Is buying local produce really healthier or just hip?
Most of us have jobs, families, jam-packed schedules and limited budgets, so shopping seasonally and locally doesn't always happen. And what difference does it really make -- besides a dent in our wallets and an extra stop during our Saturday morning errand run?
We can study the nutritional facts printed on the side of our bags of mixed salad greens, but what if there is more to it? Do other factors affect how healthy our side salad is?
Get the dirt on eating local
To look at how nutritious our food really is, let's start from the ground up. What we usually don't see when we are buying produce is the land and the soil that our potential dinner is grown in. "The food we eat is only as healthy as the soil it comes from," explains Julia Trunzo of Fishkill Farms, a family-run organic farm in upstate New York.
Large-scale, non-organic farms use synthetically fertilized soils that don't have the nutrients that natural composted soil inherently does. Industrial farms typically choose one "cash crop" and grow the same plant over and over again, which leaves the land devoid of nutrients. "The nutritional value of the food we eat today has drastically decreased based on how we treat the soil," Julia explains. "If you don't rotate your crops, you are not making a wise long-term choice. You need to be diverse. Every plant needs different nutrients from the soil," she says.
Is it fresh?
That bag of baby spinach doesn't expire for two more days, but is it really fresh? Once plants are picked, they stay fresh, crisp and vibrant for a few days but they begin to lose their nutritional value right after being harvested.
Much of the produce found at supermarkets has traveled great distances, sometimes thousands of miles, before it gets neatly arranged on your grocer's shelves. Many of these jetsetters are picked long before they are even ripe so that they can be artificially ripened en route and make their debut under the bright supermarket lights weeks or even months after harvest. While it may look fresh, we are left with a product that is lacking most of the nutrients and flavor that fresh, local produce boasts. On the contrary, when you are buying produce at a farmers market, you are probably buying produce that was harvested the day before or even that morning -- at its nutritional peak.
Even if eating locally is healthier, how do we start incorporating some of these changes into our lifestyle without having to cancel the cable service? At first glance, it may seem that local produce is pricier than its well-traveled supermarket counterparts, but it can actually end up saving us a few bucks. When produce is in season, it tends to be much cheaper than when it has to be shipped halfway across the world. For example, fennel -- whose natural season is fall through early spring -- sells at my local market for approximately $2 each during the winter months, whereas in the summer months, they sell for upwards of $4 a pop. It's true; you won't have everything available all year long -- you'll probably end up eating a lot more sweet potatoes than tomatoes in the winter, and vice versa in the summer.
This Saturday afternoon -- after the pickup rounds at the ballet and karate studios-- bring the kids with you to the local farmers market. When everyone's involved, it will feel much less like an errand and more like a fun weekend activity. It may even be more fun for you too -- it sure beats shopping under fluorescent lights in the supermarket! Get the kids involved in the kitchen too. Have them help you make a fabulous applesauce using the apples they hand-selected at the market or make a salad using the greens they chose. They'll have fun getting involved and you'll feel good about the nutritional choices you're making for the family.
Watch: How to eat local -- even in the winter
Eating local offers a bounty of benefits, from feasting on fresher foods to saving money and emissions. Learn how to get your mitts on seasonal goods all year-round.