Eating seasonal foods from small nearby farms reduces the miles that your grub travels to get to your plate, and supports local, often family-run farms that use eco-friendly growing practices. But let’s get real—most of us live in places where the pickins’ are slim in the dead of winter. It can seem impossible to support the local-food cause without ending up with root-vegetable overload or a case of scurvy.
So we rounded up a few of the most common non-local foods and looked at alternatives. Some have easy substitutions, while others force even the most local-minded chefs to bend the rules—but we’ll show you how to do it in an eco-friendly way.
Most bananas hail from large single-crop plantations in Central and South America, where they’re doused with pesticides and then shipped thousands of miles to U.S. supermarkets. As a substitute, consider the pawpaw instead—a cousin of the banana that grows wild in 26 states and is sold in farmers’ markets in late summer and autumn. Pawpaw season is short, but some purveyors sell the frozen puree year-round, and it can be used in equal parts for banana in most recipes. Best of all, the pawpaw tree requires few or no pesticides, and the fruit packs a nutritious punch, with the same amount of potassium as bananas, twice as much vitamin C, and more protein.
Buy pawpaw puree from Lagier Ranches in California (www.lagierranches.com) or Integration Acres in Ohio (integrationacres.com). And if you’re still craving a fresh banana, a brand-new, eco-rific banana company called Oké (okeusa.com) is coming to a natural food store or co-op near you—check the website for locations.
Production of salad greens is highly concentrated in California and Arizona, which grow about 98 percent of the U.S. supply. Lettuce is the second-most consumed vegetable in the U.S. (behind potatoes), which means most of us are purchasing it from faraway sources.
Many local-food advocates recommend limiting lettuce consumption to warmer months. “In winter we use hardier greens, like pumpkin kale, winter bore kale, and radicchio,” says Melissa Kelly, the chef at Primo Restaurant in Rockland, Maine; even in chilly Maine, she explains, these crops are only dormant for three to four weeks during the winter.
If you live in a region where local greens disappear in wintertime, fill up instead on locally grown cabbage, turnips, carrots, and parsnips, which provide most of the same vitamins and minerals as dark leafy greens. To make up for two key nutrients you might miss without your green veggies—fiber and folate—eat more beans, which can be found locally in much of the country.
In most regions, tomato season is the summer, as the plants need lots of heat and sunlight. California and Florida have these conditions all year; in other areas, farmers extend the season by using greenhouses and hydroponic growing systems. Most chefs, however, say there’s no comparison. “Farms that grow tomatoes year-round are never quite the same,” says Kelly. Her solution is to modify her tomato-based dishes. “In winter, you can do a dried-tomato pesto instead of fresh tomatoes,” she says.
Hugo Matheson, chef and co-owner of The Kitchen, in Boulder, Colorado, suggests buying tomatoes in season, and either canning them or making sauce and freezing it for later. “You’re preserving a product at its peak rather than settling for an inferior product when it’s not in season,” he says. Still, it’s hard to get around the demand for fresh tomatoes. “I fold under pressure,” says Matheson. “People can’t understand why they can’t have a slice of tomato on their sandwich.”
Winter is citrus season in California, Florida, Texas and Arizona, where most citrus fruit is grown in the U.S. The rest of the country has it much tougher. “If I did everything by the book, I wouldn’t have any citrus,” says Kelly. “But it would be very hard for me to cook without lemons, or fresh limes and oranges.”
Indeed, citrus fruit is practically a staple: Oranges are the most-consumed fruit in the U.S., and countless recipes call for lemon juice. While this is one area where many local-foodies cheat, there are some options for getting around the problem. Substitute white wine vinegar in equal parts for lemon juice; and instead of eating oranges, try kumquats, which are in season through March and can survive at much lower temperatures than other citruses. Check your farmers market, or visit localharvest.org to find nearby sources for them.