The greatest testament to the importance of eating locally can be found in a tomato
Bite into a good one, picked straight from the vine, and you may not recognize the tangy sweetness. That's the flavor that comes from fresh-from-the-field produce, and it's part of Don Wambles' argument for eating homegrown foods. "Because of the freshness and the taste, it's so much better than [food] I can find at a grocery store," says Wambles, a longtime farmer, the current director of the Alabama Farmers Market Authority, and president of the nonprofit Farmers Market Coalition.
These days, there's a lot of talk of buying fresh and eating locally, and the swelling local food movement has people from Washington State to Washington, D.C., vowing not to eat food grown more than a couple hundred miles from their homes. Meanwhile, according to a 2006 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey, there are more than 4,000 farmers markets in the United States. "It's estimated that local food will be a $7 billion part of the food market," says Jennifer Wilkins, PhD, RD, director of Cornell University's Farmers Market Nutrition Program. "It's still a very small part of the overall food market, but it's growing." The trend has gained such steam that the New Oxford American Dictionary named "locavore"—a term describing a person who eats locally grown food—its 2007 word of the year.
Taste is the most tangible advantage—just think of those firm and flavorless supermarket tomatoes. But intensified flavor hints at a bigger—and better—aspect of eating food that was grown nearby: increased nutrient levels. "Produce that is allowed to ripen in the field generally has a higher vitamin C content," says Sue Nicholson Butkus, PhD, RD, extension nutrition specialist with Washington State University's nutrition education program. "The reality is that if you get tomatoes right out of the field, the vitamin C content is higher, as well as other nutrients. And I would believe that would hold true for other produce, too."
Picking and shipping methods play a major role in the nutrient content of produce. The fruits you purchase at your local supermarket were likely grown in far-off places, harvested prematurely, gassed to prevent ripening, and then transported thousands of miles. According to a 2000 study published in the journal Postharvest Biology and Technology, extended periods of time in storage, elevated temperatures, and bruising all contributed to lower levels of vitamin C in fruits and vegetables. The study also showed that prematurely picked produce that ripened in transit or on store shelves (think tomatoes, apricots, and peaches) had lower levels of vitamin C than its field-ripened counterparts. So even if a faraway grower handles your Chilean plums without the slightest bump or bruise, your produce is still being picked early and spending a great deal of time getting to you.
Local produce, Wilkins notes, is typically grown for its taste and nutrition instead of ease of transport. It's handled by fewer people and sold within 24 hours of being picked ripe from the vine. For this reason, many locavores choose farmers market fruits and vegetables (which aren't necessarily organic) over organic produce shipped in from out of state—or across the globe. And then there is the matter of selection. "If [supermarkets] have tomatoes, they have tomatoes," says Wambles. "If you go to the farmers market, they may have eight or nine varieties. Your selection usually is much greater." You also may find a bigger assortment of less common produce, like Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, tart cherries, and parsley roots.
Of course, one of the primary reasons Americans have started jumping on the local eating bandwagon has to do less with chemistry and more with psychology. "It's the taste and the freshness that draws them back, and they eat more of it. They subconsciously become healthier eaters," says Wambles. That, and you're not tempted to buy seven frozen dinners just because they're on sale. "If you look at the food that's available at a farmers market, it's like the whole center of a supermarket is gone," says Wilkins.
But shopping at a farmers market isn't just about buying food. It's about making connections with the farmers who grow what you eat. Ask the supermarket checkout clerk for tips on cooking with kale, and the most you may get is an awkward stare. But with local producers, inquire about growing methods, produce varieties, and suggested recipes, and you'll get cooking tips and background on how your food was grown.
In the end, there's a deeper meaning associated with eating locally that supersedes the convenience of quickly crossing off items on your grocery list. And that can go beyond one's personal experience. "When we have to ship food long distances it takes a lot of fossil fuels to get it from point A to point B," says Wambles. "Here in America, our food takes an average of 1,500 miles [to get to the supermarket]." Purchasing from local farmers creates less pollution from transportation and in turn reduces your carbon footprint. You're also supporting growers who observe sustainable farming practices instead of the few industrial farms that churn out meat and produce in high volume. (These megafarms are also the culprits behind unhealthy meat production; there's a greater chance that your local farmer raises antibiotic- and hormone-free, pasture-raised chickens, cows, and pigs.) Many locavores are driven by economics, too. "One hundred percent of what you pay for goes to the farmer," says Wilkins. By supporting nearby farms, you're breathing life into your local economy.
For Wambles, a trip to the farmers market makes for a synergy among all of these virtues. The local eating experience just can't be replicated at the supermarket, he says. Butkus agrees. "It's so important that [you] enjoy eating," she says. "I can't think of any other way to enjoy it than to bite into a fresh apple."
The recipes on these pages make the most of that experience, with a summertime feast that capitalizes on what the farmers market has to offer. The menu is easy, allowing you and your guests plenty of time to linger at the table—and to dwell on the pleasures of eating locally.
If trekking to the farmers market isn't an option, consider joining a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Available in many places throughout the United States, CSAs allow you to support local farmers by purchasing weekly shipments of just-picked fruits and vegetables. While each CSA operates differently, most trade your membership payment for bundles of their farmed goods. Before you commit, weigh the benefits and drawbacks. Some may find that the amount of food provided each week is too much to use. Others love that they don't have to go out of their way to purchase good-for-you foods. "For people with diabetes, it's probably very advantageous," says Washington State University's Butkus. "It's there. If you don't eat it, it spoils." And there's also that spiritual component, she adds: "a higher connection to the seasons." Check out www.localharvest.org to find a CSA in your area.