By Charlotte Hawkins, Volunteer Contributor
September is a time of year in which, since the dawn of agriculture, harvest has been celebrated. Communities pulled together out of necessity to reap their crops, and festivals were held to rejoice, enjoy and give thanks for these times of plenty.
This is, perhaps, an idealised image of what harvest time used to be like – there were many years when the rewards for the year-round labours were low. However, the significance of harvest time – whether a celebration of abundance or the trigger of fears for surviving the year ahead – is almost difficult to understand now.
We live in a world where the concept of seasonal food scarcity is almost unheard of, as what we can't grow here in the UK, we just import. This seems like a great advance in guaranteeing our fresh food supply. Poor weather in the UK doesn't mean we face starvation. We can have salads in the depths of winter and orchard fruit in the spring time. We never need to become bored of eating the same foods daily for weeks at a time according to what is in season, whether we like these foods or not.
However, although these changes may seem positive, our food system has become reliant on imports. While it is a good thing that we need not face famine if our own harvests are poor, imported food has become the norm rather than an exception. However, a growing number of consumers are realising that being able to buy foods such as out-of-season apples from New Zealand, green beans from Kenya or squashes from Argentina comes at too great a cost. They are turning back to long-held traditions of eating locally grown food which is in season. Why is this?
We have more variety
Although it would seem counter-intuitive, the year-round availability of our favourite foods has actually narrowed the range of food we eat. Rather than having to alter our diet out of necessity according to what was in season, by virtue of habit, we tend to stick to the same foods. A varied diet, particularly of fruits and vegetables, ensures that we consume a broad range of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Furthermore, recent research has shown that a varied diet is the cornerstone of a healthy gut microbiome which has far-reaching implications for our overall health.
It tastes better
Fruit and vegetables picked at the peak of ripeness while in season taste much better than those picked too soon (often to be transported long distances) or kept in cold storage for many months. By eating seasonal, local produce, what we eat doesn't have to be transported very far. This means it can reach the consumer more quickly. This freshness maximises taste and nutrients.
It helps the environment
The environmental cost of transporting food across the world is an enormous contributor to climate change. Fruits and vegetables that deteriorate rapidly are often air-freighted around the world. To make matters worse, this is often done in chilled conditions, increasing the carbon footprint even more. Eating locally produced food cuts down both the distance travelled and the time needed in cold-storage to a fraction of that needed when we eat fruit and vegetables out of season.
Furthermore, produce grown locally is often grown by farmers who don't rely on monocultures where pesticide use is rife. Monocultures are prone to disease infestations, so farms that grow a variety of produce need to use fewer pesticides. This makes it easier for farmers to work in harmony with nature, whether certified organic or not, which is better for us and for the environment.
It encourages a rural landscape
Being surrounded by a landscape of rolling fields of growing crops or grazing animals is far more pleasant than living in an urban sprawl. As well as being aesthetically more enjoyable, rural communities enjoy a more relaxed pace of life, a greater sense of community and a less polluted environment.
It keeps us in touch with where our food comes from
By eating locally produced food, it is possible to see where and how our food is grown, and sometimes know the people who produce it too. This is particularly significant when attitudes to food, health and animal welfare are developing, as demonstrated by the increasing effort of primary schools to ensure that children, particularly from deprived areas, have the opportunity to visit farms to see how their food is produced. Understanding where our food comes from is being increasingly recognised as important to enhance our ability to make informed food choices, thus having the potential to improve health.
It supports the local economy
Although "local" is hard to define, as it can mean anything from buying from the farm next door to supporting British agriculture, buying food as close to home as possible has many advantages in terms of providing employment and increasing wealth, thus raising standards of living.
It increases food security
Buying seasonal, local food allows us to be self-sufficient in our food supply. This was particularly apparent during World War II, when the difficulties of importing became rapidly and starkly apparent and out of necessity British people grew their own produce. Currently, Brexit is looming, and while it is not yet clear how changes in import and export tariffs will affect our food supply, we need to accept that there will be changes ahead. Indeed, the fall in the value of the British pound has already had an impact on the price of our imported fresh produce. Buying locally protects us from changes in economic policy and currency fluctuations.
So why do we eat imported foods?
There are clearly many compelling reasons to buy locally produced, seasonal food. However, we need to ask ourselves why we started to import foods in the first place. It is partly cost: labour costs are cheaper in developing countries, but often this is due to growers and pickers working long hours at subsistence wages – something that few people, when aware of the sacrifices involved, are happy to endorse.
Also, we may be happy to rely on local foods in summer and autumn, but faced with almost nothing but root vegetables and cabbages in the early months of the year many of us feel differently. With a little advance planning, we can still enjoy local produce picked at the height of the season by preserving or freezing produce at its best. Berries and summer fruits make great jams or can be frozen, and vegetable fruits such as aubergines, courgettes and tomatoes can be cooked in bulk as ratatouille and stored in the freezer for months, taking up little space. It is possible to have fresh winter salad ingredients by sprouting your own seeds and growing microgreens on your kitchen windowsill – you can't get more local than that!
Can True Food help me to eat more local, seasonal food?
If you are in favour of buying seasonal, locally produced food, True Food can really help. True Food's prices reflect the seasonality of ingredients on the shelves. Why not gorge on in-season produce now while it's so plentiful and flavourful, accepting that in a few weeks you will have moved on to something else? Buying produce at True Food is an excellent way to keep your diet varied! Also, don't forget the rootle box for produce that is a little past its best or slightly damaged. Rootle fruit and vegetables are perfect for cooking and then storing in your home freezer for the colder months. (As I write I have rootle box tomatoes and peppers slow-roasting in the bottom of the oven while my bread bakes!) It costs almost nothing, and gives you the satisfaction of knowing that it has been produced as locally as possible, with all the benefits that brings.