What's the big deal with "eating local"?
There's a movement catching on throughout the country -- "Eat Local Fare" -- and I think it's a great thing. But what does eating local mean?
Commonly, local food refers to food produced near the consumer (i.e., food grown or raised within X miles of where you live). The concept is that food grown closer to you is harvested recently ... so a degradation of the nutrients found in the food is less likely.
Produce purchased at typical large-chain grocery stores can come from thousands of miles away. Often this produce was not picked at its prime of ripening, and chemicals (like 1-MCP, more about this later) are typically added to the produce so that it lasts for months in cold storage before the season.
I had no idea that my favorite apples or pears at the large-chain grocery store sit in cold storage for many months before I buy them!
Take apples for example. Large farms pick apples when they are not quite ripe, then they treat the apples with a fancy chemical called 1-methylcyclopropene; then apply wax, package them in crates, and place them in cold storage warehouses for 9-12 months.
From the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, we learn that:
Apples not intended for fresh market are stored at low temperatures, with low levels of oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide. While this slows the apples’ natural production of ethylene and its effects, fungicides must often be applied to prevent fungal rots from taking hold. But since its commercial debut in 2002 under the name “SmartFresh,” 1-MCP has in some cases diminished the need for such treatment.
So what's the big deal about 1-MCP? Many would say that science has found the cure for rot -- allowing us eat our apples and pears and peaches and spinach and tomatoes anytime we want. But at what cost? (See this list of 1-MCP treated produce.)
Many necessary nutrients are degraded by such chemical treatment on our produce and fruit. Studies have shown that the antioxidants in apples (which help reduce muscle fatigue and can fight cancer cells) disappear after several months of cold storage. (See this study.) The less fresh your produce is, the fewer nutrients they will maintain.
This is where local fare helps...
When you eat local, you become more aware of the sources of your food -- and you can even ask your farmers how they grow, treat, pick and store their produce and fruit. You can find fresher, more nutrient dense, and even tastier food; all the while supporting your local economy and local farmers.
Also, when you eat local, you get seasonally appropriate food, providing good nutrition and variety for you each season. For me, peaches are one of my favorites! I recently realized that one of the reasons I love them so much is because they aren't available to me year round. They are only available for a few short months in the summer. When I buy a peck of peaches in the summer, I savor every bite knowing what a treat it is! Plus it's fun to say "a peck". :) This is what our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers experienced all the time - not the peck part, but fresh seasonal produce. They didn't have every type of produce freshly available to them all the time. They had what grew in season!
Let's be real
I'm not saying we should never eat supermarket produce or fruit. In the culture & community we live, it is hard to resist the availability of these foods at our fingertips! And you have to spend time learning how to eat locally -- what will you like? What will the kids like? How do you cook that? It's a process!
What I am saying is this: begin that process! Explore your local markets and local farms! Do your own research on what grows seasonally around you. Find out how the produce is grown. Is it treated with pesticides? How is the soil treated? Research your supermarket's produce practices. Make the best decisions you can for where you are. Take baby steps if you must, but take them! Better nutrition usually comes from local fare, and eating locally will benefit your health and the health of your family. If you have children, the sooner you start pursuing nutrient dense foods, the more enabled your kids will be to follow these principles when they get older!
In our area, we have some great markets for farm-fresh, organic foods, including:
- Mulberry Street Market
- Bolingbroke Farmers Market
- Wesleyan Market
- The Dirt Farmers
- Village Marketplace
- Yvonne's Natural Market
For more information on healthy local fare in your geographic area, check out these resources:
Do you have a favorite local farm or market you frequent? Have you learned any secrets to finding good healthy local fare? What resources do you use? Post a comment below and let me know!
Happy local eating!