Insights by Goldie: The pleasures of the seasonal plate

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in March 2009

During the popular Walk, Talk and Taste tours given in PCC stores, we nutrition advisors frequently encourage eating mostly “seasonal” foods, especially produce. Shoppers often are confused about what the term “seasonal” actually means, however, and why it is important.

Quite simply, “seasonal” refers to locally grown foods that are ripe at certain times of the year. In the Northwest, peaches and cherries are seasonal summer fruits, whereas apples and pears are seasonal winter fruits.

The term “seasonal” also often refers to foods that are harvested at the peak of the season and then periodically released for sale during the winter. Our famous Washington apples are one example — they are picked in the fall but can stay fresh for many months.

The same applies to foods such as hard-shelled “winter” squashes; root vegetables such as beets, turnips, rutabagas and carrots; and alliums including garlic and onions. (Note: Butternut, acorn, and other varieties of “winter” squashes are not to be confused with “summer” squashes such as zucchini, which are less nutritionally dense but are light, low-calorie, high-fiber vegetables best enjoyed within their own season.)

Hardy foods that can be harvested all winter — notably marvelous varieties of greens including kale, chard, collards, broccoli and other cruciferous members of the cabbage-mustard vegetable families — also are seasonal during the cold months when delicate spring lettuces are not yet ready.

When any of these locally grown seasonal foods no longer are available in the quantities necessary for retail stores such as PCC, however, they are brought in from other places including Oregon and California. California also provides foods that never grow locally, such as citrus and avocados, and even though these foods are not local, they still are considered seasonal.

Many shoppers have said that they paid little attention to seasonality until recently. Most didn’t grow up on farms, so they didn’t learn firsthand to harvest raspberries in the summer or pears in the fall.

In fact, learning about seasonality often requires overcoming decades of “conditioning.” Mainstream supermarkets, especially produce sections, intentionally have invested millions of dollars to dazzle and seduce us by offering not mere food, but the drama and experience of a whole world’s food market, available 24/7.

Perishable and exotic fruits and vegetables continuously are sourced from all across the globe, from every time zone (and with great waste of perishables and other resources).

The expenditure of fossil fuels in production, chemicals, fertilizers and transportation is exorbitant considering that each item of food in the typical American meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles — probably a low estimate for winter months in the Puget Sound, when those soft exotic fruits and tropically produced vegetables can be so alluring. This is the very antithesis of seasonality — catering to instant gratification of every demand, erasing any sense of connection to the turning of the seasons within our own region.

Many have shared that a few visits to local farmers’ markets and PCC stores have definitely “opened their eyes!” That is very heartwarming. I do believe our society finally is beginning to connect the dots — starting to understand that the source, quality and quantity of our water, our energy and of our foods are, in fact, intricately interwoven and interdependent — and not to be taken for granted!

It’s in our self-interest, and that of the planet, to deepen our understanding of the issues and our commitment to work for their long-term sustainability. That’s why our seemingly small personal actions can be some of the most powerful. That includes deciding where we shop and learning how to choose (and use!) more local and seasonal food.

For more than 25 years, PCC voluntarily has made it a policy to consistently and accurately label all fresh fruits and vegetables with the country of origin and to label domestic produce by state.

Frequently, we take it one step further — we list the name of the farm or the farmer. It’s an investment in the environment and our community, and it’s a bonus that seasonal foods have superior texture, nutrients and flavor!

Also in this issue

Garbage: Rethinking the need for bags

It’s ugly to admit I have loved the free plastic bags I got from stores. These bad-for-the-planet sacks have lined my kitchen waste container for years. It was the prospect of a proposed 20-cent-per-bag fee at Seattle’s grocery, drug and convenience stores that made me change my wanton ways.

Farm tours mark the 10th anniversary of the PCC Farmland Trust

Beginning in June, take a farm tour on one of the trust's properties to learn about the land and the source of our food as the Farmland Trust celebrates its 10th birthday.

Letters to the editor, March 2009

Electronic Sound Consumer?, Foods from China, Sustainable heating?, and more