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What Does Eating Local Really Mean?

By: Kris Borre
By: Kris Borre

It depends on who you ask.

 

Eating local? Just what does local really mean? I was in Lowe’s grocery store the other day and read their beautiful display advertising the local foods they sold.  Lowe’s considers all fresh foods produced within the Southeastern United States to be “local.” Hmmmm….well that would be watermelons from Florida, onions from Georgia, peaches from South Carolina, and apples from Virginia. 
When I asked the farmers selling at the Pitt County Farmers Market what “local” meant to them, they had quite a different interpretation. Most felt that local produce meant grown within the county, or within a 25 or 50 mile radius of where the customer lives. One farmer felt that to be local it had to be in Northeastern NC, but he was considered extreme by everyone else I asked.  
So what does eating local mean to me and my family? I know that during the May through September season, anyone living in Pitt County can certainly survive daily by buying and eating the fruits, vegetables, meats, and eggs produced within a 25 or 50 mile radius of their residence.  Beginning in April and May I alter my shopping habits for all fresh produce. Instead of buying California lettuce and strawberries, Mexican tomatoes and avocados and Florida grapefruit and oranges, I begin our family tradition of eating whatever fruits and vegetables the local farmers will sell me.  It is an adventure that reduces my grocery bill by about 40% over the growing season. This season is my family’s favorite time to eat and we easily consume 9 – 10 servings of fruits and vegetables everyday and reduce our dependence on meats by eating more local seafood to complement the abundance of greens, beans, squashes, potatoes, peppers, etc etc etc…that we buy from our farmers.
 But what about the rest of the year?  Several solutions present themselves. For a die-hard localvore, preserving the harvest is essential by freezing, canning and drying our local foods at their peak of flavor and freshness. Freezing and canning instructions can be found online at http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/. Freezing and canning are simple, although time-consuming, and you must follow the recommended procedures exactly to have a good product that you will enjoy eating and that is safe to consume. 
Quick Canning Tips: 
The very first basic rule of canning is that hot water bath canning is safe ONLY for foods high in acidity or where the sugar to fruit ratio is high. Foods you can preserve easily by hot water bath canning methods are vinegar and salt based pickles, red tomatoes that are recommended for canning (not yellow tomatoes), and jams thick with high sugar to fruit ratios. All other vegetables and fruits as well as meats need to be processed in a pressure canner following directions carefully to assure that the proper pressure has been attained during processing. Pressure canners are more expensive than hot water bath canners, but are worth the investment. They come with easy to follow directions. For canning be sure to select heavy glass jars designed for canning and well-fitting rings that are not rusted and screw on easily. You can reuse the jars and rings that are in good shape, but ALWAYS use new lids with a rubber seal.  Remember to label each lid with the date and the name of the product. Products can keep indefinitely in a cool dark space out of risk of freezing or summer heat and humidity, but taste best used within 6 months to a year.
Quick Freezing Tips:
Vegetables and fruits that are to be served cooked tend to freeze well. Freezing is less complicated in many ways than canning. You will need plenty of cold water, a timer and appropriate freezer storage packaging.  Purchase only packaging that is recommended for freezer food storage. The biggest expense here is the freezer:  you need a good freezer that keeps its cool at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Chest freezers are the least expensive and most reliable for holding food at the right temperature. Chest freezers are also more energy efficient. Do not buy a larger freezer than you can keep filled, or you will waste energy and may have problems with maintaining temperatures and keeping the frost levels down. Do use plastic baskets that fit in the freezer to organize your foods by type and dates to make it easy to find what you want to eat. Most frozen fruits and vegetables need to be eaten within 6 months to a year max. If you are freezing already prepared recipes such as casseroles, soups, stews, and tomato sauces, then you will want to use them within 3 to 6 months.  
Choosing Your Best Method for Local Food Preservation
Canned foods have longer storage lives than frozen and require less energy for preservation. My family uses both techniques because we prefer some foods frozen and some canned. We freeze strawberries, blueberries, figs and applesauce. We freeze peppers, field peas, limas, and corn, but can tomatoes and tomato sauce. Green beans we like either frozen or canned, but we only like broccoli, collards, other greens, and summer squash frozen. We store potatoes and sweet potatoes unwashed in covered baskets in unheated storage throughout the year along with pumpkins and butternut squash that have been picked before any frost or insect damage occurs.
 Dehydrating food can be done in a purchased dehydrator, following the instructions. Our humidity does not really allow eastern North Carolinians to dry food outdoors in the sun without risking molding, so if you like to dehydrate foods for storage, then purchasing a dehydrator is worth the money. Kay Sokolovic has written a blog dedicated to dehydrating.
So What if I Don’t Preserve Local Foods?
The only other alternative to not preserving the local harvest is pretty obvious. Buy everything you can when it is locally available and plan meals around those foods, then fill in with foods from the grocery store. Special dishes and holiday foods that are family traditions might come from where ever they are grown. We like pine nuts from the southwest in holiday cookies, and cranberries from Wisconsin with our Greene County raised turkey for Thanksgiving. My friends and I look forward to the first fresh oranges and grapefruits from Florida beginning in late November. They are much tastier and fresher than those shipped from California. So enjoy we enjoy them while they are in season in Florida and shipped to North Carolina. My family never eats oranges in July because the oranges sold have been in storage for months and lack flavorful. Besides why eat oranges when blueberries and peaches are in season locally! Which brings me to a final tip for this blog: 
Find out what fruits and vegetables are in season and only buy them in season when they are grown a reasonable distance from your home. 
Right now, asparagus is in season in the Southern hemisphere…think PERU… so should I turn off my thinking brain and blindly buy “fresh” asparagus now?  No. I will ask myself some questions before I buy any asparagus in October. How fresh is the asparagus grown in Peru when it is sold in North Carolina? What was the cost of shipping it to North Carolina? What were the chemicals used to grow it, store it, and ship it? Who was handling it? Who has inspected it? What could I eat that was grown closer and is in season near my home?  Last week instead of the asparagus at $3.00 a pound in the grocery store, I bought a butternut squash and a pound of fall harvested green beans from a local farm stand for a total of $3.00. That squash and beans will last us 2 meals with a bit left over and the taste? Delicious and FRESH!
Now, if I had bought extra fresh asparagus to freeze or can when the local farmers had it for sale during April and May, I would not even be at the grocery store looking at asparagus from Peru! 
 
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