Do you ever wonder where that carrot sitting on your plate came from? Or how long ago it was pulled from the ground? Like many things in the last century, the food we eat has moved from mostly local and relatively small scale production to ever larger scale operations which ship their products long distances, including across national borders and overseas.
Arguments have been made that eating locally produced foods helps us to reduce our use of fossil fuels and support a local economy. Both of these are true but how does eating locally produced foods impact their nutritional value or ability to promote and sustain health? There are many facets to the answer, but I think there is very good evidence that there are substantial health benefits to eating as much of our food as possible fresh and from local, organic sources.
Unfortunately the word “local” is a moving target, as are the words “fresh” and “organic”. I’ve heard definitions of “local” that range from “within 100 miles of the point where the food is consumed” to “the distance that a truck can travel in 24 hours” (well over 1,000 miles). While distance is important when you’re considering fuel use and your local economy, time and temperature are more important when you’re considering health.
Most produce sitting on display in supermarkets was harvested at least 3 days prior to arriving in the store, but times to market are often much longer and may include time in cold storage of up to several months. Fruits and vegetables begin to lose nutrients almost immediately on picking. In many fruits and vegetables, for instance, vitamin C levels can drop to near zero levels within 3 to 5 days. Spinach and other leafy greens can lose as much as half of their folic acid and beta carotene in as little as 8 days, even when refrigerated, although refrigeration does slow the process. So no matter how fresh a fruit or vegetable looks sitting in the produce section, it may have already lost a significant portion of it’s nutrient value before you even buy it. In general vitamins and antioxidants are much more vulnerable to nutrient loss than minerals, protein and fiber.
So, with regard to health, the question is less about how far your food has travelled and more about how long ago it was picked and how it has been handled since then. Short of growing your own food, I believe that local, small, organic farms are our best source of healthful produce. I also think the best place to find and talk to farmers is at local farmers markets or through Community Supported Agriculture programs (see Resources below for more information). Personally, I like to talk to the people who grew the food I eat.
Most of the farmers that I have spoken with at farmers markets pick their produce the day before delivering it to market, and many of them refrigerate it between picking and delivery. The same is usually true for Community Supported Agriculture programs. That means you are often buying your produce less than 24 hours after it was picked. Even Whole Foods Market, who generally does a very good job with produce, can’t match that.
Organic agriculture has become big business (Walmart is now one of the largest retailers of certified organic foods, although most of their organic foods are packaged, bottled, or canned). Large food producers are often more profit driven and thus looking to meet the minimum requirements for organic certification. In effect, they are following the “letter” of the law and not necessarily the “spirit” of the law. Furthermore, I am seeing more and more “fresh” produce at larger food retailers that are pre-packaged in sealed plastic bags and boxes which leach chemicals into the foods (sorry Trader Joe’s fans). That kind of defeats the reason that organic farming became popular in the first place!
I encourage you to go to a local farmers market and talk to some of the organic farmers there. You will see the enthusiasm and passion in their eyes and hear it in the tone of their voice. This is important because while organic standards were designed to minimize the presence of potentially harmful toxins in our foods (a worthwhile goal in and of itself) the health potential for organic food production goes far beyond that.
The “spirit” of organic farming starts with building good soil. This means putting the full spectrum of nutrients that plants need into the soil. Most of the local organic farmers I have spoken with are working hard to accomplish that. When plants have the nutrients they need they can make the nutrients that we need and not otherwise. This, of course, leads to foods with greater health promoting potential for animals and humans.
Local Farmers Markets
For more information on locations and dates visit Placer Grown. The Auburn Farmers Market is held on Saturday mornings in the courthouse jury parking lot across the creek and behind our office.
Community Supported Agriculture
CSA programs allow individuals or families to buy a “share” of a farm’s produce for a season. Most farms give a variety of options and deliveries are made to various locations on a weekly basis. Surprisingly, I was not able to find a good directory of local CSA’s, however, here is a link to one local organic farms who has a CSA program:
If you know of any others nearby, please let us know in the comments below!