Be fresh. Eat locally grown, raised and produced food

Are you a locavore? Would you like to be one? It’s simple and painless — just eat food grown locally whenever possible! First appearing in Webster’s in 2005, the term locavore reflects the growing movement toward eating fresh, locally produced vegetables, fruit, dairy products and meats. It also means patronizing restaurants and grocers who buy locally as well, growing your own, and taking advantage of seasonal bounty.

There’s something truly special about eating vegetables and fruit that have been picked in the past 24 hours, or which you’ve picked yourself. In Connecticut, local produce and fruit, dairy products, eggs and meats can be purchased at farms, through specialty stores, and in restaurants that promote “farm to table” sustainability. But beyond the importance of supporting our local farmers and regional economy, there are a variety of other advantages to eating fresh and local.

Locally grown produce is fresher and more diverse.  Produce that is purchased in the supermarket or a big-box store has been in transit or cold-stored for days or weeks. On the other hand, produce that we buy at our local farmer’s market, farm or stand has often been picked within 24 hours of our purchase. This freshness not only affects the taste of our food, but the nutritional value and varietal choices, which decline with time and when fruit and vegetables are processed. Additionally, local farms are more likely to produce atypical varieties and hybrids of fruits and vegetables that you may not find in large grocery stores.

Locally grown fruits and vegetables have longer to ripen. Because local produce requires less handing and shipping time, it is picked at its nutritional height, when it’s ripe and most delicious. Eggs and milk purchased in supermarkets are weeks old — when purchased locally, they are likely only a few days old. And with less handling, the food you buy will have fewer bruises, mildew or other damage, and won’t be treated with preservatives that enhance looks but neutralize taste and nutritional value.

Local, sustainably produced farm fruits and vegetables do not require long distances for transport, and can be harvested closer to peak ripeness. Many fruits and vegetables contain more nutrients when allowed to ripen naturally on the parent plant. Meat from animals raised sustainably on pasture is also more nutritious. For example, grass-fed beef is higher in “good” cholesterol (and lower in “bad”), higher in vitamins A and E, lower in fat, and contains more antioxidants than factory-farmed beef.  Sustainably produced food also means fewer agricultural chemicals (such as pesticides), antibiotics, and hormones, all of which are common in conventional farm products.

Locally produced food is more nutritious. The global industrial food system relies on crops that have been bred primarily for higher yield and ease of transport, while farmers involved in local food systems often place a higher value on plant varietals that are more nutritious by virtue of their variety or by their method of production.

Eat with the seasons. Nature offers us an abundance of food each season that meets our physiological and nutritional needs — if we tune in. Fruits and vegetables that help keep us hydrated are readily available in the summer. Berries available this time of year top the antioxidant charts. Root vegetables and squashes help us prepare for the coming colder months, and are more easily stored. Apples, which become available later in the summer, are high in antioxidants as well, and best when eaten fresh.

Help protect the environment. The side effects of energy consumption and pollution can be considered “collateral damage” when it comes to food that is produced elsewhere and shipped. It takes a lot of fossil fuel-based products and services to harvest, prepare, freeze, process and ship food. This is bad for the environment, and can be limited by buying locally.

Another good reason to purchase locally is that by supporting our farms, we protect the land and green spaces. This is important for preserving air and water quality, and for preventing overbuilding and the tax on resources that comes with congestion and the loss of open, undeveloped or farmed land.

Know the source. It’s also important to know where our food is produced. Fruit, vegetables, meat and fish originating in other countries may not be subject to the same tough regulatory requirements found on U.S. farms and processing centers. That includes pesticides and fertilizers used, water sources for irrigation, and how safely — in terms of germs, bacteria and other contaminants — the food has been handled prior to shipping.

As food-production networks have become increasingly consolidated and globalized, the risk of food safety problems, such as food-borne illness, has also increased. The consolidation of meat and produce production, including animal slaughter and processing, means that there are more possibilities of improper processing, handling, or preparation affecting vast quantities of food. Tracing outbreaks of food-borne illnesses also becomes more difficult because the production and distribution of conventional food products often involves multiple farms, food processors, and food distributors.

Supporting sustainable growth and food distribution

Local food production/distribution networks often start on smaller, sustainable family farms. Farm products are transported over shorter geographic distances, generally processed either on the farm itself, or with smaller processors. Sustainable local food distribution networks rely on the direct-to-consumer market and the direct-to-retail, foodservice, and institutional market.

The direct-to-consumer market is currently the most established sector of local food distribution.  Direct-to-consumer means that all middlemen are cut out of the food distribution equation – farmers sell their products directly to consumers, rather than through third parties, such as grocery stores. Common direct-to-consumer operations include:

  • Farmers’ Markets: These are communal spaces in which multiple farmers gather to sell their farm products directly to consumers. Farmers’ markets may be municipally or privately managed and may be seasonal or year-round. Farmers may have to pay a vendor’s (or other similar) fee to participate, and usually transport their own farm products to the farmers’ market site.
  • Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs): These are direct-to-consumer programs in which consumers buy a “share” of a local farm’s projected harvest. Consumers are often required to pay for their share of the harvest up front; this arrangement distributes the risks and rewards of farming among both consumers and the farmer. CSA participants often pick up their CSA shares in a communal location, or the shares may be delivered directly to customers.
  • Other Direct-to-Consumer Programs: A much smaller proportion of the direct-to-consumer market are options such as pick-your-own farms, on-site farm stands and stores, and gleaning programs, in which consumers are invited to harvest crops that are left in fields, usually after harvest.

For information on locally grown food, and a listing of what’s available when and where across Connecticut, visit http://www.pickyourown.org/CT.htm. Additionally, if you’d like to find farmer’s markets close to where you live, check out http://www.visitconnecticut.com/state/farmers-markets/

# # #

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!