The Benefits of Eating by the Season

You are probably used to seeing shiny, plump, bright red tomatoes in the grocery store 365 days a year.  But did you know that tomatoes are only in season in Arizona seven months out of the year?  Where did those tomatoes come from those other five months, and who is growing them?

These are questions that are not commonly asked by most shoppers as they browse the produce section of their local grocery store.  But we should be asking these questions. And we should be more aware of what produce is in season, because shopping seasonally reaps so many benefits for the consumer, the farmer, and the planet!  Outlined below are some of the major benefits to eating by the season:

The fruits and vegetables you eat will possess higher levels of nutrients.

Studies have shown that when you eat foods that are in season, those foods contain higher nutrient levels.  For example, this study demonstrated that in-season broccoli bought from the grocery store had twice the amount of Vitamin C than broccoli bought from the same grocery store when not in season.  When the broccoli was purchased in-season, it was sourced locally from the grocery store.  When it was purchased out-of-season, it was sourced overseas.

Part of the reason for nutrient loss is time, as it takes a very long time to ship broccoli from another country.  In-season and locally-sourced broccoli only takes a short amount of travel time in comparison (sometimes just down the street), so it is fresher and contains more nutrients for the consumer.

You'll support sustainable practices that protect the environment.

Green beans are only in season five months out of the year in Arizona.  So when they're not in season, how come we still see them showing up in the grocery store? They are usually transported thousands of miles from places where they actually are in season. As consumers, we have become so accustomed to having access to most common fruits and vegetables 365 days out of the year.  Because of this, our environment has been paying the price with all of those food miles.

When green beans are in season, it us usually far less expensive for grocery stores to source locally, and many will do so.  When they are not in season, grocery stores do not have a local option, and will source from the other side of the country (or even halfway around the world!) to get those beans on their shelves.  I once saw bell peppers from Holland (I put them back on the shelf...).  Thus, shopping seasonally will inherently mean you are supporting sustainable practices and doing your part to reduce those food miles.

More of your dollars will go directly to the farmer.

As demonstrated above, when foods are in season, grocery stores and other food vendors are more likely to source locally because it is more economical.  So if you pay attention to what is in season when you're shopping at the grocery store, chances are you'll likely be using your dollars to support your local farmers. When you purchase oranges that were shipped in from Brazil, you are sending your dollars out of the country. But when you purchase lettuce that was grown in Yuma (or in the Valley!), you are sending your money to your neighbor.

When more of our dollars go to our local farmers, they are able to sustain their business, provide bountiful harvests to our communities, and strengthen our local economy.  So shopping seasonally means more dollars in our farmers' pockets, and more yummy fruits and veggies for you!

You'll promote polycultures, and you can experiment with foods you may have never heard of!

Have you ever had a lemon cucumber?  It looks very much like a lemon, but is actually a variety of cucumber!  And lemon cucumbers are in season right now, as I received a bunch in my Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share last weeks.  I had also never had the opportunity to try lemon cucumbers before, as I had never seen them in my local grocery store, and they are quite tasty!  My CSA has allowed me to experiment with different recipes and try foods that I may have never had the opportunity to encounter.

The reason why you might not have heard of these obscure veggies is because most agriculture supports the idea of a monoculture.  Considering the fact that "fifty thousand edible plant species in the world, three of them (rice, corn, and wheat) are responsible for over sixty percent of the world’s caloric intake." Due to these eating and farming priorities (that have since gotten worse), consumers have become used to knowing just one type of cucumber, tomato, and carrot, when in fact there are dozens (sometimes hundreds!) of different varieties of these vegetables.

The problem is that monocultures lead to a plethora of dangers.  Monocultures are more susceptible to disease and may result in lost crops and plant species; are more harmful to the soil and have resulted in extreme soil degradation that cannot support plant life any longer; and do not provide as many nutrients to the consumer as polycultures do.  How do we fix this?  By supporting our local farmers that respect biodiversity and seasonal growing.   So don't be doubtful of cucumbers that are spherical and yellow, that's how it's supposed to be!  And they're delicious.

So how do I know what is in season?

The easiest way to know what is in season is to go to your local farmers market!  You'll never be in doubt, because whatever the farmer brings to the market was freshly harvested just hours beforehand.  You can find a list of farmers markets here.

But if you really want to make it easy on yourself, you can join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, and get your share of fresh fruits and vegetables every week from a local farm.  Based on what the farm is growing for the season, you pay up front or by the week to receive a portion of what is being grown.  You pick up your share weekly (or some deliver!), and many CSAs provide recipes to use with the produce that you get.

If going to a farmers market or joining a CSA just aren't available options, there are resources you can use to discover what is in season.  The Arizona Farm Bureau Fill Your Plate Website has a great list that outlines what produce is in season during what times. You'll see that even through the hot, summer months, Arizona is always growing something good to eat!