Okay. Before any of you string me up by my toes and stone me, let me just say that buying certified organic produce is definitely beneficial to your health and should be practiced whenever possible.  However, I have found that there is one thing more important than whether produce is grown organically or whether it’s grown conventionally.  That is where the produce is grown.  

I would venture to say that most people buy their food in a supermarket.  Whether that be a grocery store like Kroger or Safeway or if it’s a Walmart or Target, they all kind of get grouped into the same category.  It wouldn’t be much of a mental exercise for you to figure out that your food did not come from the supermarket, that is simply where it is sold.  Where your food is cultivated and harvested might surprise you.

Think about this for a second.  If you walk into a grocery store and look around at the produce section in September and again in February and again in May, the produce selection will be very similar.  Sure, you might have a few things switching out but for the most part, it will be the same from season to season.  But how can that be?  Aren’t different varieties of fruits and vegetables harvested at different times of the year?  Why yes, yes they are.

Most produce you find in the grocery store or supermarket is all from California, Mexico, Florida, and southern parts of Texas.  Then in the heat of summer when those places are too hot, you’ll get produce from Canada or northern parts of the US.  That’s why you will see yellow squash, a variety of vegetable that is typically planted in the early summer or spring and harvested in the summer, 12 months out of the year.  In fact, some tracer studies have found that it takes about 7 weeks for a head of broccoli to make it from the farm to the supermarket.  They pick it, put it on ice or flash freeze it, then ship it off.  It goes to a packaging plant, then to a distribution warehouse, then in just 7 weeks, it’s sitting in the store room of your supermarket… Who knows how many days before it makes it to the shelf and you actually buy it and take it home with you.

Why is this important?

Take my broccoli example above.  The broccoli you picked up at the grocery store on Sunday was actually picked 7 weeks ago… 42 days ago.  Laboratory tests have demonstrated that many vegetables undergo oxidative damage following harvest and quickly lose nutrients.  In fact, broccoli loses about half of its vitamin, mineral and phytonutrient content in just 2 – 3 days.  I’m going to nerd out for a moment… Let’s assume (being optimistic) that the half-life of most of the nutrients in broccoli is 3 days, that means that the amount of nutrients got cut in half 14 times before it makes it to supermarket.  Theoretically, that means that there is only 0.006% of the nutrients left in that head of broccoli.  Now, I don’t think that is necessarily foolproof logic, but it serves as an illustration of how much nutrition we’re losing out on by buying produce that is not local.

You say, well, Brandon, what can I do?  

I’m so glad you asked!  There are two very feasible options.  The first option is to shop your local farmers market.  Generally speaking, the produce found at the farmers market will be grown locally and therefore has only been picked for a few days prior to your purchase.  Much better than 7 weeks I think.  This is a good option during the spring and summer, but may not be an option for many in the cooler months.  Fortunately, near me, there are year round farmers markets that will have fall and winter produce during the colder months.  These will include greens, winter squashes and sweet potatoes.  With a little research there may be one in your area too!

The second option is to join a CSA.  I really like this option out of principle.  Basically, you pay a monthly, biweekly, or weekly fee and a farmer within the CSA gathers up produce from his or her farm and either delivers it to your house or you pick it up from a specified location.  Usually, they’ll arrange pick up days at busy hubs in your town or city to make it more convenient for you.  This produce will also be just a few days removed from the field by the time it makes it to your fridge, preserving many of the nutrients.  This option has the added benefit of supporting local agriculture and many of these farmers responsibly grow their produce, using as little pesticide and chemicals as possible while being diligent about crop rotation and using ground cover.  You can read more about the effects of these practices in my article, “Nutrients of Yesteryear.”
As stated previously, I believe that eating organic whenever possible is a great practice on multiple levels, but, to maximize your nutrient intake, eat produce grown locally by purchasing through your local farmer’s market or CSA.