As time goes on and more people leave the countryside for cities and other urban settings, we have also become more removed from our food sources. These days you can walk into just about any supermarket and find a wide variety of fruits and vegetables without giving any thought to where they were grown and whether or not they are currently in season.
In fact, there are many reasons why you should be aware of what produce is currently in season. These reasons can be divided into two categories: health and environment. If a particular item of produce is in season it is going to be much fresher and, therefore, much higher in nutrients and vitamins. Depending on your grocery store, it may have been grown by a local farmer and has retained much of its freshness due to the shortened time between harvest and delivery. In Austin, both Central Market and HEB go out of their way to label and advertise produce that has been locally grown. Of course, the best way to obtain the freshest local food is to shop at a farmer's market. Believe it or not, some of that produce is even picked that very morning! The fresher the food, the better it is going to be for you. Produce begins to lose its nutrients as soon as it is harvested. Therefore, the longer it takes to find its way to your table the more vitamins and benefits have been lost.
This brings us to the other reason to eat local and seasonal food...the environmental impact. If the only cauliflower in your store is from California, and you live in Texas, it has been on quite a journey before it even gets there. After it is harvested it is packaged, packed onto a truck and driven to a distribution facility before it is placed on your store shelf. Not only have you lost most of the nutritional value of the cauliflower, you have also contributed to the higher usage of petroleum oil. The plastic packaging is made from oil not to mention the gasoline that is used to truck these veggies all over the country. Is it really worth it? The scenario generates more concern if the produce you are buying is not in season in most of the United States. In this case, the food is usually imported from places in South America since the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere. Peru and Chile are the two most popular countries for this purpose. Not only are you transporting the produce thousands of miles but you have to remember that many of these countries do not maintain the same standards as the U.S. when it comes to pesticides and inspection.
What is the answer? The best thing you can do is to become acquainted with the seasonal crops where you live. If you have a local farmer's market, make sure you visit regularly on a year round basis. You quickly become aware of what grows in your area at particular times of the year. If you want asparagus in August and it is not at the market, it is simply not in season. Asparagus is an early spring crop here in Central Texas so if you see it at the grocery store in August it has either been in storage since spring or it has come in from South America. Neither possibility is appealing if you want fresh, healthy produce.
Even if you don't have your own garden, visit places like the Natural Gardener here in Austin or a store with a garden center such as Lowe's. Both of those sell only seedlings that are appropriate for planting at that particular time of year for your location. The Natural Gardener also provides lists of planting times for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that will grow locally.
You can also adjust your menus and eating habits based on foods that are currently in season. Carol Ann Sayle of Boggy Creek Farm in East Austin has self published a cookbook simply titled Eating in Season. In this book she talks about the two main growing seasons in Central Texas and what produce her farm grows and harvests during those seasons. In addition, she provides many delicious recipes that make use of those seasonal foods. The market at Boggy Creek is open Wednesday and Saturday mornings and offers not only produce from the farm but also products from other local businesses. If the book is currently in print, this is where you can find it. It is also available as a used book on Amazon.com.
Another more radical approach to eating locally and seasonally is chronicled in Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. In this book, the author's describes a year long experiment during which her family lived on their farm in Virginia and attempted to consume only what they had either produced themselves or obtained from local sources. This involved raising and slaughtering their own poultry, growing everything they possibly could and doing without a lot of what we take for granted when it comes to our daily meals. While this is not something most people would choose to take on, the book definitely provides 'food' for thought in regards to the concept of local, seasonal food.
Whichever approach you feel comfortable exploring just remember that it is not only good for you (and your local farmer) but for the planet as well.