Your Food Is Better Traveled Than You
If you heard that your food is better traveled than you are, would you be surprised? Fact is, it is. The slogan ‘Farm to Fork’ leaves out the detail that oceans may have been crossed in between. Yes, it is very likely that the produce that constitutes your food has crossed borders between states, if not countries and continents.
Consumers, today, expect to have all kinds of fruit and veggies available, year round. That demand shapes how grocery stores shop for their produce. Small, local farmers, by themselves, aren’t going to grow that kind of volume, to meet that kind of demand and definitely not year round, especially in cold regions. As a result, middle men called distributors, scout for multiple sources of produce, further and further away; store the fruit in temperature controlled local warehouses; and truck an order over when a local grocery store has a request. In your grocery stores today, the peaches, plums, and nectarines may be from South America, the kiwis may have flown in from Italy, and the grapes crossed over from Chile. And that’s just the beginning.
Unfortunately, all it takes is three days after harvest for most produce to begin losing as much as 30 percent of its nutrients. Chicago Tribune’s Monica Eng reports that, “University of California studies show that vegetables can lose 15 to 55 percent of vitamin C, for instance, within a week. Some spinach can lose 90 percent within the first 24 hours after harvest.” So just how nutritious are those peaches, plums, and nectarines from South America?
But that’s not half as surprising as what you’re about to learn. Produce like apples ripen from August to September in the United States so if you see them year-round that’s thanks to chemicals and cold storage in a warehouse for nine to twelve months. Yes, you read that right! According to Delish.com, “one investigation showed that, on average, apples are fourteen months old.”
Not only does it have consequences for our health, but also the environment. Natural Resources Defense Council’s (a New York based advocacy group) November 2007 publication reports, “In 2005, the import of fruits, nuts, and vegetables into California by airplane released more than 70,000 tons of CO2, which is equivalent to more than 12,000 cars on the road”.
To have produce last that long a couple of things are at play. Farmers have to ensure that produce travels all those miles without turning to mush. One solution is picking the produce well before it’s ripe. To lengthen their shelf life, produce such as bananas, avocados, mangoes, and tomatoes are picked when they are still green and distributors ‘gas’ them with ethylene in warehouses in time for stocking on grocery shelves. “What happens next is similar to placing green mangoes in a closed rice bin to ripen, like we did back in India,” says Smitha Patel, a San Francisco-based nutritionist and foodie. “The uncooked rice traps the ethylene, a natural plant hormone, released by the mangoes and that quickens the ripening process. The idiom ‘one bad apple spoils the barrel’ is based on the scientific fact that a rotting apple emits excessive ethylene, which accelerates the ripening of other apples stored with it. There are no known food safety concerns associated with this process, as commercial ethylene mimics its natural version in its molecular structure.
There is another way of making it look appetizing and keeping it from spoiling. It sometimes makes it look prettier than it does on a tree. Produce is sprayed with food-grade wax that contains fungicides that nip mold growth in the bud and “controls fruit respiration to delay ripening” and “protects from bruising while the fruit travels,” according to The Atlantic. Before the idea of fruit wax makes you gag, the tradition of waxing fruit to preserve its condition goes back even as far as the 12th and 13th century in Southern China!
Given the consumer’s demand for year-round available, cosmetically perfect, bruise-free produce, what are grocery stores to do? You and I, apparently, are so picky about how our produce looks that grocery stores have to discard as much as 10 percent of their food annually, contributing to the 133 billion pounds–one third of all food produced–of food thrown away in the United States each year, according to the USDA.
‘Buy Local’ enthusiasts decry the global carbon footprint left by all those trucks, ships, and other means of refrigerated foods transportation, and rightly so. But isn’t fresh produce a better alternative to processed foods? There is a middle ground, according to the CUESA, (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture), an organization “dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs.”
“Rebuilding a local food system doesn’t mean you never eat anything that has flown overseas, it just means that you start with what is fresh, local, and seasonal,” is the CUESA approach. There’s no harm in having mangoes flown in from India, if the ice-cream it’s served with in Chicago is made with milk from local dairy farmers across the border in Wisconsin.
Towards this end, the CUESA manages farmers markets in San Francisco and Oakland. It also offers research and teacher’s resources on garden based learning so schools can learn what makes for more nutritious and tastier eating and get kids to recognize what their food chain actually comprises. Teaching them while they are still young about their food, and doing it hands-on through programs such as Foodwise Kids and Schoolyard to Market, is one approach CUESA takes to instill awareness and appreciation for what goes into their bellies.
Many kids today don’t know that pasta and pizza are both made from wheat that’s grown on a farm or that apples are fall fruits. One school district that teaches through gardening is Glen Ellyn, Illinois, school district 41. One of the school district’s most successful Problem-Based Learning Initiative was when Ms. Heidi Hann’s seventh graders turned to vegetable gardening to solve a problem—hunger. The kids created a vegetable patch to grow organic produce for their local food pantry and, in 2016, their first year had 400 pounds of produce! The students researched how to keep the rabbits away and eliminated tarp so plastic didn’t go into the environment. They used twine products to hold up teepees for vine-type plants so they could be reused or break down naturally. Not only did they learn what went into growing food, which wasn’t just something that came out of a box, but also that giving back to the community was important. Given the miles it takes for our food to get to us, and its impact on nutrition and the environment, it may not be a bad idea for adults to do the same.
Naazish YarKhan (www.writersstudio.us) is a writer, editor and a college essay coach and has contributed to NPR, PRI and more.