Consuming locally grown and locally made foods seems to be quite a trend these days on the food scene. However, depending on the amenities available to you in your community and your level of commitment to support them, achieving that deep-local sensibility is not always so easy to come by. Winter in a chilly climate definitely adds to the challenge of remaining steadfast to the local creed.
I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a very fortunate Midwestern city rife with locovorism, yet the winters here are long and cold. Michigan boasts the second largest produce variety in the US. That being said, we are a state with a short growing season due to harsh winters and short spring and fall seasons. Despite the current freezing temps, our farmers’ market sets up shop year round. Right now there is definitely a leaner showing than the bustling summer and early fall crowds, but still, last week vendors sold apples, cider, fresh eggs, artisanal bread, meat, yogurt, cheese, greens, potatoes, onions, locally roasted coffee, specialty chocolates, popcorn, jam, pasta, squash, and mushrooms! Plenty of variety with which to compose a week’s worth of meals. Local greens are a special luxury in the dead of winter. Even though daylight is scarce and the ground is snow-covered, affordable greenhouse structures, termed hoophouses, mercifully help to extend their growing season.
In my community, CSA (community supported agriculture) opportunities abound! In fact, they sell out early and waiting lists seem to be the norm more than the exception. This fall was my first stint with a CSA. It was a one-time Thanksgiving harvest share from Tantré Farms—nearly 50 lbs of vegetables(!) split among three friends. The share included a head of romanesco, brussle sprouts, carrots, parsnips, a bunch of radishes with gorgeous stems intact, turnips, kohlrabi, carrots, cabbage, kale, a mix of bitter fall salad greens, spinach, parsley, at least three varieties of potatoes, butternut, delicata, acorn and carnival squashes, pie pumpkins, rutabaga, red and yellow onions, and garlic. Whew! A wide variety of these veggies were represented in the Vegetable en Croute I made for the December Daring Cooks Challenge. Then more appeared in a Thai-inspired delicata squash stir-fry served as a side dish for the January Daring Cooks Challenge. Several vegetable roasts (my new favorite way to eat radishes) and soups were made too. Still, two months later I’m using the cellar hardy onions, potatoes, and garlic purchased in the share! Hooked by a steady stream of available fresh produce as we head into the leaner months, I have excitedly purchased a full-season CSA set to start this coming summer.
Some of the CSAs in my community extend beyond the typical summer through autumn growing season, offering hoophouse-grown greens in the winter months and delivering frozen produce that was purchased from area farms and preserved at peak harvest. Imagine at this time of year, eating crisp salad greens and sweet strawberries grown within a short distance from your home! Savvy and conscientious businesses such as these definitely help to make the eat-local commitment a little more effortless year round.
To help survive the barren winter months, I have prepared my pantry well in advance. A good many of my summer weekends were spent making jams, fruit butters, sauces and chutneys. Fortunately, here in Michigan there are a number of local farms and orchards that grow a wide variety of berries and other fruits. As each new fruit came into season, it became my mission to preserve a portion for the winter to come. Popping open a fresh jar of jam on a dull, gray winter’s morning to spread on toast or spoon into oatmeal has been one powerful mood enhancer! It’s also been fun to be inventive, creating my own special condiments and sauces using the jams as a base ingredient. “Putting up” food for future use certainly is having a revival in popularity in recent years with plenty of cookbooks and websites newly available to guide and inspire you.
What does local mean? Traditionally, local food challenges imply a 100 mile radius, but this can be expanded to suit your needs. There are no hard and fast rules. While stricter locovores might disagree, exceptions for me include oils, chocolate, spices, citrus, certain nuts, and a handful of gourmet products I deem splurge-worthy. It is indeed a lifestyle commitment to stay the course. For example, rising early on farmers’ market mornings to fetch the best produce, instead of relying on late-night, last-minute excursions to the grocery store. But the payoff of my choices seems incomparable.
Eating local …
- Means ultra-fresh food, with top flavor and nutrient benefits. Locally grown fruits and vegetables have longer to ripen in situ and are usually harvested within 24 hours of being purchased. Produce picked and eaten soon after harvest at the height of freshness undeniably tastes better. Nutritional value declines as time passes after harvest. Because locally-grown produce is freshest, it is more nutritionally complete. In addition to local produce, local sources for dairy, grains, and farm fresh eggs have done wonders for the quality of my baking. The freshness really makes a world of difference in flavor, texture and shelf stability.
- Gives a sense of what’s seasonal, which promotes variety. A season’s-long deprivation from a favorite fruit or vegetable leads to a greater appreciation when it is available and at its peak. Also seasonal eating nudges you to be creative with what is available. You become exposed to wonderful, unusual varieties you might never find on supermarket shelves and discover new ways to cook them. Preserving heirloom varieties is becoming more and more important in light of the over-production of “name brand” produce.
- Creates community. Knowing where your food comes from connects you to the people who raise and grow it. Building relationships with the vendors at the farmers’ market, the local cheese shop, and your favorite butcher or bread maker allows you inquire first hand as to the particular provenance of your food. What pesticides were used? Was it genetically modified or were growth hormones used? Was that chicken truly free range? When shopping at the farmers’ market I have so many more fulfilling interactions and conversations than I would in a one-stop grocery store.
- Makes economic sense. By eating with the seasons, foods are consumed at their peak flavor. This is the time when they are most abundant, and also when they are the least expensive. Buying directly from the grower/producer cuts out the middle man, this also serves to reduce costs.
- Reduces carbon foot prints. Buying locally grown or produced foods decreases expenditure of nonrenewable energy at the distribution level. Food does not have to trek across thousands of miles to fill your pantry.
- Supports the local economy. Money is kept within the community when locally grown food is purchased. This contributes to the viability of all sectors of the local economy, which increases the local quality of life. Money spent with local farmers and artisans and locally-owned shops and restaurants all stays close to home, working to build a local economy instead of being invested in a corporation in another city, state, or country.
- Secures our food future. Dependency on far away food sources leaves a region vulnerable to supply disruptions, and diminishes the accountability of a producer to consumer. It also tends to promote larger, less diversified farms that could damage both the environment and local economies. Local food production systems keep the food supply in the hands of many individuals, enabling people to influence how their food is grown.
- Promotes food safety. When you know where your food comes from and how it was grown, you are much more empowered to know exactly what you are consuming. The fewer steps there are between your food’s source and your table the less chance there is of contamination.
- Generates stewardship. When you buy locally produced food you cannot help but raise the consciousness of your friends and family about how food buying decisions can make a difference in your life and the life of your community.
It’s never too late!
Here are some resources to help you get started…