“Eat seasonally and locally.”
– Most nutrition experts
We can tell you all day general tips about eating healthy. We can even tell you what foods specifically to fill your plate with. But where does this food come from? We should all know by now that fruits and vegetables (a.k.a. plants) are good for us. But how does one actually go about eating what is in season? And where are these foods coming from?
According to the USDA, from 2011-2013 the United States, nearly 50% of fruits and fruit juices and almost 25% of fresh and processed vegetables consumed were imported. The majority of our agriculture imports are from Mexico and Canada. Since we as consumers often expect every type of food to be available at all times of the year, we rely on other countries to provide our out-of-season crops. To avoid food spoiling in transit, many crops are harvested before they have fully ripened. This allows the crops to last while being shipped and then distributed to retail stores. The greater number of steps between the farm, distributors, retailers, and then finally your table can increase risk for contamination. And the premature harvest of crops compromises the plant’s nutritional value and flavor. Despite these concerns, we are still blessed to have so many food choices available to us. But since we have so many options, it seems wise to learn about them.
So how does one eat seasonally and locally?
This past October, I was determined to visit a pumpkin patch. I started researching places to go and ended up deeply investigating nearby farms. The fertile Pacific Northwest has a lot of farms to choose from filled with farmers who are eager to share the fruits of their labor (literally). I was amused to find that a farm’s pumpkin patch was simply that – the patch where they grew pumpkins for you to pick straight off the vine. This event lead to more research about local farming, and that is how I learned of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.
In a day and age when you can buy anything online and have everything delivered, you can get fresh farm goods brought straight to your doorstep! Through CSA, consumers can learn about farms that are in their surrounding area. Then they can opt to invest in nearby farmers for a week or season at a time. Each week the farms deliver a box of selected foods, either to your residence or a specified drop off location. You can often customize your box of fruits and vegetables and add other goodies such as eggs, breads, meats, cheeses, and flowers. How easy is that for eating local? A few other options for eating locally include shopping at farmers markets, visiting farms directly, choosing restaurants that use locally sourced foods, or growing food yourself!
Fruits and vegetables that are purchased in season are typically fresher and higher in nutritional value because they were harvested within the last few days. Plants are made of mostly water and begin degrading once removed from their nutrient source (the tree, plant or vine). Fresh produce stored for long periods of time lose nutrients such as vitamin C, thiamin, and vitamin B6. Frozen produce usually maintains good nutritional value because most fruits and vegetables were frozen when they were in harvested in season. Beyond seasonal produce being more nutritious, it normally tastes better and is cheaper to buy. Buying food directly from its source supports the local economy and allows us to familiarize ourselves with the food we consume. A pilot study that incorporated locally sourced fruits and vegetables in a farm-to-preschool program found an increase in the willingness of the children to try and like these foods. It is especially important for children to get adequate nutrition as they grow, and introducing a variety of healthy foods at an early age will instill good habits for a lifetime. In addition to eating healthier, we can learn about how our food is grown by asking farmers directly. They are easier to access and eager to share about growing techniques. CSA supports sustainable farming practices. And farms help the environment by improving soil quality, slowing erosion, and improving water quality.
There are some drawbacks. One limitation of CSA is that only foods capable of growing in your surrounding climate can be offered. Freezing environments are not appropriate climates for growing avocados. And with anything, there are risks involved. Consumers participating in community supported agriculture are often asked to pay a large amount of money at the beginning of the season. I found farms offering seasonal contracts varying from $300 to $600, on average costing $25-40 per week. It is a bit daunting to pay that much money and not get what you expect. But various things such as weather and business can impact how much a farm produces. Lastly, the produce you receive may not be the same quality of what you are used to seeing. It may not be as visually appealing, although I personally have thought it looks pretty so far!
After additional research, I decided to experience Community Supported Agriculture for myself! I chose Pacific Coast Harvest (PCH). They collect foods from multiple organic farms around Washington. Every Thursday, a delivery driver from PCH drives through Seattle and leaves a cardboard box of fruits and vegetables in the mail room of my apartment. I pick up my box, put away my goodies, then hop online to scour the internet for recipes! I love getting creative with new vegetables that I may otherwise never try cooking, such as beets. One benefit of PCH’s system is that I’m not committed to an entire grow season and can cancel at any time of the year. Although, if my experience continues to go well, I will consider investing into specific farms in future seasons!
I dread the ever impending trip to the grocery store, especially if it has been postponed until Sunday afternoon when everyone is out buying groceries. What excites me about this CSA experience is how less often I have to venture out to the store! Granted, I had to fully stock my pantry with spices, vinegars, and oils, but I did this over time. For each trip I do make it to the grocery store, I buy one new seasoning and incorporate it into at least one new dish. Buying several spices at once can get a little pricey. Another reason I enjoy this system is the personal challenge to be creative with incorporating more vegetables into my meals. Previously my vegetable dishes consisted of one vegetable and some olive oil. Now I’m learning to combine different veggies, combine food textures, and tasting new spices. Personally, I do think this food tastes better, but I may be biased because I am putting more effort into some of the dishes I make. The best dish from my first box was Spiced Chickpeas with Wilted Kale and Roasted Carrots. What I really like about this experience is that I am forced to try new vegetables which introduces my body to new nutrients. I get to try a variety of produce seasonally and support local business!