Some number of years ago, I used to think that the ability to get any kind of fresh produce any time of the year was a mark of an advanced global civilization. We had conquered a small piece of space and time and weather to bring me blueberries in February. More recently, we lived for over a year in the shadow of the neighborhood that used to belong to the World Trade Center. I don’t want to talk about that right now, but it serves to highlight a personal revelation. When we moved, we moved to a new neighborhood, a new breath of fresh air. And a farmer’s market opened, literally, right outside my door.
After my first visit, I started making it a point to go every Friday morning, even in the dead of winter, just to see what new bounty would be there. It began with fruit and vegetables, and as I explored more, eggs, milk, breads, and eventually meat. Each new discovery reminded me of what potential could be held by a simple item of food. A peach — this is what a peach is supposed to taste like. The word “luscious” really does not fully convey the impact of biting into a local peach at the height of the season. Apples as tart as you like, strawberries with no white center to be seen, blueberries both sweet and tart at the same time, carrots you can eat without peeling them. This food was not only better for you, it was simply better, in every respect that mattered.
And then August came, and I got to the tomatoes. The tomatoes made me a lifelong convert – the drawn line between “there’s a market there” and “I need to go to the market”. A supermarket tomato is not even in the same vocabulary as a fresh, ripe, local market tomato. Flavor, texture, aroma – it’s just unfair to even do a comparison.
Of course, there’s a tradeoff here. Eating seasonally means you relish every bite until you can’t stand it anymore, because you know that it won’t last. Most crops have a few months, but some last only a few weeks. There are cycles for everything – they come in and they’re not quite ready yet, then the next week or two they’re perfect, then they’re gone until next year. Hopefully by that time you’ve been able to eat your fill to hold you until next year, but then there’s something else wonderful that takes its place. Peas move to berries move to tomatoes move to root vegetables.
The jury’s still out, but the evidence points to organic and sustainable food being healthier. It appears that plants are more nutritious when they have to defend themselves from pests. Garbage in, garbage out — I don’t want to eat vegetables that are made entirely of petrochemical fertilizers in the same way that I don’t want to eat meat that’s made entirely of corn. I don’t voluntarily buy anything that has high fructose corn syrup in it, and you won’t find any of that at the market.
And it’s not just about the food. Yes, it’s better, and everything I can buy at the market, I do. But it’s also about confidence, and community in one of the oldest senses of the word. I know these farmers. I have recently visited one of the farms and plan to go see more. They stand behind their food. I know, for the most part, which ones use pesticides and which ones don’t, and I can see the relative effects that has on the quality of their food. I’m not afraid to eat their eggs raw or undercook my burger.
Seasonal/local is not organic. That’s not to say that organic is bad, but they’re not the same thing. Organic doesn’t necessarily equate to sustainable, or even high quality. All other factors being equal, organic tends to be the better choice, but it’s not the whole answer. A local food may in fact not be the best choice, but at least if you have a question about it, you can often talk to the farmer directly and get whatever answers you’re looking for.
And so – my buying patterns: I always shop at the market first. If I can get something there, I do. The quality is always better, it is certainly healthier, it has a lower carbon footprint when you factor in the petrochemicals they don’t use to fertilize, keep the pests away, and get it to you, and all of the farms at my markets are committed to sustainable farming practices. Plus, I like them personally and I want to give them my business. Shopping at the market isn’t always numerically competetive, but it is always value competetive – if something is 1.5x more at the market, it’s likely 5-10x better.
For the things I can’t find at the market, I do try to buy organic, and I try to ensure that they’re seasonal somewhere. For example, I don’t buy oranges from Florida in July. Not only is there no reason to given the abundance of other wonderful fruits here, they’re just not as good as the ones in January. Organic is usually preferable, because I think that food is healthier and better for the planet than “conventional” (whatever that really means).
I’m not a die-hard localist. I still buy coffee, and I eat imported Italian canned tomatoes when I can’t find good ones here. I love to cook, and shopping at the market simultaneously makes some decisions easier (I make what’s good that week) and improves my results. But what it really comes down to is that I’m committed to procuring for my family and friends the best food we can have while supporting people who love food as much as I do.
This is a healthy food chain. It’s good for the planet, it’s good for the farmers, it’s good for the plants and animals, and it’s good for us. Every little bit makes a difference.