Food has become big business and it isn’t unusual to find a vegetable, fruit, or piece of meat that was produced and processed on a different continent.
We’re not talking importing rice or coffee or chocolate, or even oranges in the winter – we transport highly perishable food from places where it grows to … other places where it also grows.
You can find just about any fruit or vegetable in your local grocery stores any time of the year. Strawberries used to be a rare treat reserved for early summer. Now, you can get “fresh” strawberries year around. The same holds true for tomatoes, asparagus, peaches and all sorts of other fresh fruits and vegetables.
Even though plenty of farmers raise sheep in Nova Scotia, for example, the grocery stores are filled with New Zealand lamb.
That’s a long way to transport something we raise locally.
Most of our fresh fruits and vegetables come from the southern United States, even though we have farmers here who struggle to make a living. All across North America, we spend an insane amount of resources shipping food from one area to the next.
It wasn’t always this way though, and a growing number of people are becoming frustrated with all of the ramifications of global food. That’s what we’re going to talk about today – the importance of eating local, seasonal food.
While grocery stores similar to what we see today have been around since the 1920s, they didn’t become widely available until the 1950s. So how did our grandparents and great-grandparents get their food before that time? What did they do when they couldn’t drive down to the local grocery store and pick up anything that you might possibly want to eat?
Food was grown and sold more locally. Of course some things were imported, but not nearly at the levels that we now have.
Even when I was growing up in the 1980s, in small town Nova Scotia, my parents went to the butcher, or straight to the farmer, to select freshly slaughtered and cut meat for their freezer, and he worked with local farmers. The fishmonger in our town brought in local fish daily.
Before that, my grandparents raised their own, or traded with neighbours. Throughout North America, similar transactions took place. There was a personal connection at each step of the process, too.
Those who didn’t do their own baking (and not everyone in previous generations did!) would go to the bakery for fresh bread and other fresh goods. There is a local bakery here that has been in business for over a hundred years, transitioning from daily bread to more artisan offerings to accommodate a changing market. But when they first opened, those who didn’t make their own bread bought it fresh and locally – from wheat grown just outside of town.
Go back more than a generation and you will find that most people who had any amount of yard would grow a kitchen garden for their summer vegetables. Backyard chickens – a source of eggs and meat – were pretty common, too. My little brother and I got into a lot of trouble one day, back in the mid 1970s, when we opened our great-aunt’s hen house and let all of the chickens loose!
And that is exactly what local food is. It is food produced fairly locally. It may be grown or produced a couple of hours away from you, depending on the food, but it is roughly from your area. We’re starting to see a resurgence in locally grown food with the popularity of farmers markets, farm to table programs, CSA memberships and of course, the slow food movement.
This means that you eat food that’s native to your area, or at least something that can be grown in your climate zone. It also means eating more seasonally and enjoying fresh produce as it comes into season.
And that’s not a bad thing.
You’ll notice that locally grown tomatoes in season taste infinitely better than hothouse grown tomatoes or strawberries that were picked green and barely taste like they should when they reach your table.
It also means cooking more from scratch instead of picking up convenience food, or processed food where you have no idea where the ingredients came from and what has been done to them.
The end result when you start to embrace local food is that you eat healthier by buying fresher, more seasonal food.
Let’s explore this a little further!
The Importance Of Eating Seasonal Food
One of the big advantages of eating local food that’s in season is that it’s healthier.
Instead of being picked before its prime and ripening in storage, this food is harvested close to the peak of ripeness and quickly makes its way to your plate.
If you’ve ever tasted the difference between a strawberry picked this morning and one that ripens on its way up from California, you know that the fresh one has more nutrients and tastes better. And it’s definitely better for you.
And simply by the nature of eating local, seasonal food it cuts out a lot of processed “food-like” products. You end up eating more natural, real produce. That alone can have a huge impact on your overall health and even your weight. So many of the serious health issues we’re dealing with today from heart disease and stroke, to high blood pressure and diabetes, can be traced directly to the introduction of processed food. They were a boon to our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, but that boon came with a tremendous price.
By changing your diet to include more real food, you can greatly reduce your risk for any of these “lifestyle” illnesses.
There are far more advantages than that, though, when it comes to eating local, seasonable food. Producing food and eating this way is a lot more sustainable.
Spend some time thinking about it and you’ll realize that it often doesn’t make a lot of sense to grow food in one part of the world and ship it to consumers in another area.
It uses up an incredible amount of resources and fuel just to truck all of that grain, for example, from one continent to the next, from one country to the next, or, in the case of huge countries like Canada and the US, from one coast to the other.
Industrial food production and large scale food transportation are also an environmental nightmare.
Here is just one example. On a small farm, manure is a valuable byproduct that farmers compost and return to the soil, limiting the amount of fertilizers they use. In an industrial Corral And Feed Operation raising pigs, cows or chickens, the vast amounts of manure become an environmental hazard.
You can read more about this problem:
There’s nothing wrong with an occasional dish from far away, and I’ll fight you for my coffee and cocoa, but wouldn’t it make much more sense if we made locally grown grains, meats, fruit and vegetables the focus of our diets?
This global food can get our food supply in big trouble, too.
A few years ago, floods in Australia sent the price of sugar skyrocketing across Canada – even though we are perfectly capable of growing sugar beets. Relying on imported sugar from sugar cane makes us vulnerable. During War years and rations, imported sugar was rationed but Canadian-grown beet sugar was not.
Another example are the droughts in California.
That American state produces practically all of the artichokes, garlic, plums, celery and many, many other vegetables for the entire United States. Canada, too, imports about $5 billion worth of food from California each year – mostly organic produce.
Every rural area in Canada has farmers – including organic farmers – who struggle to compete against food that is produced cheaply and shipped across the continent. There is very little excuse for us to be importing BILLIONS of dollars of food.
The answer is not to ship water into California so that they continue to produce most of our food. That is absolutely unsustainable. (And it hardly counts as self-reliant, either!)
The answer is to take the enormous pressure off their system by ensuring that we have farms, back yard gardens and other local infrastructure in place and that we support the farmers we already have.
Giving up almonds grown in California or tomatoes from Holland may seem extremely inconveniencing to you while still insignificant on the grand scale.
I get it. What difference could it possibly make?
But if we embrace producing and consuming local food and change from buying processed food to real food, we can do our part. Each person making even the smallest changes will add up. And that will have a big impact on the environment.
Think about what you can do to embrace more local, real food.
Where To Find Local Food
Your local farmers market is the perfect place to get started.
You can shop for a lot of your food staples including fruits, veggies, eggs, bread, and, if you’re lucky, even milk, cheese and meat there. Our local market has artisan wines, local seamstresses and artisans, fair trade organic coffee and tea, natural products from soap nuts to bum cream and so much more.
It’s also a great place to get a foot in the door with the local farming community.
Shop your farmers market regularly and talk to the farmers you meet there. You never know what you may learn and what connections you will make. Most people who choose to spend their day at the market are friendly and talkative!
Even if you don’t see what you want, ask. If there hasn’t been a lot of interest in microgreens, for example, some farmers might be growing or producing it but just not bringing it. The same goes for raw milk (if it’s legal in your area) or grass fed beef.
If you ask around, though, they may know someone locally who does sell these products but doesn’t come to the market.
CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is another great way to dip your toes into local, seasonal food. Go to Local Harvest to find farmers in your area that participate in the program – it covers Canada and the United States.
The way it works is that you pay a fee set by the farmer at the beginning of the season. Basically, what you’re doing is buying a share in the harvest for that particular farm. You pay a set amount of money for your share and throughout the growing season, you get boxes with your share of what’s been grown. The interesting part is that you never know exactly what you’ll get. You end up with what’s been growing well and what’s ripe and ready at the time.
Although there are currently no CSAs in our area, I have contributed to the Kickstarter for Bramble Hill Farms (they are building a greenhouse to go year-round) and I will be getting ‘farm credit’ for the entire amount I pre-pay. We have to eat anyway, and this helps ensure that we have a steady source of fresh greens this winter.
A few years ago, I would go to a friend’s farm every week with my bushel basket and say ‘Fill me up!’ It was marvelous because she would give me an assortment of fresh produce that she wanted to sell, and I would need to think outside the box and figure out how to eat or preserve it. Since it was generally what hadn’t sold and needed to be processed immediately, I learned a lot!
Through her I learned that I love sweet potatoes, for example, something I had never tried before.
As you get to know your local farmers through the farmers market and the CSA program, you’ll get a chance to find more and more locally produced food. These farmers may also share what shops they are selling to, which can then become part of your weekly or monthly shopping trips.
Another great way to find more places to shop local is to talk to like-minded local food enthusiasts as you’re out and about. Start conversations with other people shopping at the farmers market, the farm, the local produce shop etc. Together you can each learn more and find more places to shop and support.
Eating Local, Seasonal Food On A Budget
Eating healthy often comes with a price tag.
I don’t have to tell you that it costs a lot more to buy fresh cucumbers and radishes to snack on than it does to pick up a bag of potato chips at the grocery store.
While you won’t be able to beat cheap grocery store prices for food, particularly cheap convenience foods, there is a lot you can do to cut down on the amount of money you spent on healthy, local food.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of saving money, let’s look at the bigger picture. Eating food that’s good for you, instead of processed crap full of sugar and salt, will pay off big in the long run. It’s always going to be cheaper to pay the farmer than to pay the doctor.
Another important thing to consider is that local, seasonal food is fresh. I had always assumed that broccoli needed to be used up within a day or two and that eggs only last two weeks at best. What a surprise when I started eating freshly picked produce and enjoying eggs directly from the hen. They last forever! I now assume that the grocery store broccoli has sat in trucks and warehouses for several weeks!
Okay, not forever … but a freshly picked broccoli will last a month in the vegetable crisper if you’re silly enough to forget it there. We picked potatoes out of our garden and placed them beside the 50 pound bag of ‘fresh’ potatoes from the grocery store. Guess which ones we tossed out two weeks later? Our freshly picked, dirty potatoes lasted most of the winter.
Health care costs and issues of freshness aside, there are some simple little things you can do to eat local, seasonal food on a budget.
Start by buying directly from the producer as much as possible.
If you can buy directly from the farmers, you cut out the middle man and any cost associated with that. That’s what I did when I went to my friend’s farm, and that’s what I’m doing now with Bramble Hill Farm and the other local producers.
Start with local produce stores if you must, to but try to get in touch with local farmers as quickly as possible. The CSA boxes we talked about earlier, if they are available in your area, are another great way to get a lot of fresh produce for a relatively small amount of money.
Larger cities often have programs called ‘Good Food box’ or similar. These are relatively inexpensive – $15 or $25. In my experience, they collect the money at the end of the month when social assistance and old age pension cheques arrive, and then deliver the box later in the month when funds are getting limited. If you qualify for that and it’s available, it’s a marvelous way to guarantee a box of healthy food just when you really need it.
Buying in bulk is another great option.
You can get a much better deal if you buy by the bushel or crate, especially if you do it during peak season. The price difference can be astonishing – for example, at peak season, a bushel of ripe “process or use immediately” tomatoes might be $15 or less (for 60 pounds!) while they sell for $2.50 a pound in the grocery store off season!
You can then “put up” much of the food and use it throughout the rest of the year. A Cabin Full of Food was written with that in mind – growing your own or buying in bulk and putting it up to use all year.
If you don’t want to learn to preserve this food, consider finding a few friends or family members interested in eating healthier. Go in and buy produce in bulk together and then divide it up between all of you.
This also works really well if you’re looking at bulk produce that’s a little further away. It’s a lot more economical to have one family ride up to the mountains to a local apple orchard to buy bushels of fresh mountain apples and then divide it up, than it is for all of you to go up and buy smaller, more expensive quantities. Not only will you save by buying in bulk, you save even more in fuel cost and of course time.
As you get to know the farmers in your area, make it known that you’re willing to buy ‘seconds’ – those less-than-perfect specimens that more picky consumers turn their nose up at. If you find a farmer who produces enough to have excess seconds, above and beyond what they need for their family, this is an inexpensive way to fill your pantry shelves. Seconds are usually priced drastically lower than market-worthy firsts.
Last but not least, think about what you can grow in your own back yard, on your patio, or even on your kitchen counter.
It’s surprising how much you can grow yourself even with little-to-no space.
Expand from there and look into gardening boxes and other easy care, space saving gardening methods. Vertical gardens are a great option if you don’t have a lot of room. Start expanding and grow more and more of your own food. It doesn’t get any cheaper, or more local than that.
Trade with other gardening neighbors who grow different fruits and vegetables for more variety. Not only does it give you access to food you’re not growing, but you will help build up the sense of community in your neighborhood.
Eating Well Throughout The Year By Preserving Local Food
Whether you buy in bulk, come across a deal at the farmers market that’s just too good to pass up, or get a bumper crop in your own backyard, there are times when you end up with more fresh fruits and veggies than you can use and eat right away.
It’s a good problem to have and it will help you through the times of year when your farmers market is closed and your garden doesn’t produce much.
No, I don’t mean the bumper crop or great deal, because it’s no good if it rots in your kitchen, but preserving all of that delicious food will certainly help you. Luckily, there are quite a few different ways to do it.
One of the easiest things to start with is freezing food.
Many foods like berries for example, can be frozen straight from harvest. Many fruits can be washed, sliced and frozen. Peppers, tomatoes, squash and the like work the same way. You can slice and freeze quite a bit of okra and even onions and garlic to use down the road. Fresh herbs can also be frozen and used in dishes throughout the year.
Another option is to fix your favorite soups, stews, and vegetable dishes that freeze well. Cook one serving to use for dinner and freeze the rest.
Eventually though you’ll run out of room in your freezer.
Other great options are pickling, canning, and dehydrating.
I have a huge post that gets into a lot of the details of dehydrating, and you might find that useful.
Canning seems far more scary than it is. You could start with freezer jam and fridge pickles, but that doesn’t solve the problem of getting the food out of your fridge and freezer. Still, it helps you get a feel for the process. Read up on safe canning methods, talk to people who are experienced, borrow some equipment and give it a try.
Focus on foods that you know your family will use throughout the year. At our house, tomato sauce, homemade ketchup and canned meat are always in demand.
Buy local, fix it, eat it, and learn to preserve it. You’ll be amazed at how much better real, local grown food tastes.