May 12, 2011

Local Eating Through the Seasons: the how and why

Guest Contribution by Author Melissa Tapper Goldman

Here in New York, spring has announced its arrival, with white blossoms and green buds exploding out of street trees. The growing season, however, arrives a bit more slowly. In the city, we enjoy the pleasant, temperate microclimate of the urban heat island effect. Upstate, it's barely springtime. Still, farms are already busy preparing for the summer. In the final push before the growing season kicks into gear and we can enjoy New York State’s summer produce, there are a few more weeks to examine our off-season eating habits, and how the choices that we make during the summer season affect us year round.

Local Food Wheel may help you navigate local produce through the seasons. 

Although local food isn’t always easy to find in the winter, the reasons to eat locally remain just as relevant. Michael Pollan’s poetic notion of “voting with one’s fork” evokes the idea
that the foods we choose to eat can express our spiritual ties to the land, while having highly significant economic and ecological impact. Voting with one’s dollars can promote an economically and environmentally sustainable network of mutually interdependent producers and consumers. Buying locally grown produce also helps to sustain arable land close to cities, where most food is eaten. It’s important to maintain agricultural land-use, particularly in areas at risk of urban spread, as it’s difficult to turn developed areas back into arable land.

Purchasing local produce encourages accountability in systems of sourcing food. By making use of local alternative farming and delivery systems (from community gardens to farmers' markets to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm shares), it’s easier to make informed choices about the ways in which your food is grown, processed and delivered.

Summer in the northeast US is an incredibly productive agricultural season. But it might surprise some of us here in the city that agriculture in New York is not limited to boutique “mom-and-pop” farms (New York State is the number two producer of apples nationwide). Bountiful farmers' markets and overstocked CSA shares provide a sometimes overwhelming abundance of produce in the warmer months.

New York State Apple Orchards. Photo by Jim Wark.

However, winter is another story, challenging our patience and metabolisms with an enormity of potatoes and apples. Even with open-mindedness about changing one's eating habits, the east coast winter can make eating locally seem impossible. It seems easy to question the wisdom or feasibility of eating seasonally when the ground is frozen and all that's left in my kitchen from the tri-state area are frozen sausage-links.

New York State Winter farm scene. Photo by


After a summer's long hiatus from grocery shopping, the neighborhood Fairway supermarket beckons like a Turkish bazaar, full of extravagant and colorful treats. It’s easy to become dazzled with colorful packaging, effectively letting the marketers choose what to eat for dinner. Maybe treating the grocery store as an exotic marketplace is a more useful framework, since that's what it effectively is.

The key, for me, is to use the supermarket well, by making intentional choices in what to buy where. Sometimes this means supermarket shopping only after acquiring the staples at the Farmers’ market: eggs or cheese or veggies. Many Farmers’ markets run year-round (even in New York), selling storage fruits and vegetables or produce from greenhouses. That leaves the supermarket shopping list for spices or oils, to doll up the basics.

Many of GrowNYC's markets are open year-round, with numerous locations across Manhattan and Brooklyn,  as well as in Queens and the Bronx. Photo of Upper West Side green market by Melissa Tapper Goldman.


After three years with the same CSA, I had just learned to cook all the summer and fall vegetables, and barely begun to consider extending these seasons by preserving my produce. Canning and pickling classes were all the rage this year. The more I learned about long-term home preservation, the more it seemed too much to handle in my tiny Manhattan kitchen. Sticking to shorter-term pickling (recipes that last a month or so in the refrigerator) sounded less daunting. Short-term storage helps even out the ups and downs of the growing season, preventing me from throwing away the cucumbers piling up in the back of the fridge, but it doesn't solve the problem of winter.

Local NY State Pickles. Photo by Melissa Tapper Goldman.

There are a few techniques to extend the life of food. Basically, if humans don't eat food quickly enough, others will (bacteria, fungi or insects). To slow the progression of food breakdown, one can create an environment that is inhospitable to growth: inhospitable temperature (freezing), inhospitable pH (pickling or sugar storage), or directing safe microorganisms to digest the sugary part of the food preemptively (fermentation).

Most city dwellers don’t have the luxury of space for an extra fridge or freezer, setting aside questions of energy use. While it is possible to keep some preserved food in your own kitchen, there are "Winter CSA’s” that keep storage or frozen vegetables offsite until periodic winter pick-ups. Mass storage off-site will always be more energy efficient than keeping things all season long in your home fridge or freezer, but most winter CSAs are still very expensive.

Frozen produce distributed by WinterSunFarms, a small farm aggregator, is available at several CSA locations in New York City, available from December through March.
Some produce can last months in a carefully-controlled storage environment, such as apples in low oxygen or root vegetables in a dry room at 40 degrees. Farms and distributors are better able to handle this challenge than individuals, so it is a matter of establishing your relationship with a purveyor, either at a farmers' market or elsewhere.

Humans have preserved food through fermentation for thousands of years, with examples of early food cultures utilizing fermentation across the globe. Many people have written about the health benefits of yogurt and sauerkraut and wine. Pickling and fermentation are viable options for city-dwellers, with some of the same food-safety issues that apply to canning. Enthusiastic DIYers can make effectively fermented foods with the investment of some time and space. Again, this is an economy of scale issue. Buying locally-produced pickles and jams are options that don’t require a monopoly on one’s two-square-foot-countertop for half a season, with many of the benefits of transparency and low carbon footprint.

The duration of the growing season here in the northeast is not just a function of the temperature outside, but the systems that support food distribution and storage. Many CSA delivery sites use donated space out-of-doors, meaning that produce could be ruined by freezing during a winter pickup. Not all farms have storage facilities (a major investment to construct and maintain). While farmers might prefer to extend their production season, the distribution system is often a weak link in the chain.


Some nearby farms have greenhouses. The food tends to cost more, both for being a prized commodity in the winter and more difficult to grow outside of ground soil conditions. As wintertime urban farming develops an effective infrastructure, this may become a more affordable option. Some items like cultivated mushrooms are grown indoors year-round.

Small-scale home growing is also particularly satisfying in the wintertime, when it's so rare to see anything green. Options include home-rigged hydro or aeroponic kits, or commercially available systems like the Aerogarden. These systems certainly come at a cost: both financially and in terms of energy use, but personally, I find a particular value in having my winter living room aglow with full-spectrum grow lights.

Two types of commercially available home hydroponics units. The plug-and-play Aerogarden on the left, and DIY alternative in the Window Farm on the right.

Acknowledging that winter growing has some unique challenges should be the beginning of the conversation about seasonal eating rather than the end. There is plenty to learn from farmers worldwide who make use of cold months, including urban farms from Growing Power in chilly Milwaukee, to Roberta pizza restaurant’s rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn. Greenhouses or enclosed growing spaces allow us to address the problem through agriculture in our established community gardens, up on our roofs, and in our homes.


The challenges of sourcing food during the winter give us time to reflect on what we're looking to connect with through our eating process. Is it farmers, neighbors, or something else altogether? Is it a time when we’d like to enjoy the taste of a mango that we can never get locally, no matter what month it is? Or after a month's takeout binge and a break from the farmers' market, are we ready to try our hand with that rutabaga?

Sustainability practices are about priorities. The balance between factors is constantly shifting, as is our ability to measure them; there is no singular right choice. These priorities can change from season to season or moment to moment. The answers we come up with in the summer may not address our winter challenges. The same answers we came up with last year might not apply anymore, either ecologically or to our personal situations.

What have you learned about yourself so far this winter? And what will you let yourself learn between now and summer?

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