A visit to the grocery store can be rather overwhelming these days. Prices continue to rise and new food products regularly appear on the shelves. But just because it's in your local grocery store, doesn't mean it's local, it's food, or that it's good for you. Fruits and vegetables may be picked green and shipped for miles, and the nutritional content decreases as they travel and sit on the store shelf. Additionally, many food products are highly processed and contain modified ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated soybean oil, salts, colors and other chemicals.
Dawn Cox, who directs Pigeon Valley Farms, Haywood County, shared that local tomatoes sent to the local packinghouse in western North Carolina had emerged in boxes labeled "Florida Tomatoes," intended to be shipped to and sold in the Sunshine State. So just because a fruit or vegetable is marketed in the grocery store as being from your location, that doesn't mean it actually is. (For more on these topics, see Michael Pollan's books "In Defense of Food" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma.")
Buying produce directly from a local farmer during the growing season avoids many of these grocery store pitfalls and allows you to ask questions about when it was picked, how it was grown, and even what types of fertilizers were used. Buying from a local grower avoids the mystery, helps promote the local economy, protect the environment, support rural heritage and so much more.
Because of the shorter distance between producer and consumer, local foods are fresher, taste better and have more nutritional value. Eating seasonal produce encourages a varied menu throughout the year and the inclusion of more fruits and vegetables. It also encourages a healthy diet for the residents of North Carolina, which has the 12th highest adult obesity rate in the nation.
Local food purchases also promote the local economy and help protect local farms. According to the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, North Carolinians spend an estimated $35 billion per year on food purchases. If just 10 percent of that was spent locally, an estimated $3.5 billion would be directed into local economies. And in a time when farmland is rapidly being swallowed up by residential developments, it is especially important to support our local farmers and provide jobs in the farming community.
It takes less fuel and creates less carbon emissions to transport foods to local markets, additionally helping to preserve our environment and natural resources. It also encourages farming practices that benefit human, animal and environmental health. Small farmers are more likely to pasture-raise their animals in humane conditions and use techniques that help promote natural soil fertility than are larger farming corporations.
Farming is a family tradition and way of life that is passed on from generation to generation. Supporting local farmers ensures that the knowledge, tools and skills that are part of this rural heritage will continue on and guarantees a sustainable local food system for future generations.
How to eat fresh
Obtaining local food is fairly simple. Beyond the method closest to home — growing your own — a little searching online, or asking around the community, can provide a bountiful harvest of options. Whatever method you choose, you'll be helping to support the local farming community. This strengthens the connection between the producer and the consumer and helps all of us, including our children, remember that food comes from the farm, not the grocery store.
NC Farm Fresh (www.ncfarmfresh.com/farms.asp) can help you locate a market, a pick-your-own farm, a CSA (see below), or even a specific fruit, vegetable or product.
Eatwild (www.eatwild.com) will help you locate pasture-raised livestock and poultry. If you live in western North Carolina, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project annually provides their in-depth Local Food Guide in both a print and online version (www.asapconnections.org/localfoodguide.html). Wherever you purchase, be sure to ask if the product was grown nearby — when local items are not available, they can be trucked in from miles away, just as in the grocery store.
Consumer-Supported Agriculture involves purchasing a farm share in advance and then receiving a portion of the in-season produce each week. If you are dedicated to eating more vegetables and to helping a local farmer, you can join a CSA. Farms vary in the types of produce available and in the amount you'd like to invest. As always with farming, there's a risk of losing a crop and not getting exactly what you expected, so flexibility is recommended.
Two great resources to help you eat seasonal local food are two cookbooks: "Simply in Season," published by Herald Press, gives a wealth of seasonal recipes for fruits, vegetables, and herbs, each indexed separately for ease of access. "From Asparagus to Zucchini," published by the Madison Area CSA Coalition, is organized by vegetable or herb, with related recipes grouped together.