Eat fresh and local foods year-round? It is possible.

November 23, 2016 Providence Health Team

If you know where every item on your holiday plate comes from, you’re the exception. Most of us fill our grocery baskets with produce and food items from far-flung places. Modern transportation makes it easy for grocers to carry food around the world, year-round. While that makes it possible to have ripe strawberries in Montana in the dead of winter, the luxury doesn’t come without a price. What we gain in convenience and choice, we lose in quality, taste and nutrition.

Why is local healthier?

“Fresh” is a good way to sum up the health benefit of locally grown food. Fresh produce is more nutritious because it’s harvested and delivered within the optimal time frame for maintaining quality.

When you buy locally grown produce, you get it at its peak of ripeness. Local fruits and vegetables are allowed to ripen longer or even fully ripen before they’re harvested, and that helps maintain their nutritional value.

Once produce is plucked from the ground, branch or vine, time is its worst enemy. Vitamins C, E and A along with some B vitamins begin to deteriorate immediately after picking. And, exposure to air, artificial lights and temperature changes can quickly decrease nutritional value.

While you still benefit from a piece of fruit picked two weeks before it ended up in your grocery cart, it won’t be as rich in nutrients as when it was first picked.

Farm-to-table gains momentum

When the farm-to-table movement launched in 2000, restaurateurs hoped to reconnect diners to local, organic and seasonal foods and the people who grew them. Instead of buying produce from unknown origins, a handful of ambitious restaurants developed relationships with local farms and bought directly. “Local” was considered to be within 250 miles. Within that distance, farmers could deliver their produce into the waiting hands of cooks just hours after it was harvested.

The movement was so successful that within a few years it had spread like wild seed. Now, farm-to-table is a familiar term, and the movement has morphed into programs and initiatives that have changed the way many people think about their food.

School districts, as well as a growing number of retirement homes and other institutions have developed farm-to-table programs. Some grocers list the origins of their produce. Farmers markets can be found in every corner of the U.S., and Community supported or community shared agriculture programs are increasingly popular with busy families. Those who participate in CSA programs subscribe at the start of a growing season for a share of the expected harvest. Throughout the coming months, they receive allotted portions or shares of fresh produce.

CSA programs offer local produce

Beth Schenk, RN, helps coordinate the CSA program for employees at Providence St. Patrick Hospital and Health Sciences Center in Missoula, Mont. She also helped develop the Providence Garden, which shares its bounty with the Missoula Food Bank.

Schenk advocates eating local, organic food whenever possible – even during the long winter months. How is it possible to do that? Planning, she says. Through the CSA program she helped start, Schenk buys fresh produce all summer and into fall. She dries and preserves what she can (think frozen cubes of fresh basil pesto), and she purchases more shares of storage crops, such as onions, beets and cabbage, during the fall. If stored properly in a cool dry place, these crops will last through the winter.

Because the CSA program at St. Patrick also offers local, organic cheeses, eggs and meat, as well as bread, Schenk says there are times during the summer she only has to go to the market for milk. She likes the wide range of produce she gets, even when it’s not familiar. Trying different types of foods brings greater awareness of what’s available locally, and it initiates a taste for fresh food.

“Sometimes it’s hard to buy only local food,” she says. “You have to make exceptions, such as buying lettuce at the store during the winter.”

Though Schenk urges people to support local food growers through CSAs or similar programs, she also suggests talking to your grocer about carrying local, organic foods when possible.

Garden on the patio

Keeping a year-round garden is another option for getting fresh produce. It doesn’t require a lot of space, just a plan. Even containers, strategically placed on a balcony or porch, can produce summer tomatoes and winter greens, and herbs thrive on a sunny windowsill.

Growing vegetables in container gardens in the fall and winter can keep your kitchen stocked with fresh organic produce through the months when your local farmers markets are on hiatus and grocery stores are stocking expensive imported veggies.

Choosing the right vegetables to grow in your container garden makes all the difference.

Here’s a short list of produce that can grow in containers through the winter:

  • Swiss chard
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Lettuce
  • Cabbage
  • Brussels sprouts

Interested in learning more about local, fresh food?

If you want to learn more about eating healthfully, talk to your health care provider. You can find a Providence provider in your area by clicking here.

Click here to find a CSA program in your area.

The USDA has a directory of farmers markets throughout America. Visit their website to find one in your area.

Want to learn more about organic food and how it earns the USDA organic label? Click here.

If your interest in container gardening has been piqued, ask your local nursery for information. Your local community college may also offer a class or workshop on container or small-space gardening. 

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