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There’s no denying that fruits and vegetables are a necessity for everyday living (and they’re key to keep runners fueled and functioning). The thousands of phytochemicals found in plants help your body fight off viruses, improve your cholesterol, and may even stave off cancer. The ingestible fiber in them keeps your system regular. And the rest of their other vitamin and mineral content keep your bones, blood, brain, skin, and teeth (to name a few) strong and healthy. That’s why nutritionists encourage you to really load up your plate with them.
Though it may sound counterintuitive, healthy, veggie-filled diets can also be some of the worst for the environment. For example, studies show that people who eat healthy are also more likely to be wasteful. And overreaching for a variety of produce can also mean you’re eating food that’s been shipped from all over the country.
Don’t throw that healthy meal plan away just yet. There are simple and affordable strategies to help you shop with the environment in mind.
Why Focus On Seasonal Produce?
Seasonal produce is anything that can be bought and consumed very close to the time that the food was harvested. This usually also means that it is locally sourced—but with modern and efficient transportation methods, this might not necessarily be the case.
The less distance your food has to travel to get to you, the fewer greenhouse gases are potentially emitted in the process of it getting to your plate. In most, but not all, cases, eating locally grown seasonal produce is going to have the lowest environmental impact. A 2010 Cambridge Review of food supply chain processes showed that there were scenarios in which this might not be true if you look into all factors (including soil, transportation, storage, farming equipment, etc.), but it’s unrealistic to expect consumers to dive that deeply into research before a quick trip to the supermarket.
According to the Seasonal Food Guide, buying food locally supports your local farmers, your local economy, and gives more transparency into the growing process.
Seasonal food is easy to find in farmers markets or community supported agriculture (CSA), but your grocery store may also carry local produce. It’s likely that they are proud of the local produce they’re providing and will have signs or other marketing materials to direct consumers to it. Urban hydroponic or aeroponic farms also make it possible to buy local produce that might be considered out of season using traditional farming practices.
Choosing seasonal produce is just one way you can start to think about reducing the impact your diet makes on the environment.
The Nutrition of Seasonal Produce
The nutritional value of food changes with the seasons. For example, in one study looking at whether the vitamin C content in organically grown broccoli varied from “conventionally grown” broccoli, the researchers found no significant difference. What they found instead was a difference in vitamin C content in broccoli that was grown in different seasons. In that particular study, broccoli grown in fall had almost twice the vitamin C as broccoli grown in spring.
But if the food you want to eat is not in season, it doesn’t mean you have to do without. Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark highly recommends leaning on frozen and canned produce. “Nutrient-wise, fresh is always good if it’s fresh. But what’s the definition of fresh? Is it just unprocessed, or is it just picked out of the garden an hour before?” says Clark, who has a private practice in the Boston area.
“Right now broccoli’s not in season. But I can buy frozen broccoli, which is probably a lot more nutrient-rich than fresh broccoli that’s shipped from California to Boston and sits around the warehouse, and then ships to the grocery store and I buy it and it sits in my refrigerator for a few days,” she says.
How to Eat Seasonally When You’re on a Budget
Being able to buy exactly the kind of food you want at all times is a privilege that not everyone has. But if you’d like to make a step toward eating more fresh and locally sourced foods, here are some tips for shopping on a budget.
Buy the ugly ones.
Subscription boxes like Misfits Market or Imperfect Foods deliver seasonal organic non-GMO produce at discounts of up to 40 percent off grocery store prices simply because the perfectly edible fruit or vegetable isn’t pretty enough for the shelf.
You can also check your market’s clearance section for discounted produce. It’s likely there because it looks irregular or its shelf-life is dwindling, which just means you’ll need to eat it more quickly after bringing it home.
Buy in bulk.
“I really think frozen vegetables are great. I always keep them on-hand so if I don’t have any fresh stuff hanging around, then the frozen is always a great backup,” Clark says. Take advantage of bulk sales at supermarkets or big-box stores knowing that you can get the same nutrition you need out of frozen and canned produce.
Split a CSA.
Community supported agriculture can be expensive but rewarding. You are essentially investing in the local farm and in return you get a box of produce in an agreed-upon time frame (weekly, monthly, etc.). But you’re also assuming some of the risk and could potentially get nothing if something goes wrong at the farm. If you’re interested in the opportunity to support a local farm and indulge in the absolute freshest seasonal produce, but it’s price prohibitive, see if you can split the cost and the bounty with a neighbor or family member.
Don’t buy everything organic.
Certified organic produce can be pricier than conventionally-grown options. But you can still make yours and your family’s health a priority without loading up your entire basket and paying a hefty grocery bill.
Every year the Environmental Working Group publishes a guide to the fruits and vegetables produced with the most amount of pesticides. These are the items, called the “Dirty Dozen,” that nutritionists are more likely to recommend as a priority to buying organic, above others. They include:
Although the science is still out on exactly how chronic exposure to pesticides can affect us, it certainly couldn’t hurt to avoid them. According to the PennState Extension, the suspected effects from chronic exposure to pesticides include birth defects, blood disorders, nerve disorders, hormonal disruption, and reproduction effects.
Agricultural leaders have argued that the Dirty Dozen are taken out of context. The California Strawberry Commission, for example, released a statement that claimed that even after 1,508 servings of strawberries in a single day, there would be no ill-effects from pesticide residues, as tested by a toxicologist at the University of California’s Personal Chemical Exposure Program.
Resources for Making Seasonal Produce Purchases
SNAP-Ed, an educational program run by the USDA to help Americans learn about healthy eating, has a guide to seasonal produce that is broken down by the four seasons. It also conveniently lists a few items at the top that are in season currently. Each produce page also includes recipes and nutrition facts.
Want to know what impact your diet is having on the environment? The Foodprint quiz will tell you what you’re doing well (who doesn’t love a pat on the back?) and where you can improve. It will also link to resources that will help in those improvement areas.
Get information about what’s in season right now where you are with this mobile app. It also gives you the option to set reminders in your phone to alert you when a particular item comes into season in your state.
This article is part of a new seasonal produce series. Looking for some January produce inspiration? Check out our first monthly produce recipe.