Have you ever tasted a just-picked carrot? Bright orange, yellow, or even purple, a carrot still warm from the soil tastes delectably crispy, bursting with an intensely sweet, but slightly nutty juicy goodness, with texture and flavor only faintly resembling the pale and somewhat woody shadow of the root sitting shrouded in the plastic bag in your grocery’s produce bin.
Have you had the pleasure of eating an egg only a day or two removed from the nest, one laid from a chicken that roams outside under the sun and feeds on grasses, seeds and insects? The bright orange, thick and richly-flavored yolk far outshines the pale yellow, thin yolk of the one from a factory farm trucked to your grocery store from 1,000 miles away.
The flavor and beauty of the carrot just plucked from the ground or the egg straight from the nest lies at the heart of the local and sustainable food movement. Fresh food, lovingly grown or raised and harvested, just tastes better. Not to mention, it’s better for your body, better for the environment and better for the local economy.
Let’s explore this issue a little more.
I hear a lot of talk about buying “local and sustainable” food. What exactly does “sustainable agriculture” mean?
The word “sustainable” literally means “to be able to maintain.” Sustainable agriculture, at its heart, means just that – to be a good steward of the land, giving back to the earth more than what is taken so a healthy farm can sustain, survive and thrive in harmony with nature.
Sustainable farming is a philosophy – a way of life – built around a strong belief in farming methods healthy for and friendly to the environment, animals, farm workers and the farming community. Sustainable farmers practice water and soil conservation and preservation and minimize transportation and fossil fuel use, keeping operations as local as possible.
Many farms do not use chemical pesticides, rotating a variety of crops through their fields to enrich the soil and help prevent disease. Animals on sustainable farms are treated humanely and with respect, and are fed a natural diet suited for their specific digestive systems.
In short, a modern sustainable farm closely resembles the quintessential American farm of 80 years ago – one in which farmers raised crops and livestock to provide nourishment for the community in which they lived.
Are local and sustainable foods really better for me?
Local and sustainable foods may, indeed, be more nutritious and better for your health.
First, imagine you come home from your local farmer’s market with a basketful of fresh produce. Those purple potatoes, crimson Chiogga beets, yellow and green delicata squash and bright red Braeburn apples (varieties you might not even be able to find in your local supermarket!) were probably picked the day before or even the same morning, unlike produce trucked across the country or transported thousands of miles from Mexico, Argentina or Australia. Those deep, bright colors are important for your health.
You hear nutritionists talk about eating the rainbow. That’s because the pigments that give fruits and vegetables their vibrant colors contain many of the carotenoids, anthocyanins and other flavonoids, betalains and chlorophylls that function to protect our bodies against certain forms of cancer and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Fresh produce loses nutrients over time; buying local provides you with delicious food at the peak of its flavor with all of the precious nutrients maintained.
For animals, sustainably-raised cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and other animals live naturally without the use of synthetic hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The humane, low-stress environment creates higher levels of glycogen (a sugar) in their tissues, making their meat tender, more flavorful, and less likely to carry bacteria.
Animals that graze on grass and natural feed also have higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids, known to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, and conjugated linoleic acids (CLA), which may help prevent some forms of cancer. Both milk and meat from pasture-fed cows have more CLAs than from grain-fed cows. And grass-fed chickens have less total fat, less saturated fat and fewer calories than chickens from factory farms; and eggs from pasture-raised chickens have less fat, more vitamin A and more omega-3 fatty acids.
What is the difference between sustainable and organic?
Organic foods are free of pesticides, antibiotics and artificial hormones, and must be approved through the USDA organic certification process. For many small, sustainably run farms, the organic certification process can be costly and time consuming. Many sustainable farmers do use organic growing practices – but the only way to know is to buy from your local farmer and ask him or her directly about their farming philosophy.
The other important distinction between organic and local, sustainable farming is time and distance – organic food can be produced anywhere in the world, travelling thousands of miles before reaching your kitchen.
I’ve never been to a farmers’ market. How do I find one in my community?
Sustainable Table is a rich and informative online source for finding local and sustainable food resources in your community. This site will help you locate farmers’ markets, farm stands, food co-ops, independent grocers, and natural food stores that support local, sustainable agriculture.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) provides another wonderful way for you to buy directly from farmers. A CSA allows you to “buy” a share in a farm for a season; in return, you will regularly receive a box of produce, and sometimes eggs and meat, from the farm. Deliveries or pick-ups are usually made once a week on a predetermined day. Many CSAs will also allow you to come and work on the farm to reduce the cost of your share of the CSA and so you can experience the pleasure of playing with the soil and growing and harvesting your own food. You can find a CSA in your area through Local Harvest.
I shop in the chain grocery store. Are local, sustainable foods available there?
Many chain grocery stores are starting to support local growers, producers and suppliers. If you shop in a large, chain supermarket ask your store manager if any of the produce or meat are from local and sustainable farms, or are organic. If the answer is no, ask him or her to look into ordering from local growers.
How can I eat sustainably while traveling?
Visiting farmers’ markets while away from home is a lovely way to discover the treasures in a community. I always talk with the local growers and artisans, who will often offer wonderful suggestions for things to do and see during my visit, most of which never make it into guidebooks. In addition, it’s fun to discover new types of produce not grown near home and to find delicious, fresh prepared food for an on-the-go breakfast or lunch.
The same is true for restaurants; eating at a local restaurant is one of the best ways to discover the personality and diversity of a community. Seek out and discover the restaurants or cafés supporting local, sustainable farmers. Not only are the menus of these restaurants usually super-fresh and creative, I often find that the owner is the one greeting me at the door or flipping pancakes (perhaps made from just-ground buckwheat flour!) in the kitchen. The Eat Well Guide is a good place to start your search, listing restaurants supporting sustainable practices from coast to coast.