Although I grew up as a city girl, a memorable period of my childhood was spent in the English countryside. Of those days, I recall most fondly the harvest season. Because the local farmers couldn’t handle the workload by themselves (we are talking agriculture before heavy machinery came into use), all able bodies in the nearby villages, including young children, were enlisted to bring in the crops.
Harvesting then was a race against time and we all had a sense of urgency. Having enough food to get us safely through the winter was not to be taken for granted. Relying on imports from far-flung places around the world was not an option. “Locally grown” was not a slogan back then, it was all we had available to us.
Having successful harvests is a major concern in all societies, including ours. ‘Thanksgiving’ is one of our most celebrated holidays. Harvest festivals of all sorts are observed around the globe and they have a similar meaning, namely to commemorate the fact that survival is not guaranteed but depends on hard work as well as the cooperation of forces beyond our control. In a way, as joyful an event as it may be, this should be a rather humbling experience. It shows us that we are ultimately not in command of our fate, at least not at all times and in every regard.
When news broke last summer that record heat waves were devastating crops all over the country, dramatic increases in food prices were announced almost immediately. That put families on already tight food budgets further at risk of malnutrition and diet-related diseases. Widespread hunger, in the past only considered a persistent problem in developing countries, is becoming a reality here as well.
It is also a sad fact that hunger and obesity often go together, especially among poor children. The most affordable foods are typically highly processed and laden with refined carbohydrates, fat, salt and sugar, all ingredients known to cause weight gain while offering little nutritional value.
Buying locally grown fresh foods can offer a better alternative for everyone, including low-income families. “By focusing your diet on products grown and raised within 100 miles of your home, you will likely end up eating more fruits and vegetables as well,” says Tara Parker-Pope, a health and nutrition writer and frequent contributor to the New York Times/Well blog. She recommends that consumers shop as often as possible at local farmers markets, not only because of the higher food quality at lower cost but also to support food producers who practice more sustainable farming methods.
People need to understand that processed, pre-packaged foods like fast foods and frozen dinners may be convenient and readily available throughout the year, regardless of season or choice of ingredients – but they come at a steep price that is not reflected at the drive-through or checkout counter. To comprehend the real costs of our modern eating styles, we also have to consider the heavy dependency on fossil fuels for fertilizers and pesticides as well as long-distance transportation and refrigeration.
For these reasons and others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend making buying locally grown and harvested foods a priority in every household. Eating nearby grown produce is not only healthier, according to the agency, it also helps the environment and climate by reducing the amounts of energy it takes to put dinner on the table.
So, when you and your loved ones get together this coming Thanksgiving to count your blessings, why not discuss some ideas how you can personally make a few smart diet and lifestyle changes. They eventually may add up to significant differences for both you and the world around you.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.