Q: I want my kids to eat more fruit and vegetables, but the tiny organic produce section in my grocery store leaves much to be desired. How do I find decent produce without dropping dollars or driving all over town?
A: I don’t have a green thumb, but I share your desire for fresh fruit and veggies. To help us both start down the path to greener produce, I called Sheldon Fleming, founder of Wonderland Gardens, a 20-acre public garden and educational center in Decatur, Ga. He offered a few tips on eating food that tastes better and is better for you.
Buy locally grown vegetables from a farmers market. Produce from farmers markets typically gets harvested about two days prior to purchase, compared with grocery store produce that traveled roughly 1,500 miles to reach your table. Fresh and flavorful carrots are not available year-round, and Fleming says that’s a good thing. “We bought into the easiness of being able to eat [commercially grown vegetables] when we wanted them vs. why were eating them, which is for the nutrients.”
He adds that we should be prepared for produce that isn't quite so camera-ready. Commercially grown vegetables are designed to be bruise-free and travel well, Fleming says. But organically grown produce will come with a few bumps and bruises. “Expect that blemish,” he says. “We’re not spraying those pesticides. We’re allowing that vegetable to get beat up and still be an onion.” Fleming adds that it takes fewer resources, including pesticides, to grow produce during its proper season, so “your footprint is going to be less.”
To find a farmers market in your neighborhood, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site. Localharvest.org also provides state-by-state listings of farms, farmers markets, co-ops and restaurants in your area. Many markets also accept WIC vouchers, credit and debit cards.
Enjoy the flavor of whole foods. Once you have purchased a cabbage at the peak of its season, Fleming cautions not to drown it in a pot of salted water. “We should be eating more raw vegetables, not killing our vegetables by cooking them," he says. "The flavor you will get — whether it’s a collard green or carrot — is going to be the true flavor.”
This summer, the New York Times published “101 Simple Salads for the Season.” Raw, whole fruits and vegetables took the spotlight against a backdrop of nuts, grains and fresh herbs. Even as the temperature dips, those creative recipes can be tweaked for root vegetables that are coming into season. Fleming also suggests taking food classes or surfing the Web for inspiration.
Writer Barbara Kingsolver and her family spent a year eating locally grown produce, and chronicled their experience in the book, Animal, Vegetable Miracle. That year-long project also spawned a Web site and recipes for seasonal goodies such as asparagus and morel bread pudding.
Consider Community Supported Agriculture: Several farms offer CSA memberships, which allow consumers to purchase a "share" of the local farmer's produce for a fee. Membership fees can vary, but most CSA prices fall between what you would pay for produce at a high-end organic chain and basic staples at a commercial grocer. In exchange, you get a weekly bundle of farm-fresh produce and the farmer gets a much-needed infusion of cash to purchase supplies. While you are limited to whatever the farmer grows (beets, anyone?), that's a small price to pay for actually interacting with the person responsible for growing your produce. You also reduce the distance between your food and your table by roughly 1,400 miles. Localharvest.org also provides more information about CSAs, along with a search tool to help you locate a local farmer.
Don’t be afraid to get a little dirty. Wonderland Gardens offers classes for kids and adults, with the hope that more people will experience the joy of growing their own food. Fleming says that the key to gardening success is high-quality soil. Hit the local hardware store and purchase a few basil, thyme and rosemary plants. They are relatively easy to maintain — even my plants are still alive. With very little effort, these hearty herbs help punch up salads, soups and pasta dishes.
Products like EarthBoxes, self-watering containers that come with user-friendly instructions, also make gardening a little more manageable.
“Dirt has had a very bad reputation,” Fleming says. “Nobody wants to think of the dirt. The green [movement] has changed things. I love the sight of some pretty dirt.”
With that kind of endorsement, I'm ready to start digging.
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