Here are some pros and cons of eating local and tips on how to include more local foods in season in your diet.
Most supermarket shoppers find themselves chained to the same short list of produce all year. We have mistakenly come to believe that having the same standardized foods delivered to us year around from the four corners of the earth represents an abundance of choice.
What we are designed to eat
Agriculture is a rather recent experiment in the history of human evolution. For most of our existence we were hunters and gatherers and biologically designed to be omnivores, opportunists, experimentors. Eating a wide variety of clean, in season local foods ensures proper nutrition.
How many different foods are you eating? How many of them are the same, month after month, season after season? Even if you have completely different recipes, such as a Thai dish and an Italian dish, you may still end up eating onion, garlic, aubergine, red bell pepper and basil. You may be fooled into a feeling of variety when you are actually eating the same ten or fifteen vegetables all year long, cooked in different ways.
Supermarket food is designed to benefit supermarkets, not you
There are thousands of apple varieties, yet only about 100 are commercially available, and your local supermarket likely carries only a few. One would think those four or five varieties were chosen because they are more nutritious or have superior flavor. Surely that is why they made it to the supermarket shelves while others will never be seen by most people.
Or maybe not. Industrial food producers choose to grow produce that is uniform in size and appearance, stands up to the rigors of global transport and looks good on the shelves. Some are chosen because they can be picked unripe, like tomatoes, and then gassed with a substance that causes the fruit to turn red and ripen. Some are grown because they can tolerate pesticides or herbicides, or have a longer shelf life. When you look at the produce section in a typical supermarket, you may not be seeing nature’s best tasting or most nutritious offerings. You may be seeing what will most benefit industrial agriculture.
Diversity: Natures insurance policy
If you look at a natural field of grass, say a meadow, prairie or savannah, what do you see? Grass. But if you look closely it’s not just one kind of grass, but lots of different grasses and herbs. Each kind will have its own qualities. Some will be preferred by goats, some by cows and some can be used by humans as medicine.
Biodiversity is true abundance and food security. Cultivating only a few varieties in giant monocultures reduces food diversity and creates a food supply that is vulnerable rather than resilient. Growing a wide variety of food plants protects us from famine if any particular crop should fail and preserves the genetic diversity of our food supply, some strains of which may prove resistant against future adverse conditions.
When you buy local seasonal foods, you strengthen your local food supply and encourage farmers to grow different varieties that do well in local conditions.
Why choose local foods in season?
- Produce is picked ripe, at the peak of flavor and nutrition and retain nutrients because it is fresher. Produce begins to lose nutrients after picking and during storage and transport. This is particularly true for highly unstable nutrients such as vitamin C.
- Less oil energy is used to transport the food to you and local food requires less packaging, processing and preservatives.
- Local community food production is strengthened and small farmers are encouraged to grow different varieties that do well in local conditions.
- The ties between food producers and consumers remain intact. This means it is easier to know more about how your food is being produced and suppliers have more incentive to use best practices. Having a more direct connection with the consumer heightens the importance of accountability.
- Money stays in your local economy.
The disadvantages of eating local seasonal foods
You will need to educate yourself about what foods are in season in your area. For instance, you may see local tomatoes at the farmers market in late spring, but if you live in the Northern Hemisphere they will likely have been forced early in a hothouse, which may not be the most nutritious or ecologically responsible option if the hothouse is heated with grid electricity or gas. Fifty years ago everyone knew what was in season because seasonal food is what was available. These days most people will need to make an effort to educate themselves on what is harvested when in their area.
You may need to expand your cooking repertoire. To make the most of seasonal foods it helps to have a range of methods and recipes under your belt so you can feel confident when presented with a bunch of kale or sunchokes. Even cooks who feel pretty comfortable in the kitchen may find themselves in new territory. Learning to turn an abundance of zucchini into delicious muffins or fritters or cutting them thinly into ribbons and using them in place of pasta may take time, effort and imagination at first.
If your cooking skills are limited to cutting a slit in a bag of pre-cut broccoli and microwaving it, you will need to invest in learning different ways to prepare vegetables that you may have never before encountered. It used to be that cooking skills were life skills but convenience has been oversold and many do not even posses the knowledge to make a salad out of whole vegetables. For some people cooking whole seasonal foods may require learning an entire new skill set. Learning to cook from scratch can be intimidating.
Depending on where you live there may be some times of the year when almost no fresh seasonal food exists. In harsh winter climates all food has to be stored rather than harvested fresh in the dead of winter. If you live in a place like Singapore, there may be almost no food produced locally, ever.
Seasonal food may require more cooking or more preparation, and therefore more time and planning. Some common foods may not grow in your area. You can’t buy local oranges or avocados if you live in Ireland.
It takes research to find local seasonal foods. You will need to invest time to learn about the different options in your area, such as farmers’ markets or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)programs. You may have to schedule your shopping around farmers’ market openings, which may not be convenient for everyone.
How to start eating more local seasonal foods now
Depending on where you live and your lifestyle, it may not be practical for you to make the switch to eating only local seasonal foods. But there are steps that most people can take to get started.
- Learn what grows within 100 miles of where you live, and when it is harvested.
- Reduce consumption of some imported foods. Read the labels.
- Make a list of the produce you eat most often. If bananas are a staple in your diet and you live in Idaho, that is a good place to make a change. Start thinking of them as a special treat and replace them with local fruits in season.
- Replacing a few imported foods you eat regularly can make a greater overall difference than forgoing imported foods you eat only occasionally.
- Learn to cook, and if you do know how, expand your skill.
- Take advantage of fresh, ripe local foods by laying up some for later.
- Learn to can, dry, preserve, pickle, freeze or ferment.
- Plant a food garden, no matter how small. Investigate Square Inch Gardening, grow your own herbs in a window box.
- Locate farmers markets and get to know your local farmers. Ask them for ideas about how to prepare the foods they sell.
- Join a community supported agriculture scheme (CSA). You pay for a portion of whatever the farm grows, and often they deliver to your home on a pre-arranged schedule.
- Seek out restaurants that use locally sourced meat, fish and produce. Support restaurants that offer seasonal menus.
Ultimately what it takes is a shift of perception from relying on imported out of season foods as a staple of everyday cooking to regarding them as special and occasional treats. Imported foods have been prized and enjoyed since ancient times. Go ahead and enjoy that mango in Nebraska! The aim is not to eliminate imported food, rather to source the largest portion of our daily food from responsible local producers.
Keep in touch
Food is sensual and spiritual. It connects us with the land, the community, our bodies, the seasonal rhythms and the planet. Seeing food only as a commodity, something to be engineered and ‘produced’ somewhere else and flown, shipped or trucked for vast distances, packaged in layers of plastic or worse, deprives us of the joy of the seasons, the visceral connection to where we are now.
In the Netherlands whole menus are dedicated to spring asparagus. In Bordeaux in autumn it’s offal. In winter, the Wild Game Menu appears. Learn to recognize, enjoy and celebrate the abundance and fruitfulness of the place where you live.
Local seasonal food is nutritious and often carries a lighter ecological footprint, but it is also more exciting. One is not chained to the monotonous treadmill of the same bland foods all year long. It may seem innocent to be thrilled when the first ripe local peaches appear, or the morels or apple cider in the autumn. These things ground us in place and time and help us mark the passing of one phase and celebrate the arrival of a new season.