Too many Long Islanders are unable to take advantage of this alternative way to feed their families, turning instead to neighborhood convenience stores, even though they have limited offerings of fresh foods, often at high prices.

The economic crisis put a growing number of Long Islanders at risk for hunger, limited food access, and the related social, economic and health consequences. That's why the need for Long Islanders - and people across the nation - to have the option of eating locally is as strong as ever.

Every time we choose what we eat and where we eat it, we send a message. Awareness of our food choices, or lack thereof, cannot only improve our individual health, but boost our local economy and strengthen local communities.

Access to locally grown and sold food has become one of the biggest economic drivers for many low-income communities. Just take a look at a recent study from the University of Wisconsin, which found that if just 5 percent of food was bought directly from local farms within that state, it would create $39 million per year for local economic development. According to a WorldWatch study, if Seattle were to get just 20 percent of its food locally, the city's economy would receive a $1-billion boost annually.

Keeping agriculture local can cut down on the carbon footprint of food production, reducing both transportation costs and pollution. In addition, it preserves open space: Land that may otherwise remain underdeveloped or become blighted over time can be preserved and maintained as a local farm.

Community-based farmers markets are one way to connect local food to local residents. In North Bellport and Roosevelt, such markets, centered in the heart of each community, have filled the void left by a lack of supermarkets. A pilot project launched last year in partnership with the Long Island Farm Bureau, the markets resulted in more than $28,000 in sales and served over 5,000 people. Long Islanders spent Long Island dollars in a Long Island business, which was stocked with Long Island produce grown by Long Island farmers. This model has created a real buzz, and communities such as New Cassel, Wyandanch and Flanders have reached out to start their own community-based farmers markets.

The uneasiness of food insecurity - when food prices affect how much you can eat or feed your family - is reduced by the presence of local markets like these, which offer a variety of produce at an affordable price. The prices are often cheaper than what's found in grocery stores because the produce is delivered directly from the farm to the markets. And the markets - which typically run weekly from early summer to mid-fall - are never short on variety, receiving fresh fruit and vegetables the week they are in harvest.

At their core, these ideas are about connecting local people with local options and supply: a win-win for community members and local farmers. Communities across the country are beginning to realize that focusing on local food sources and investing in small agricultural businesses makes sense economically and environmentally.