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by Jay Weinstein
Excerpted from The Ethical Gourmet by Jay Weinstein. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“Seasonality” has become a catchword for modern chefs seeking to prove the authenticity of their regional foods. But many consumers ask, “Why not use Costa Rican asparagus in midwinter if it looks good?”
We may ultimately choose to enjoy these fruits of the overnight shipping age, but first we’ll consider the petroleum consumed to ship our goods around the globe, the copious packaging required to ensure their unblemished arrival, and the other hidden costs of instant gratification. Luscious, plentiful local fish like porgies, bluefish, and blackfish often languish in coastal fish markets while threatened foreign species like Patagonian toothfish (a.k.a. Chilean sea bass) and North Atlantic cod get all the attention.
It’s absurd that California oranges are sold in Florida supermarkets, but they are. The Sunshine State that’s synonymous with citrus fruit processes 96 percent of its oranges into juice, which is routinely sold in California. It’s as if you made a pie at home, packed it in bubble wrap, shipped it cross-country, and then bought someone else’s pie, baked thousands of miles away, for your own dessert that same day.
In the peak of the August peach season in the Northeast, produce departments are brimming with air-freight peaches. In urban greenmarkets, like New York’s Union Square market, local cherries thrill the few food enthusiasts in the know, while Washington State cherries take the lion’s share of the mainstream market. In June, New England strawberries are rarely found in mainstream Boston supermarkets, relegated instead to occasional county festivals and farm stands.
Four percent of our national energy budget is used to grow food, while 10 to 13 percent is required to put it on our tables. This illustrates the true cost of our food. While massive production systems may ensure a lower-cost product for the consumer, air, land, and water are despoiled along the way through trucking, packaging, and distribution. The cheap oil we’ve come to rely on for our way of life has blinded us to the absurdity of what our food distribution has become.
On July 21, 2004, the New York Times reported that the last wholesale produce dealers, who dealt primarily in local and regional goods at the nearly abandoned Bronx Terminal market, were about to be evicted to make way for a retail center and park. They were unable to compete with the colossal Hunt’s Point market, the distribution center that sells produce from around the world to nearly all of New York’s food outlets. Local producers couldn’t deal in the huge volume that Hunt’s Point market demands. Ironically, the soon-to-be-homeless vendors were too big to sell to city greenmarkets, which conduct only retail trade.
Every New York State apple that you buy in New York and every Illinois squash you buy in Chicago can make a difference. It’s one less fruit or vegetable that diesels its way across America to the supermarket. New York City is funding research into centralizing distribution of locally produced food. It’s a step in the right direction. But individual action on the part of consumers will be the key to reinvigorating local produce industries. When greenmarkets become so well-attended that they can’t keep up with demand, local-produce wholesalers like those from Bronx Terminal will find markets for their goods. When supermarket chains lose business because they don’t carry enough local goods, they’ll start to carry more of them.
That scenario has already happened with organic foods, and is a selling point for increasingly popular socially responsible supermarket companies, like the sixty-four-store, family-owned Wegman’s chain. The company gives their produce managers bonuses for meeting quotas of locally grown food. The stores have responded by setting up separate sections just for local produce, complete with pictures of the farmers who grew it. The rapidly growing Whole Foods market chain also sources a notable portion of its produce from local farms. Putting a farmer’s face to the food adds to consumer appreciation of the food. Once they’ve tasted fruit that ripened on the tree, instead of fruit that was shipped hard and ripened in a gas-filled truck, most consumers see the benefits that go beyond reducing dependence on oil and supporting local farm economies.
Seek out the sources of local produce, and get to know them. It may not be feasible to buy all your produce from farm stands and greenmarkets, but buy all you can. No one doubts the convenience of supermarket shopping, but until local produce is available with that convenience, make a personal choice to do the right thing whenever possible. Assess your options for buying foods grown in a two-hundred-mile radius of your kitchen. Make the first step right at your local supermarket, by choosing wisely there. State-of-origin and country-of-origin labeling is increasingly clear. It will be the law soon, if obstructionists in Congress don’t derail pending legislation. Read those labels, and use the information to select Florida oranges in Florida, and California orange juice in California.
Markets often carry both homegrown and imported versions of the same produce. With the increased branding of fruits and vegetables, you often need only look at the package to see how near to home a product is grown. While I lament the disposable culture that has brought us cellophane wrap on cauliflower and polyethylene sacks of potatoes, I always read the tag to see where the farm is, and choose the one nearest my home.
To find local growers’ markets where you live, check out databases on these Web sites: www.localharvest.org, www.foodroutes.org, and www.sustainabletable.org. From farmers’ markets in Casper, Wyoming, to natural food co-ops in Atlanta, Georgia, these sites have clickable maps with locations, contact information, directions, and descriptions of sources in every state. Links to each individual market tell you not only where to go, but what to expect when you get there, with seasonality charts listing crops that are available in particular months. Just browsing these sites may inspire a market adventure, opening new culinary possibilities. Included in the listings for the Austin, Texas, Farmers’ Market are local farmers’ fruits and vegetables, herbs, eggs, cheeses, “kindly raised poultry, lamb, beef and buffalo,” and local honey. City chefs are at the market, giving cooking demos. There are gardening workshops, children’s activities, and live music from Austin’s best local bands.