The Green Blog
The Eat Local Challenge

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by Kim Kash, Pink Goes Green Guest Blogger

Eating locally produced foods -- fruits, vegetables, grains, and even meats -- is better for you, better for your family, better for your local economy, and better for the planet. Plus, it tastes better. A lot better.

Have you ever been tempted by those little baskets of strawberries for sale in the produce aisle in the dead of winter? They look so bright and pretty, and you're so ready for spring. So you shell out, what, $8.00? You get them home and take that first bite, and oh. The flavor is bland, even a little bitter, and the texture is like Styrofoam. What a letdown!

The moral of the story is that strawberries (like other fresh foods) don't taste good when they are picked unripe and shipped long distances. But in early summer, during local strawberry season, they are lusciously juicy, perfectly soft, incomparably delicious, and they are so fresh that you can smell them across the room. That is what buying local is all about.

Buying local means eating different things depending on the time of year: greens, yummy root vegetables, and potatoes in the winter; asparagus and delicate spring greens as the weather warms; an explosion of fresh fruits, green veggies and salads all summer and into the fall; hearty squashes, apples, and pears in the chilly late autumn.

This is not to say that your dinner plate should never have some imported and/or out-of-season foods on it. Rather, the goal is to incorporate local foods into your meal planning, and use them as the backbone of your daily diet. Foods begin to lose their flavor -- and their nutritional value -- the moment they are harvested. So eat fresh and eat local to squeeze the maximum health benefits out of every delicious bite.

There is a growing movement in the United States to eat local -- for better taste and nutrition, and also because it supports the local economy, and our planet. How?

Let's get back to those strawberries. Say you live in Chicago, and you buy those sad January strawberries to serve for dessert. They were likely grown in Mexico on an enormous factory farm. Unless they were grown using organic methods (the definition of this can be hard to pin down with imported foods), the farm is likely using intensive, environmentally exhaustive farming techniques that involve heavy applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These are not healthy for you to eat, and they deplete the soil for next season -- meaning the farmer will have to apply even more chemicals for the same results. This is not sustainable.

Poisonous chemicals aside, soil becomes depleted when it is used over and over again to grow the same crop. This is called monoculture. Soon, the crops grown on a field in a monoculture operation lack the mineral content that they should have (minerals come from naturally fertile soil.) Ultimately, if a single crop is grown in one spot for too many years and with too many chemical additives, the field will be completely depleted, and unable to support any life at all.

This is why it's a bad idea to use your hard-earned dollars to support agribusinesses that practice non-organic, monoculture farming. These are farms growing strawberries to be picked unripe (which is necessary so that they won't spoil during their journey to market), and trucked thousands of miles to be sold someplace where it's not the right season for strawberries. All this shipping radically increases the carbon footprint of the strawberries, which drives up their cost to our planet's environment, as well as their dollar cost to you at the supermarket.

A better fruit choice in January, in Chicago, would be to buy apples or pears that were grown in local orchards and harvested in the fall. Apples and pears naturally store well, and local growers are able to harvest and successfully store their fruit to sell throughout the cold winter months.

Or at least choose citrus fruit. Oranges, tangerines and the other citrus fruits must be trucked north, sure, but at least they are naturally a sturdier little package with a much longer storage life than a delicate berry. Plus, they likely were grown in Florida or California, so you can buy organically grown citrus fruits and be somewhat more confident that recognizable organic standards were followed in the citrus groves.

Out-of-season strawberries are an obvious example of non-local food that can be found in supermarkets -- at a high environmental and dollar cost. But what about all the other stuff in the produce aisle, and even in the meat cases? You may be thinking, who has time to figure out what's in season when, and where everything comes from?

It's easy! Shop at a producers-only farmers market. More and more farmers markets are happening all over the country, and their seasons are getting longer to support the sale of cold-weather crops and products. If it's on sale at the farmers market, then you know it's in season! What's this "producers only" thing? It's a distinction that some markets make to indicate that their vendors are actually farmers selling their own locally grown products, and not just wholesalers with homespun-looking market displays. One dead giveaway: if you live in the United States and you can buy bananas at your farmers market, then it's not a producer's only market.

To get people excited about buying and eating local, farmers markets and regional agricultural organizations put together Eat Local or Buy Local challenges during the peak of the growing season. The idea is to eat at least one locally produced thing every day for a week. Such a modest goal! But it's a fun way to bring a little mindfulness into everyday food choices. Buy Local challenges inspire people to learn what grows nearby, and to enjoy truly fresh, local foods produced by their neighbors. Are you up to that challenge?

Kim Kash has been a writer and editor for over 20 years, many of those with Daedalus Books. The author of the bestselling Ocean City: A Guide to Maryland's Seaside Resort (Channel Lake, 2009), Kim is a founder of the Greenbelt Farmers Market near Washington, D.C. Topics she covers as a freelance writer range from federal government policy to yoga, food and travel. She often writes for beachbody.com which provides home fitness video programs and recently launched the Body Beast Workout, a bodybuilding program.