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8 June 2009

Finding local food can be cruciferous, get help with the NRDC local food finder

We all need to start eating closer to home, and with all due respect, I don’t mean down at the corner KFC.

I’m talking about finding fresh, locally grown produce for home cooking. Do we even need to list the reasons? Buying local food cuts down on polluting “food miles”, bypasses refrigeration trucks, supports local farmers and puts nutrient-rich foods on our plates.

But unless you grow a lot of your own food, how can you distinguish what came from your friendly local farmer in Illinois (or Texas or California) from what came from a rain forest-encroaching big-Ag operation 2,000 miles away?

Increasingly, grocery stores are helping us get smarter about food. They are labeling produce as local, organic and “conventionally grown”. Recently, I found myself bathed in info at a large Whole Foods Market. There I gaped before a mouth-watering, six-foot-high tower of neatly sorted cruciferous and root vegetables, squash and herbs stacked and organized according to the Dewey Decimal system. There were many signs. Some of the food was local, some was organic, and some, but only some, was local and organic. And because experts say that choosing organic is important, and also that choosing local is vital, I thought my head might explode.

That same week, I found myself at a farmer’s market being handed green beans that were supposed to be local. But it didn’t seem quite possible that they actually could be…unless they’d been planted very early…in a greenhouse. Maybe they meant loco?

It’s not always so easy, greenies. So how do you nail down what’s local?

Obviously, you can grow some of your own — it’s guaranteed local. You can join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) network. You could lurk at your farmer’s market and eavesdrop on people who appear knowledgeable and drug-free. And you can learn the seasons. It needs to be in season to be local, and if it’s local it is certainly in season. See a tautology! This will only trip you up when someone ships apples from Washington to sell in New York, which harvests apples at the same time. Because of our complex food system, this sort of thing happens regularly. At least you can compare apples to apples.

If you want to skip the Farmer’s Almanac portion of this learning process, go straight to this great resource: The Natural Resource Defense Council’s Local Food database. There you can type in your state and the month and pop up a list of produce that a shopper could reasonably expect to see harvested somewhere in that state at that time.

In Illinois, by late May, for instance, you could expect to find: Asparagus,Cabbage,Cherries, Greens, Leeks, Lettuce, Onions, Peas, Radishes, Rhubarb, Spinach, Sprouts, Squash, Strawberries.

But in Texas, in late May, look for a fruitier selection: Blackberries, Blueberries, Cabbage, Cantaloupes, Carrots, Cucumber, Grapefruit, Herbs, Honeydew Melon, Lettuce, Mushrooms, Nectarines, Onions, Oranges, Peaches, Pears, Peppers, Potatoes, Summer squash, Sweet Potatoes, Tomatoes, Turnips, Watermelon

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