The last several times I’ve gone grocery shopping my 4 year old daughter has begged me to buy grapes. While I’m happy to fill the cart with all sorts of other fresh fruits and vegetables, I’ve firmly denied her request for grapes. Why? This time of year they come all the way from Chile, over 6,000 miles away from my grocery store in Portland, Oregon.
There have been a few posts about wintertime farmer’s markets and eating local food. It’s easy to make local food purchases at farmer’s markets because everything there is local! But what about the supermarket with the baskets of berries next to piles of citrus, boxes of winter squash alongside tropical pineapples and at least 8 varieties of apples no matter what the season? We’ve gotten so used to being able to buy kiwis and avocados, asparagus and eggplants any time we feel like it that it’s easy to forget the cost we’re paying. The cost that goes beyond the charge on our debit card.
There’s a cost to our environment. Those out-of-season foods are growing hundreds of miles away. The 6,000 mile trip the grapes took to my grocery store may be extreme but researchers from the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan calculated that American food travels an average of 1,500 miles to reach us. That’s a lot of fossil fuels being used up by transportation and harmful greenhouse gasses being emitted.
There’s a cost to quality. It takes time for the food to travel all that way. The long trip may not affect the quality of something like dried pasta but it’s a different story when we’re talking about “fresh” produce. If produce were picked perfectly ripe and delicious it wouldn’t last long enough to make the journey to us. Watery tomatoes, flavorless strawberries and rock-hard nectarines were some of the finds in my grocery store yesterday.
There’s a cost to community. In the dead of winter, there are farmers in my city, and probably somewhere near you as well, who are out in the rain, tending their winter crops, getting things in place for spring and investing their time and expertise into our community. They are cold, wet, dirty and determined. They are committed to providing quality produce, reviving forgotten heirloom varieties and choosing sustainable farming practices. Making local and seasonal food choices supports them and keeps our money in our own communities.
There’s a cost to our sense of place. We become disconnected to our environment when we don’t know what is growing near us. Eating seasonal food connects us to the rhythm of the seasons. Roasted root vegetables are a perfect match for a crisp winter day while a bright fruit salad conjures up memories of eating outdoors in the summer sun. There’s nothing more natural than following the earth’s cycles.
So how do we do it? I won’t define “local” for you. You may be a pro at eating local and restrict yourself to food that comes from your immediate community. Maybe local for you means your state or region of the country. For some of you it may simply be food that comes from your country, or that which doesn’t need to cross an ocean. Once you have an idea of your food standards here’s what you can do at the supermarket:
- Come prepared. Know what’s in season in your local area so you can make smart choices.
- Read signs and labels. Some supermarkets make it easy by posting countries/states of origins but other times you’ll need to look closely at packaging or stickers on individual items. If you still can’t tell, ask an employee. If nothing else it’ll send the message that you value local food.
- Get your family on board. Discuss the reasons behind your choices with your kids and other family members. It can be hard to pass up that yummy tropical fruit but if your family knows why they should, they’ll be more likely to get on board.
I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself when I pass up out-of-season food. I know that what I choose instead will taste good and be better for all of us. And when the day comes later in the year when I finally say yes to my daughter’s request for grapes? I can’t wait to see the smile on her face when she tastes how yummy they are and the connection she makes to the grapes we’ll be able to see growing in our community. It’ll be worth it.
What choices do you make at the supermarket? Are you inspired to do anything differently?
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