Many of us know that supporting our local farmers market is a good thing – but many of us health-conscious people worry about whether the local produce is organic or not. This fear often leads us straight to the grocery store to purchase something from a “big organic” company. But is that really better?
In an ideal world, we would all be able to source local organic. That’s my first choice, hands down. But if that’s not always available, here are 5 other things to consider when choosing where to buy your produce.
1) How many miles has it traveled
On average, food sold at the grocery store travels from 1500 miles away, creating enormous amounts of air polluting fossil fuels. It also takes days or even weeks to reach you, which results in significant nutritional loss. Kale and spinach loose, on average, 15 to 55 % of its vitamin C, sometimes as much as 90 percent. On the other hand, food sold at your local farmers market has likely been picked within 24 hours which will maintain both its flavor and be much more nutritious.
2) What’s really been sprayed on the food
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that over 1 billion tons of pesticides are used in the US every year of which 80% is for agricultural use. Large conventional and large organic farms both spray their fields with pesticides – the difference is that large organic farms will spray with organic pesticides (different from the synthetic type used by large conventional) which are derived from natural sources. Unfortunately, these can still be harmful to our health.
When plants are NOT sprayed with pesticides they have to create their own defenses. Those “defenses” are essentially a mixture of plant chemicals that give plants their flavors and aromas as well as anti-oxidant compounds. When we eat these plants, we end up ingesting these compounds that allow us to fight of disease, bacteria and viruses – making local organic truly organic produce that can have up to 50-60 more immune system boosting anti-oxidants than non-organically grown foods.
But what if your local farmer doesn’t have an “organic” label? I suggest asking them about their farming practices. More often that not, small scale local farmers have great farming practices – they just can’t afford that expensive “organic” stamp. In order to bring us the best and most delicious varieties of fruits, vegetable and herbs, small-scale farmers need to enrich the soil without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Some methods of planting vegetables (crop rotation and mixed planting) and fruits which enriches the soil with nutrients and microorganisms that feed the plants and fight off pests and diseases. Read more on this topic on my blog “Pesticide Free” by clicking here.
When in doubt, ask the farmer. Or even better, take a trip out to the farm and educate yourself and your family on where your food really comes from (more on this in #4 and #5).
3) What’s in season
When you buy what’s in season, you’re buying food that’s in abundance at that particular time of year. It costs farmers less to distribute this food, which makes it cheaper to sell at the farmers market – a good thing for your wallet. The most challenging aspect of staying on the local train is the fact that you’ll unfortunately NOT be able to have strawberries, certain vegetables and other summer fruits all year round. For example, when you buy out of season starwberries, not only are your strawberries double the price, they’re either picked before they’re ripe or are sprayed with a preservative chemical that have harmful effects. If you want strawberries or other out-of-season produce that badly, buy them when they’re in season and freeze them which preserves their nutrients, and you can use them up in your smoothies or make jams for that delicious cheese spread over Christmas.
4) The benefit to your local community
In Eat Here, Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket, author Brian Halweil states that, in comparison to imported produce, “a dollar spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy.” Which translates into money spent to improve schools, making streets safer and maintaining parks in your community. You’re also contributing to the livelihood of the sustainably minded local farmer, an invaluable member of any community. If local farmers continue to be supported they’ll be able to hold on to their biodiverse acres of farmland, which means more green spaces and better oxygen for all of us to enjoy.
5). The connection you have to your food
The Ottawa Citizen recently wrote a profile on one of my favorite chefs and food activists – Alice Waters (her restaurant Chez Panisse is a must-try if you are ever in the Bay area). In this article, Ms. Waters discusses what she believes is the most pressing food issue we are facing today: not knowing where our food comes from.
“Accepting what fast-food conglomerates are feeding us and adopting their values is problematic …our nourishment; that idea that somehow it doesn’t matter where it comes from is scary”, she says – and I couldn’t agree more.
Instead, Ms. Waters suggests developing a strong connection to our food. The best way to do this is to go to your local market, get curious, ask questions, and most of all, shake the hand that feeds you.
Grocery shopping – something that really should be so simple has sadly turned very complicated. I encourage you to consider the 5 things above and thoughtfully make the right decision for you and your family. Your health, wellbeing, and greater community depend on it.