What’s in your refrigerator right now? Maybe yours looks like mine — a couple of drawers of produce along with yogurt, milk, juice, chicken, the leftovers from Saturday night’s dinner out and a bottle of wine. The basics. Maybe you’re like me and you stock your refrigerator each week with the same produce you like best — greens and vegetables for your favorite salads, berries to go in your cereal, fruits to snack on at work.
But this autumn, I am challenging myself to take a different approach. The goal: to allow the season and geography — instead of my whims — to inform my produce choices. To focus my diet on what is being grown in and around Houston this fall. Of course, this is nothing new.
The “locavore/slow food/farm-to-table” (the list goes on) family of concepts has been gaining momentum for several years, expanding far beyond what The New York Times in 2007 described as a “growing subculture.”
Eating seasonally and locally has become a more accessible practice across communities and ages. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of registered farmers’ markets totaled 7,175 nationwide in mid 2011, a 17 percent jump from 2010. Farm to School programs operate in almost 10,000 school cafeterias. So what is the big deal about eating seasonally and locally?
Eating seasonally and locally benefits our bodies, our environment, our communities and our taste buds. There are some philosophical underpinnings that provide a helpful context for considering the topic, but here I will stick to the basics. (To learn more, read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Gary Paul Nabhan’s Come Home to Eat or Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s Plenty.)
Peak seasons of fruits and vegetables correspond with our nutritional needs throughout the year. In summer, we are hot and often dehydrated, so we crave cool, water-heavy foods like cucumbers, watermelon and nectarines. Late autumn and winter are peak seasons for vegetables that take the longest to grow — which also take the longest for our bodies to digest. The digestion process required for vegetables such as squash, sweet potatoes and turnips produces heat within our bodies that we need during the cooler months.
It is important to consider “food miles,” or how far food travels from farms to our tables at home. According to a 2007 analysis of California air quality by the National Resource Defense Council, “almost 250,000 tons of global warming gases released were attributable to imports of food products — the equivalent amount of pollution produced by 40,000 vehicles on the road.” By eating locally and reducing food miles, we ease the environmental impact of shipping food.
Gathering to purchase food grown by nearby farmers builds a sense of community among neighbors and between those living in urban and rural areas. With the middleman eliminated, money from your local food purchases directly benefits local farmers who grow your vegetables and gives you the chance to offer feedback to the farmer about your purchases.
Taste bud benefits
Local, seasonal food tastes better. In Alice Waters’ words, “You can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary because it tastes like what it is…Food tastes naturally delicious when it has been grown with care, harvested at the right moment, and brought to us immediately, direct from the producer.”
What is in season right now in Texas? Here is what farmers are growing in Texas this fall, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture:
November: apples, cantaloupes, greens, oranges, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, herbs, bell peppers, turnips, broccoli, cucumbers, honeydew, spinach, watermelon, cabbage, grapefruit, mushrooms and squash.
Purchase local and seasonal food at your neighborhood farmers' market. Visit houstongreenscene.org for a complete listing of those in the area, or join a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) where you can purchase a "share" from a local farm and receive regular deliveries of the produce the farm is growing. Click here for a list of nearby CSAs.
With summer vacations behind us, school semesters in full swing, cooler weather on its way and holidays ahead, it is a fitting time to assess the contents of our refrigerators. Consider joining me in the challenge to stock them with local and seasonal fare.