What is Eat the Seasons
Eating seasonal means eating food that is grown in your area during that time of year. So instead of eating any fruit or vegetable all year round – you seek out foods that are available locally and/or seasonally. We are accustomed to seeing food available throughout the year, so to “Eat the Seasons” may be a new and intimidating concept for you.
Eating seasonally will be different for each person depending on where you live. If you live in a warmer climate, your seasonal eating will not be the same for someone living in a colder climate. Certain fruits and vegetables grow in different regions and at different times. I’m sure you notice the change in the flowers that grow throughout the year. It is the same with vegetables!
How Food Gets to Our Plate
Before our modern food system, we were only able to eat seasonally. There wasn’t mass transportation of produce from all around the world. Now many states across the United States get their produce from warmer areas. Texas, Iowa, California, Illinois, and Nebraska are the states that produce most of our food.
There are some foods that cannot be grown in the US due to our climate such as coffee, chocolate, bananas, etc that are obviously being transported in.
Seasonal vs local
If a fruit or vegetable is grown locally, then it is also seasonal. However just because something is in season does not mean it is local. For example, in my city in Virginia, we have several apple orchards nearby, but there are always apples grown in California and Washington being sold at the grocery as well. So yes the apples are seasonal, but not all of them sold are local.
How to Eat the Seasons
Visit a Farmers Market
The easiest way to know what is in season in your area is if you can find one. Ideally, look for a farmers market that is producer-only. This means that the vendors are only able to bring what they grow and create themselves. Sadly there have been instances of farmers purchasing food from grocery stores to sell as “local food”, but this is not common.
Challenge yourself to new foods while you are there. Often the vendor/farmer will be able to tell you how to prepare it and any cooking tips. Find a Farmers Market at Local Harvest.
Join a CSA
CSAs stand for community-supported agriculture and have become more popular over the years. When you join a CSA you are essentially joining that farm for a year. While all CSAs are run differently, you often pay upfront and get access to their seasonal produce. Depending on where you live, you can find year-round CSAs or winter CSA. For some CSAs you get to choose what you want, some you just get whatever they have available and for some do a combination. You can also find a CSA at Local Harvest.
Utilize Seasonal Food Guides
There are many resources online that can tell you what foods are in season near you. The Seasonal Food Guide is one of these resources and you can filter by state and time of the year. Remember just because you see food that is in season at the store, does not mean that it is local. Reading the labels (or sign) is a good way to figure out where it was grown
Shop at Co-Ops
Another way to eat seasonally is to look for co-ops. Co-ops are much more likely to have local and seasonal produce than your average grocery store. Co-ops are owned by members of the community, they are not owned by big corporations. Members focus on their community and local products instead of big investors.
Benefits to Eating Seasonally
Seasonal eating can be a fun challenge and can also bring unexpected benefits to your daily life. These include financial, environmental, and social.
Environmental Benefits (not all about food miles)
Eating seasonally can be a great way to help improve the environment. You can lower your carbon footprint and help to reduce greenhouse gases. While food miles do have an impact on our environment, it is not the main source of greenhouse gases. Food miles are the number of miles it takes for food to travel from the farm to your plate. Our food travels an average of 1500 miles! This is a very large and often unnecessary number.
What has a bigger impact on our carbon footprint is how the food is grown. Some inputs to consider is does the producer use a lot of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Is it grown in a greenhouse that uses a lot of gas or is it solar-powered which uses regenerative energy? What type of packaging does the food require? How much refrigeration and electricity is used for storage, processing, and transport?
These are all inputs that exceed the level of carbon emissions over transport. The one exception is air travel. Air travel uses LOTS of fuel and has a very large carbon footprint. These foods are high perishable and include asparagus, green beans and berries.
If you can purchase seasonal produce that is local, does not require a lot of packaging, and is not grown in a heated greenhouse, then it most likely does have a lower carbon footprint than produce found at the grocery store. When shopping at the farmer’s market, you can always ask the farmer how the crop is grown in the winter and what type of protection is used. Unheated high tunnels and row covers are different than heated greenhouses. High tunnels and row covers are commonly used during the winter months and you can think of them just like a blanket. They do not use any extra fuel or electricity to work, they simply help increase the temperature a few degrees by acting as an insulator.
Economic and Community Benefits
Spending locally helps keep money in the community! According to Business Insider an average of two-thirds of every dollar ($0.67) spent at small businesses in the U.S. stays in the local community. The Farmers Market Coalition found that for every dollar in direct sales, twice as much economic activity is being generated. The study also showed that for every $1 million in revenue direct market farms created 32 local jobs whereas larger growers who sell wholesale create only 10.5 10.5.
If you are able to shop at a local CSA or farmers market you will actually see who you are supporting financially, which is pretty neat! This will also give you the opportunity to get to know the people that grow your food and maybe even form friendships.
When a fruit or vegetable is harvested, the nutrient quantity does not stay the same as it sits in your refrigerator. Over time nutrients will be lost. This is because vitamins and minerals are heat, light, and temperature sensitive.
A study from Food Science & Nutrition Journal found that in lettuce, levels of potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, phosphorous, and copper were significantly lower at the grocery store where it traveled from many miles.
Another study by the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition found that the levels of Vitamin C was higher in broccoli that was seasonally grown vs shipped.
Seasonal food also tastes better! Have you ever had fresh garden greens or a tomato? Or freshly picked strawberries? Nothing beats that taste!
Tips to Eat the Seasons
Start slowly – are you new to eating the seasons? Just like any new goal or hobby, its easy to get carried away in the beginning and then fall off the wagon. Try adding seasonal foods to your diet instead of taking the foods you are eating away. For example, instead of getting rid of peppers during the winter, try adding rutabagas to your meals!
Ask the farmer/vendor for cooking tips – more often than not, the farmer who grew the food also knows how to prepare it as well! They often get tips from their customers too of different ways to prepare the food
Look up recipes – if you are reading this blog post, I’m sure using the internet to look up recipes is obvious. Don’t feel like ALL the ingredients need to be seasonal and local. If you picked up a winter squash, then just focus on that ingredient.
Look for cooking classes – even if they are not “seasonal cooking classes” (which would be pretty cool) cooking classes can help you to gain confidence in your cooking skills and cooking with unfamiliar ingredients.
Find seasonal farm-to-table restaurants – farm-to-table restaurants can definitely inspire you to try new ingredients. While you may not be able to replicate the exact dish you ate, you can get ideas of what you can do with new ingredients and how they may taste.
Preserve when seasonal food is abundant – This is an extra step, but why not preserve food during the summer months when there is a lot to choose from? There are a few ways you can preserve food such as freezing (easiest), canning, dehydrating, and fermenting. This post on Homesteading for Beginners provides more detail on how to utilize each method of preserving. Some ideas for summer preservation include
- Freeze, can, or dehydrate tomatoes. Freezing is super easy and makes a great tomato sauce. Simply freeze the entire tomato
- Freeze whole or make jam with berries
- Freeze and blanch broccoli, kale, green beans, summer squash etc
- Make big batches of seasonal vegetable soup and freeze
Foods to eat in winter
While this varies by region, eating seasonally in the winter is the most challenging for many people. Even if you live in a region that has mild winters like Virginia or North Carolina, produce is still limited. Below is a list of some common foods you may find in the winter depending on where you live and if the farmer has some type of crop protection like a high tunnel or a greenhouse. Note: many of these foods are considered storage crops. Storage crops are crops that are predominately harvested earlier on (like November or early December) but are able to be stored and consumed later.
- Many root vegetables
- Winter squash
- Hydroponic lettuces and herbs
* these foods are often grown indoors where the climate is constantly controlled so year-round growing is possible in all regions
Food to eat in late summer
This again is based on where you live. In some regions that get super hot like Arizona, summer produce is more limited than during their winter months.
- Summer squash
- Leafy Greens* if summer does not get too hot
- Green onions
- Hydroponic lettuce and herbs*
Barriers to eating seasonally
Eating the seasons is a great goal that can help you to connect to nature ad our natural living cycles. It is however going to be more difficult for some. One of the main challenges will be for those who live in an area that has intense winters like Vermont and Montana.
Those who live in a food desert will also have a hard time eating seasonally. A food desert is an area where people have very limited access to healthy, affordable food. People who experience this may live in a very rural area and depend on convenience stores or corner store for their groceries.
Eating the seasons can be a super fun way to experience nature’s way of eating. It is a great opportunity to try new foods while supporting local producers and farms. While not without challenges it can be accomplished with a little planning and making small gradual changes. There are many benefits that go along with eating seasonally as well that can make you feel good about what you are putting your plate and body.