TreeHugger Town & Country: Local groceries, all winter long

CSA organic carrots
© K Martinko

In this week's addition to our Town & Country series, our two writers share how they shop locally even in the winter.

Katherine: Be willing to accept monotony in your diet.

Eating locally during the winter isn’t easy, especially if you live in a snowy, frigid area of Canada, as I do. Most vegetables don’t grow from September until June, which seriously limits one’s dietary options when trying to eat locally -- but it’s not impossible! I’ve learned a lot about seasonal produce over the past three years, ever since I signed up for a winter CSA (community supported agriculture) share from a local organic farm.

Every other week, I arrive at pick-up to fill a grocery bin with root vegetables – beets, onions, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, yams, sweet potatoes, rutabaga, watermelon radishes – along with cabbage, garlic, squash, and occasionally cold-weather greens, such as kale, spinach, and collards. All of the root vegetables were harvested in the fall and are kept in cold storage for winter distribution. Some of the cold-weather greens continue to grow in an outdoor, partially insulated greenhouse until the temperature gets too cold after Christmas.

winter vegetables from the CSA© K Martinko

The hardest part about eating local produce in the winter is accepting monotony in one’s diet. There are evenings when the last thing my family and I feel like eating is yet another shredded cabbage salad, or roasted cabbage, or sautéed cabbage, but we do it, because substituting a salad of California-grown Romaine lettuce with tomatoes and cucumbers in February is completely unsustainable and ridiculous.

We’ve become a culture accustomed to constant variety of flavour and colour, thanks to the luxury of imported food all year round. In my own conversations about local winter eating, I’ve discovered that many people equate vegetable with greens. “How do you get your greens?” I’m often asked, at which point I explain that we just don’t, because eating greens during winter is a very new phenomenon that’s popped up only in the last two generations. Root vegetables are nutritional powerhouses and sufficient for keeping us healthy until greens come back into season, just when we think we can't swallow another beet.

People survived for millennia in cold-weather regions of the world without importing hot-climate vegetables, and there’s no reason why we can’t continue to do so -- if we care to decrease our consumption footprint on the planet. My grandmother, who grew up in Ontario in the 1930s, confirmed that she, too, ate vast quantities of cabbage all winter long and couldn’t wait for fresh lettuce to appear in the summertime.

And that’s the glorious thing about eating locally in winter – it makes those summer vegetables taste so wonderful! Vegetables are always most delicious (and most healthy) when eaten in their proper season. When the long-awaited seasons for zucchini, tomatoes, and salad greens begin, I gorge myself on those spectacular foods and prepare them in every imaginable way. By then my family is ready to move on to the next vegetable ready for harvest.

I do augment my pantry with a few imported items, such as lemons, cilantro, and oranges, though I try to stick with local fruits. That means a fairly steady diet of apples and pears, along with whatever fruit I picked, froze, or canned. Another staple are the bushels of tomatoes I process and can in late summer – a veritable army of Mason jars lining shelves in the basement.

So, yes, it is possible to eat locally all year round, although it’s challenging if you shop mostly at a supermarket. For some reason, here in Canada, even seasonal winter foods are imported from the U.S., so your best bet is probably to find a winter CSA share. You’ll be surprised at the many options out there, once you start looking.

Margaret: Frost-sweetened spinach

I love to cook, but I am comically terrible at grocery shopping.

If I have someone to cook for, there's no problem, but when I have only myself to feed, I have the bad habit of letting my cabinets go bare. I recently made a dinner of mushrooms and sautéed spinach (the very last of my items in the house), served over rice. "It would have never occurred to me that's a meal," was my roommate's comment. I will never live down the times I baked sweet potato because I couldn't be bothered to even order take-out or when I ate Nutella and melon for lunch. At least nothing goes to waste?

I've considered buying a farm share, but in the end haven't signed up for two reasons. First, I have pretty severe acid reflux, which prevents me from eating a lot of vegetables, like peppers, tomatoes and onions. Second, most of the CSA programs in my area are geared towards families, and I worry that even with a half share I'd end up with way more food than a single person can eat.

Happily, New York City is home to an awesome number of Farmer's Markets. Although I don't shop at them as often as I would like, I always enjoy the experience—even during the cold months. Like Katherine in Canada, the winter offerings in New York tend to be heavy on root vegetables, apples, pears and the occasional greens. While I know many of our readers stick to a vegan diet, there's also no shortage of local, grass-fed, free range meats, eggs, cheeses and milks.

local winter spinach© Margaret Badore

This week, I took home apples, parsnips, pear cider and baby spinach. Yes, it's February but Hawthorne Valley Farm, which is both organic and biodynamic, was selling "frost-sweetened" baby spinach, much to the delight of this salad-lover. Winter is also a great time to make the most of grains. This week I also picked up a heavy loaf of seven-grain bread from Hawthorne, which is great for sandwiches or toast.

Happily, the locavore movement has a lot of fans here in New York. When I can't make it to the market, there's a grocery store in my neighborhood that not only carries local and organic foods, but is also open 24-hours. I do buy some non-local items like bananas and avocados, and also packaged foods like Mac and Cheese and ice cream. It's a compromise, for sure, but at least I can get organic options.

Local sourcing is also important to many restaurants in New York, so being a locavore doesn't mean always cooking at home. Another one of my favorite neighborhood spots is Butcher Bar, which is both a butcher's shop and a restaurant that supports local farms. Eco-friendly restaurants can get pretty pricey in Manhattan and Brooklyn, but I'm happy to have this affordable option here in Queens, for days when my empty cabinets are beyond help.

TreeHugger Town & Country: Local groceries, all winter long
Frozen ground and heavy snowfalls are no reason to stop eating local produce all year round.