Friday, February 12, 2010

My food philosophy - how it evolved to eating locally and seasonally

There are many schools of food philosophy out there, and I realized just how my personal food philosophy has evolved and is a conglomeration of many.  Currently, I place a high priority on local food. Years ago, like many new moms, I placed a high priority on eating organic food when my kids were babies.  After a few shopping expeditions at Whole Wallet Foods, my thrifty nature kicked in.   When I have to pay premium for something, I always ask myself  "Is it x dollars better than the alternative?".  Why shouldn't I apply the same test with food?  Is organic food really worth the premium you pay for it?  I began to sense that organic food was becoming a big marketing campaign.

I found the Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides, and realized that there were many foods I didn't need to spend the premium on.   For foods deemed "The Clean 15", I decided it's not worth my money to pay a premium on organic.  Organic certification is just something anyone with enough resources can buy from the government, and I wasn't sure it was something I wanted to spend my money on.    But what about the rest of the food we eat?  I read some Marion Nestle, some Michael Pollan and realized that organic is becomeing big business.  Then, I read some Barbara Kingsolver and Mireille Guiliano and realized if I placed a priority on eating locally and seasonally, it was worth spending my resources on. 

"Food with a story tastes better" -- Wendell Berry

I started to notice I appreciated food more when I ate seasonally.  I became more tuned in to the changing of the seasons when I ate what's in season.   Fall tastes like apple and squash, spring like rhubarb and asparagus.  It can be tough eating local food here in Michigan in February, but I put lots of food by last summer so I could do just that.   This weekend, I am going to open some of the stewed rhubarb I canned last spring just so I can remember what spring tastes like.   Do I buy organic food?  Not so much.  The farmers I buy food from can't afford to pay for the organic certification, but by talking to them, I can find out how they are growing their food that they are going to sell me.  I like the idea that my money is kept here in the local economy, and we need it here in Michigan.   I don't think it's worth the pollution to ship some asparagus from Chile here so I can eat it today unless it is something I preserved from last spring   In Michigan, asparagus season is in May.  So, if I am eating asparagus right now, it's the asparagus I roasted and froze last spring, or the asparagus I pickled. (tastes great in a martini, by the way!). 

True, there are some things I will never find grown locally, such as citrus fruits or avocados.  If I can't find something locally produced, or I'm out of something I desperately need for a recipe, I then prioritize purchasing seasonal produce grown in the United States, and if it's on the "Dirty Dozen" list above.  Then, and only then, I will buy it organic.  The only time I will buy something not grown in the US is if it can't be bought.   One product that comes to mind is mangoes.   It's really hard to find a US grown mango, so I will buy them grown elsewhere.

So, how to eat local and seasonal food in Michigan?

  • For meat, buy a side of beef from a local farmer. I like grass fed beef, so that's what I look for.  Freezer beef can be found on Local Harvest and I've had great luck finding beef on Craigslist.  Note that hanging weight is usually how it's priced, and you should double that price to figure out how much you are paying per pound.   $2 hanging weight is roughly $4 per lb.  You won't find much certified organic meat, though. 
  • Chicken - buy it from a local farmer.   But you'll need to learn how to cut it up yourself.  It's not's how I learned.
  • Eggs are plentiful here in Ann Arbor, because the city passed a chicken ordinance that allows city dwellers to raise their own, plus many farmers have them.  We have a year round farmer's market, so I pick up a couple dozen each weekend.  They come in all colors..Last week I even got some blue ones!  Fresh eggs taste out of this world compared to factory farm eggs - they definitely taste $1 per dozen better.  Go for it!
  • Find out what is grown in Michigan, and when it's in season, and buy lots of it when it is. The MSU Extension puts together a great chart to help you.
  • Find a farmer's market near you to shop.  Depending on where you live, you can get some fantastic deals.   If I am looking for something unusual, I will shop at the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market because the selection is wonderful and you can actually find farms that have paid for the organic certification if that's something that is important to you.   I like to visit the outlying farmers markets in the area for better prices. 
  • Make a vow to yourself to learn how to preserve your own food this coming summer.  Freezing is the easiest way to get started.  If you don't have a stand alone freezer, you can still use the freezer you have but you'll have to be organized.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a treasure trove of information about freezing, as well as canning and drying.  In the summer, make it a practice to preserve something once a week for winter.
  • Many grocery stores carry local products and are great at advertising that they are from Michigan - Meijer, Hiller's and Busch's for starters. Even Whole Foods has gotten in the act. On Busch's My Way online shopping tool, Michigan produced products are labeled with a "Buy Michigan" tag. So even if you don't shop there, you can learn which brands are made in Michigan.
  • Local milk is easy to find....Guernsey Dairy and Calder Dairy are two well known brands.  I like to buy Prairie Farms milk, which is a Midwest farm cooperative - it's well priced.   I like to buy Guernsey cream and half and half.    I adore Calder Dairy's ice cream, but its $8 a half gallon so I try to remember to make it from scratch instead...much cheaper!  I sometimes buy Amish butter, when I can find it, that is produced by a farm in Indiana.
  • Dried beans grown in Michigan are easy to find in any grocery store, because Michigan is a huge producer of dried beans.   If you are shopping at a Michigan based store (I sure hope you aren't shopping at Wal Mart, for goodness sake), the store brand (Spartan, Meijer, etc.) are very likely grown in Michigan
  • Michigan apples are easy to find year round in the produce section.   I bought some apples locally last fall and have them "root cellared" in my garage.  (they are sitting on a shelf next to the wall connected to the house).  They will keep all winter out there.
  • Michigan potatoes are easy to find as well.   Meijer carries a store brand of them, or look for DuRussel brand, grown in Manchester, MI.
  • Fruit - Michigan is a prime producer of cherries.  Look for frozen sour cherries in the freezer section.  Also dried cherries are great for snacking and baking.
  • Flour/Grains - check out your food co-op or natural food store in your area for Westwind Milling products.  They are made in Argentine, MI, near Fenton.  Good stuff! And it's organic, if you are into that.
  • Breads - shop at a local bakery.   Around here, I love Zingerman's Bread and usually wait to buy it day old for a better value.  It's carried at Busch's.   Also, Avalon Bakery in Detroit makes wonderful breads, too.  
  • Red Gold is a brand of tomatoes that tastes great and these tomatoes are grown in the Midwest.
  • Buy apple cider in the fall, drink some of it and freeze the rest.

Remember, when you eat locally and seasonally, you made our earth a little greener.   What helps the environment more - asparagus grown in some far away land south of the equator where it is summertime right now that has an organic tag slapped on it and then was shipped thousands of miles to get to you, or some asparagus you grew in your own back yard and froze in the summer? Or maybe you bough it from a local farmer that didn't have children working slave labor to pick it?  Who knows if that so called organic asparagus produced in a far away land is really organic anyway?   Who is checking?

Buying local food might not be officially organic, but the farmer might have a little hand lettered sign that says "No Spray" in front of her farm stand and that means the world to me.   When you eat local food, you also support our local economy.  Maybe someone was able to put dinner on the table at there house because of what you put on your dinner table at your house.  Food with a story does taste better!


Wendy said...

I totally agree! I have had several "food philosophy" types of posts come across my Google Reader today, and I think your approach most closely mirrors my own.

Anonymous said...

The Michigan Land Use Institute is a great resource to help find fermers and farm stands in your area. They also have a "Craig's List" for farmers where farmers can post what they have and restaurants and consumers can post what they want. This site is fo Northwest Lower Michigan, but if you're in my region it is a great asset!

Anonymous said...

I carry that list in my wallet too and use it to prioritize. I think the mindset that organic is ALWAYS better is just way oversimplifying things.

Jen @ Forever, For Always... said...

I just found your blog ~ what a great resource, especially since we are in your neck of the woods! I had no idea you could find beef on Craig's List. Thanks for posting all of this info. We are trying to eat healthy and be thrifty while feeding our large family :) Happy New Year!