Those of us living in Southern California are blessed by the amazing availability of fresh produce grown not too far from home. Unlike some areas of the country where farmers markets are seasonal, our markets operate year-round, making it easy and affordable to access gorgeous produce 365 days a year.
When we walk into a farmers market here, it can be tempting to let down our hyper-vigilant food consumer guard. With no labels to study, no country of origin stickers to squint at, many people think they can breeze through the market and be assured that anything they come into contract with is local and seasonal. The local piece may be true, but it is very much a myth that farmers markets sell only seasonal fare. Indoor growing facilities and various alternative growing techniques (e.g., aquaponics) allow SoCal farmers to grow things like tomatoes throughout the year.
As an informed consumer, it’s up to you to learn what is truly in season in your neck of the country. For those in Southern California, the L.A. Times offers a great online resource to help you identify seasonal crops (and it includes tips for picking the best of the bunch). And if you live outside of the region, this is still a pretty handy guide considering much of our country’s produce comes from this area.
You might be reading this and asking yourself what the big deal is about eating seasonally. If something is available, locally-grown and organic, why not just eat it? Here are a few advantages seasonal eating provides:
1) Seasonal foods are powerful medicine. We live in a time where many of us are disconnected from the rhythms of nature. Seasonal foods remind us that nature is constantly in flux, and many are inherently balancing from the standpoint of Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine and other healing systems. For example, in fall and early winter, times when people are prone to feeling a bit scattered, root vegetables and heavy winter squashes grow in abundance, providing grounding energy. Melons are cooling and flourish in the summertime. It’s not a mistake that certain things grow when they do. If we eat them year-round, we might actually thrown ourselves off-balance. It is advantageous to our health when the contents of our plate vary from season to season.
2) Greater enjoyment. If you compare a December strawberry to a July strawberry, you can bet with pretty great confidence that the latter will be sweeter, juicier and more delicious. Fruits and vegetables simply taste best at their peak. I also find that when I don’t eat something all the time, I come to really appreciate it during the time when it’s meant to be eaten. For example, persimmons are typically only available in the fall, and I eagerly anticipate their arrival each October. I make it a point to savor each one, knowing their time is limited. If I ate them all the time, I would not have nearly the appreciation I do for them.
3) Seasonal foods are good for the earth. From what I’ve learned from my friends that farm, the best way to maintain healthy soil is to cycle various crops throughout the year in the same soil. Keeping the same crops going all the time depletes the soil and produces food that is less dense in nutrients.
You can say yes to seasonal growing by making a point to shop from stalls at the farmers market that sell mainly seasonal crops. I always avoid the places that sell the same things all throughout the year.
If you do want to enjoy tomatoes, berries and summer’s other gems throughout the year, use this as motivation to learn how to can, make jams, dehydrate and take part in other food preservation techniques if you don’t already do so. The tomatoes you can at the end of August will always be superior to any tomato you can buy in February. I generally like to use preserved foods as accents to meals that include mainly seasonal ingredients.
By no means should we beat ourselves up if we decide not to maintain a 100% seasonal diet, but I do encourage people to let a minimum of 90-95% of their produce purchases be truly seasonal. People generally share that eating in this way not only yields tastier fare, but also challenges them to learn about new vegetables and seek out new recipes and preparations. If eating seasonally feels limiting to you, try reframing it as an opportunity to enjoy the best of the best and to develop a deeper appreciation of food and the ever-changing nature of the world around us.