Once upon a time the seasons formed a natural setting for what was eaten. Spring welcomed fresh, green growth. Birds laid eggs. Tender stalks of asparagus burst from the ground. It was a time for salads and egg dishes that incorporated fresh leaves and stalks. Summer brought bounty and a variety of vegetables and fruits. It was a time when everything ripened, but days were hot and busy so cool, raw or quick-cooking foods were common. Fall was harvest time—time to store up the season’s bounty for the long winter. Winter was when meat was slaughtered. Hot, steamy soups or oven-baked dishes made with root crops from storage were common winter fare
Less than a century ago, things changed. A huge food industry replaced fresh ingredients with processed products. Large farms and companies came to dominate our food production. The global marketplace now provides foods from around the world to mega markets where we can buy anything we want any time of year. Imported fruits and vegetables account for almost two-thirds of the produce consumed in the U.S. In an article widely distributed by AP, Erik Olson, director of food programs for the Pew Health Group, said “It’s virtually impossible to sit down and eat a meal…that hasn’t come from all over the world.”
But cheap food from around the world comes at a high price. Imported, over-processed food is tasteless, nutritionally poor and carries a high ecological cost. Here are a few reasons to consider seasonal foods instead.
1. Sustainability. Eating seasonally reduces your carbon footprint by limiting pollution and packaging waste. For example, imported tomatoes travel an average 1,569 miles to the supermarket, whereas a tomato from your farmers’ market travels less than 60 miles and needs no packaging.
Large industrial farms depend on petroleum-based fertilizers, weed killers and petrochemicals. Processing, transporting food long distances in refrigerated trucks and cooling out-of-season food uses more fossil fuels. In her latest book, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It (Bloomsbury), Anna Lappé reports that globally, from seed to plate to landfill, the food sector accounts for 18% of greenhouse gases, one-third of methane and two-thirds of nitrous oxide emissions.
2. Taste. When my friend’s four-year-old granddaughter pulled and ate a carrot from her garden, she exclaimed, “Grandma, I didn’t know carrots could taste so good.” Fresh sweet corn that converts sunshine into sugar is one of the simplest, most wholesome culinary delights of summer. The juice of a ripe summer peach dripping down your chin or a tart, crunchy apple on a brisk fall day have become forgotten simple pleasures.
3. Health. Jackie Newgent, culinary nutritionist and author of Big Green Cookbook (Wiley), explains: “eating seasonally means produce was picked when ripe, resulting in nutritionally dense and more delicious food. There can be a loss of nutrients, especially vitamin C, with lengthy transport or prolonged storage.” One Penn State study found that after eight days of storage, spinach lost most of its vitamin C, folate and carotenoids.
4. Variety. It’s fun to switch up your diet. “I’ve seen seasonal eating help people fall in love with cooking and look forward to eating their fruits and veggies, instead of feeling obligated to do so,” says nutritionist Cynthia Sass.
5. Safety. The road from farm to fork winds from field to packing house, wholesaler to processor, distribution center to supermarket. This trek presents multiple opportunities for food contamination even for so-called “fresh” produce. In the past few years, Americans have seen large recalls—spinach in 2006, peanuts in 2009, eggs in 2010, cantaloupe in 2011. Replacing well-traveled produce with seasonal fruits is the easiest way to reduce contamination risk.
6. Supporting Local Farms. When you eat seasonally, your food dollar goes directly to the farmer who raised the crop, not a large national corporation. Buying locally also helps reestablish the relationship between producer and consumer that has been lost in our modern agribusiness industry.
For the New Year ahead, make a resolution to eat more seasonal products. Vow to build meals with freshly harvested foods. Join a Community Supported Agriculture group, shop at a farmers’ market or start a garden. The Locavore phone app (getlocavore.com) and websites like localharvest.org and eatwellguide.org can also help you stay abreast of what’s in season where you live.
YVONA FAST cooks and writes in Lake Clear, New York.