Monday, August 17, 2009

Why Local?

My proudest moment as a chef/mom/food educator was relayed to me second hand. While perusing the produce aisles of the supermarket in late February, my mother asked my 4-year old son if he wanted strawberries. Declining, he said to my mother quizzically and yet emphatically, “Grandma, we can’t buy strawberries now, they’re not in season.”

When too many kids are eating far less than the recommended daily allotment of fruits or vegetables, why worry about whether the fruits and vegetables that they do eat are in season or worse locally grown? If you’re living or working in one the country’s food deserts, where the closest thing that you’ve got to a grocery store is a bodega that stocks more varieties of Cheetos than fruits, this is not likely to be your main concern.

How about the rest of us? Is it really that much of a struggle to pass by the California-grown strawberries in June or the Mexican-raised tomatoes in August? Locally grown, seasonal produce is all around us. Even Wal-Mart has even begun to source locally or at least regionally. But before I get into the where, I want to talk about the why. Here are my top three reasons for introducing locally-grown, seasonal foods into your child’s diet.

It tastes better. I started eating locally not for ideological reasons, but because it tastes better. If you’ve ever eaten a pea off of the vine or sweet baby greens picked in the morning and served on the table in the evening, you know what I mean. And strawberries, sweet Illinois strawberries. The white-hearted California berries bred for shipping have nothing on our tiny, ruby-like orbs that soar with flavor. If you want your child to have a lasting love for fruits and vegetables, give him ones that are full of flavor. Seriously, who could love starchy peas or wilted salad greens?

It’s better for the environment. A small caveat on this statement, even taking into account food miles (i.e. the distance your food travels from farm to fork), just because food is grown within a certain distance from your home does not intrinsically make it better for the environment. However, many local farmers who sell to consumers at farmers' markets are small family farmers that tend their soil in a responsible manner often using organic methods even when they are not USDA certified as such (the little “o” versus the big “O”). How do you know the difference? The best way is to talk with the farmer and ask about their pest management systems and how they fertilize their soil. If, however, you don’t have the time or the inclination to do so, at the end of this post, I list markets and retailers that focus on locally grown, seasonal and sustainable produce that do the vetting for you.

It can forge a lasting connection between your child and the earth. I believe that connecting your child with the people who grow the food and the growing cycle creates a deeper respect for the food that they eat and for the earth. It was recently reported that America throws out 30% of the food raised in this country, a despicable fact given the rise in malnutrition and hunger on the planet. I have found that children who understand where their food comes from are less likely to waste it. My son knows that his apples come from Farmer Pete and his carrots from Miss Beth. He says “cheese please” to the cheese guys and knows that the good milk comes from the market in glass bottles. And the growing cycle, well, suffice to say, he’s pretty excited when June’s strawberries arrive.

Locally-grown, seasonal and sustainable produce is available from May through October at the City of Chicago’s farmers markets and year round at Green City Market (check the website for days and times), Green Grocer Chicago and Irv & Shelly’s Fresh Picks. Many of the Whole Foods in Chicago carry locally-produced items as well.

A final note, I’m actually not throwing my mother under the bus. My son and she were in Florida at the time of their conversation in the produce section where the strawberries in question were in fact in season.

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