This is the first in our series of Real Food Sourcing Guides. I get a lot of questions from readers about where to buy food. My answers and tips are simple but it requires a shift in how we look at food purchases. Americans primarily purchase their food based on price not quality. Our food system depends on not knowing where our food comes from. The problem is that you truly ‘get what you pay for’. I would add that you get out of food shopping what you put into it. I love this quote from farmer and food activist Joel Salatin:
“Don’t you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?”
Part of the experience of being a real foodie is to get more connected with where your food comes from and it certainly doesn’t come from a supermarket aisle or a truck. This is a guide for opting out of the supermarket and getting you back to the source.
Thankfully here in Central Texas we have a lot of options to buy local and organic produce year round. Buying produce close to home supports your community. The advantage of buying local and right from the source is that you needn’t be confused about labels – if you have a question about how the food is grown or produced, you just have to ask.
My 5 tips for sourcing local produce:
- Find your local farmers market. There are over 7800 Farmers Markets in the USDA directory – roughly doubling since 2004. My whole family finds it way more enjoyable to shop for my food outside in the open air. You cannot get more direct to the source than this so ask questions of the farmers you meet about how they grow their produce. If you aren’t satisfied then shop around.
- Find a local CSA program. It is very nice to not have to worry about what produce to buy at the market – the decision is made for me! All I have to do is figure out what to do with it all.
- Look for and visit local farms in your area if you don’t have a farmer’s market.
- Start a garden in your own backyard. There are plenty of non-profits organizations helping locals to create their own backyard vegetable gardens. This is how I originally got my backyard garden – from Resolution Gardens in Austin.
- When all else fails, find a local food coop – they usually carry more local produce as well. Even Whole Foods is starting to carry more local produce in certain regions.
Why is buying local produce beneficial?
Local produce has better flavor
Local producers focus on growing heirloom varieties for their flavor and diversity whereas supermarket mass producers focus on traits that enable the produce to withstand traveling long distances and to look uniform in color (or in the case of GMOs, resist pests). Have you ever noticed how tomatoes don’t really taste as great as you remembered from your childhood? It is not in your imagination. A recent study explains how this happened (use quotes). No wonder it is so hard to eat our fruits and vegetables these days – they just don’t taste good!
Local produce is fresher
Local produce is often picked the same day you buy it – you can’t get much fresher than that. A report by the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment, “In direct and local markets, produce is usually sold within 24 hours after harvest at its peak freshness and ripeness, making consuming them a more attractive prospect. During this short time and distance, produce is likely handled by fewer people, decreasing potential for damage. Minimizing transportation and processing can ensure maximum freshness and flavor, and nutrient retention.”
Local produce is diverse
Stop now and think about what produce you buy most often at your supermarket….lettuce, tomatoes, onions, carrots, cucumber, bananas, apples? Maybe you have purchased a bunch of kale or two recently because kale chips are becoming quite popular. Try and think about the last time you bought an eggplant, Armenian cucumber, a rutabaga or kohlrabi. Maybe you purchased something like that for a special recipe but those items probably don’t make it to your regular grocery shopping list. I remember before I signed up for our weekly CSA box of produce, I bought the same things week after week at the supermarket (the things I listed above) and they always tasted and looked pretty much the same. I guess there was some degree of comfort to that routine. Now think about this: According to National Geographic Infographic, in 80 years, we have lost 93% of variety in our food seeds. And according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, only 12 plant species provide 75% of our total food supply, and only 15 mammal and bird species make up over 90% of livestock production. So the vegetables we buy at the supermarket are pretty much all the same! This data is shocking and I for one I am saddened by all of those varieties we will never get to taste or eat again!
I didn’t even know what most of the items in my CSA box were and I was ecstatic when the local farm I am a CSA member of started to post a picture of their box contents each week with the name of each item! I have fallen madly in love with variety and I enjoy experimenting with new items and recipes and flavor combinations. A bonus is that my daughter knows and can identify more vegetables than I ever could at her age (or even 5 years ago). I think that will go a long way to ensuring she grows up to appreciate local food and food diversity. The flavors are bolder and sweeter than anything I bought before in the supermarket. If you or your kids don’t like vegetables, I can understand why! I don’t like vegetables from the supermarket either! It doesn’t really matter where you go in the country – you are buying the same produce – and the same goes for what you eat at restaurants. The only way to branch out and avoid this is to buy local produce from a local farmer who cares about seed diversity and flavor. Once you do it you will never go back.
Local produce is seasonal
Going to a farmers market to buy produce or getting that produce weekly through a CSA is an entirely different experience than shopping for produce at your supermarket. Your local farmers follow a seasonal schedule based on what can grow in your area. You cannot buy tomatoes all of the time. I think there is something very exciting about seeing peaches at the farmers market for the first time each year when they come into season. We stuff ourselves with peaches for a few months and then they are done and we genuinely miss them when they are gone. Supermarket peaches from some far away country cannot hold a candle to local Texas peaches when they are in season. My daughter loves kale and last spring we were eating kale chips multiple times a week. But once the summer temperatures got too hot to grow kale, the kale disappeared from our CSA box. My three year old questioned why. I could have just purchased some at the grocery store to fill the gap. Instead, I showed her that no one had kale in their stands for sale because it was too hot for kale to grow. I told her we would have to wait a month or so for it to grow again. A few weeks ago we started to get kale again and my daughter was thrilled. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder.
The added bonus is when produce is in season there is usually a glut of it meaning lower prices. When strawberries are abundant here I buy them by the flat and freeze them for later use. Amazing the deals you can get on produce in season!
Seasonal Fall recipes to flex your new local produce muscle
- Kohlrabi Au Gratin is a delicious recipe which treats this interesting looking ingredient like a potato
- Kale chips regularly show up on our dinner plate and we always eat them with this amazing Creme Fraiche dipping sauce
- I recently discovered persimmons which are in season in Central Texas right now and this Persimmon Ice Cream is my favorite way to eat them.
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