Eating local, seasonal produce has tremendous benefits for your nutrition, the environment, the local economy, and even your bank account.
In this article, we define local and seasonal food; explain the research and science behind the benefits of eating local, seasonal produce; and suggest ways to include more of these fruits and vegetables in your diet.
What Is Considered Seasonal Produce?
Seasonal produce includes fruits and vegetables available during different months of the year. Temperature variation over the year affects the production cycles of fruits and vegetables, so, in a particular region, different foods grow better at different times of the year.
According to research published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, “Seasonality can be defined as either globally seasonal (i.e., produced in the natural production season but consumed anywhere in the world) or locally seasonal (i.e., produced in the natural production season and consumed within the same climatic zone).”
In this article, we focus on local seasonal produce, which has the most ecological and economic benefits in addition to comparable nutritional benefits.
What Is Considered Local Produce?
Over the past six decades, global food systems have changed significantly. Sixty years ago, about 70 percent of the produce found in markets and grocery stores in the US and much of Europe was grown, produced, and processed within 100 miles of the point of sale. Today, the food travels an average of 1,500 miles before reaching a plate.
The US Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 defines local foods as a locally or regionally produced agricultural food product consumed less than 400 miles from its origin or within the state in which it is produced.
Even so, some organizations define local foods as those produced within 100 miles or within the state. A 2015 study showed that most city populations in the US could be fed by foods produced within 100 miles of them.
However, it is important to remember that food systems’ acceptance of foods in diverse populations is very complex, and sticking to distance to define local foods could be limiting. Other ways to define local food is that which is:
- Bought directly from the farmer
- Food produced in a similar environment to the one you are living or staying in
Ultimately, consumers decide whether the food they purchase is local enough. Keep the potential impact of your produce purchasing decisions, which we address later in this article, in mind when buying your produce to make the most nutritious, ecologically sound, and economically fair choice to take advantage of the benefits of eating locally.
The Connection Between Local and Seasonal Produce
Often when we eat seasonally, we are also eating locally. However, many popular seasonal food retail stores can also meet needs by shipping produce from across the country or importing it.
It is possible to eat produce that is considered seasonal but that was produced thousands of miles away. For example, pumpkins are considered seasonal in the fall. However, to meet the demand for pumpkins, the US imports about one-third of its pumpkins from Mexico. These pumpkins may be considered seasonal in the US, but the distance they need to travel to reach the US offsets some of the economic and ecological benefits of eating foods grown in your region.
Many countries have seasonal produce guides based on national production cycles. However, it is important to consider that some countries, like the US, have varying climates throughout the year. Regions farther from the equator, for example, experience summer, winter, fall, and spring. Regions that are close to the equator tend to have less seasonal variation and generally have a rainy season and a dry season, but they do not have fall or winter.
In other words, you can eat seasonal foods while not eating locally due to importation. It is also possible to eat local foods that are not seasonal with the use of technology such as greenhouses. However, in both of these practices, the ecological and economic benefits of eating local, seasonal foods are not taken advantage of.
Food systems are complex, to say the least. In this article, we make the connection between local and seasonal produce to make more accurate deductions about the benefits of eating food produced close to home.
5 Reasons to Try to Eat More Seasonal, Local Produce
Adds Nutritional Variety to Your Diet
It’s not uncommon to get stuck in a rut and eat the same fruits and vegetables year-round. Seasonal eating can help you gain access to a more varied diet.
Dietary variety is essential for getting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients you may not usually get when you stick to a handful of fruits and vegetables year-round. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization demonstrates that food diversity, in addition to food abundance, is essential for combating micronutrient deficiencies. Eating seasonal produce ensures that you consume a greater variety of foods year-round and thus gain access to a greater variety of produce.
According to the Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, “Farmers producing for a local and direct market such as a farmers market or local restaurant are more likely to place a higher value on plant varieties that are more nutritious, unique, and tasty, instead of yield.” These choices benefit your health and your taste buds!
Supports the Local Economy and Community Connections
When the demand for local food increases, consumers support local economies. Producers benefit through retaining more of the value of their produce than if they had to abide by high visual standards of supermarket produce and had to ship their produce across the country.
With healthier local agricultural economies, you build greater connections between farmers and consumers. Research has shown how building community connections through local agriculture has a positive impact on the economic wellbeing of farmers and people’s diets by creating social relationships through the food production system.
Here is an example to illustrate this connection.
Pamela and her partner go to their local farmer's market for the first time to buy their produce. While there, they learn about a variety of squash they hadn’t heard about before from Ruth, the farm bookkeeper who is also the sister of the farmer who grew them. She tells Pamela and her partner that they are heirloom squash, and she and her brother learned how to grow them from their mother and grandfather. She explains how farming got her grandparents through the depression. After chatting for a while, she shares some recipes with Pamela and invites them to visit the farm, which is only ten miles away.
Pamela joyfully walks away with much more than a fabric shopping bag full of local produce. As she tries out Ruth’s squash soup recipe, she smiles, thinking about how she feels more connected to her food and her community than she ever has before. At the same time, the money she paid helps support Ruth and her family and allows them to continue carrying on the art and history of squash growing.
It Contributes to a More Sustainable Diet
Most current mainstream food systems are not sustainable. They cause resource depletion and have dire impacts on the environment. One group of researchers writes, “the problem is so severe, it can be argued that the food eaten today is equivalent to a fossil resource,” meaning food is like a limited resource, which, in the process of producing and delivering the food, has detrimental effects on the environment and works directly against human food security.
Sustainable diets should be based on:
- Low-input agro-ecological staple food production, including short-distance production and consumption nets (eating locally)
- Minimal food processing and refining
- Maintaining important culinary skills
- Supporting diet and nutrition education and firm links to positive traits of local ancestral cultures
- Appropriate use of recent technology tools
Choosing locally produced, seasonal produce is an important piece of the puzzle when building sustainable diets.
When you purchase locally seasonal produce, it is usually cheaper than buying those same fruits and vegetables in their off-season. This is because, typically, if produce in demand can be met locally, much of the transportation costs are cut out, and it is often in large supply, so it can be sold at lower prices. If food needs to be imported from other regions of the country and world to meet demand, however, prices increase.
To provide an example of this, one study found that cantaloupe cost 36% less in peak season than in the off-season.
Keep in mind, however, that prices can vary significantly even in the same growing season depending on the place you choose to buy your produce. Supermarkets that sell local seasonal produce tend to offer lower prices because of their purchasing power, but small local farmers who focus on quality rather than yield are often unable to sell in these locations.
It Improves Nutrition, Taste, and Quality of Fruits and Vegetables
Many seasonal fruits and vegetables are more nutritious and flavorful than when they are purchased not in season. Strawberries, for example, naturally grow in the summertime. During this time, they are more likely to be more nutritious and flavorful than strawberries that are grown in the wintertime since the climate has to be manipulated artificially with greenhouses.
Additionally, since certain fruits and vegetables have a high demand year-round despite only having one growing season, the seeds are modified to grow in high densities and to resist disease when not in natural growing seasons. Sometimes, these modifications can impede some of the natural nutritional benefits of produce from developing. When fruits and vegetables are grown in their natural season, however, they are more likely to grow and thrive naturally.
This is not to say that produce that is not grown during its peak season is not nutritious. In fact, the nutritional composition of fruits and vegetables grown out of season may only have negligibly lower nutrients than produce growing in season.
However, produce grown during peak production season is more likely to be significantly more flavorful and more enjoyable, and improved flavor is an important factor in modifying fruit and vegetable purchasing behaviors that also have benefits for the environment and local economy.
Tips for Buying More Seasonal Produce
- If you live in the US, browse the USDA SNAP-ed produce guide for a list of produce that is produced seasonally.
- Download resources to help you make seasonal food choices, like the Free Seasonal Food Almanac App for Android and iOS.
- Visit farmer's markets.
- Become a member or support farmer's co-ops.
- Look through the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) directory and find a CSA near you.
Nourishment Over Seasonality
As holistic health and nutrition coaches, it is important to keep in mind that, while eating seasonal, local produce is ideal, it may not be realistic for many people in resource-poor settings given the vast gaps in the current global food system. People who live in urban areas, food deserts, harsh climates, or isolated rural areas or don’t have access to easy transportation may have a difficult time gaining access to local food.
Nourishment—getting enough food and nutrients—is more important than eating seasonally. To learn more about food security and how this may affect individuals’ choices, read this article.
Eating locally seasonal produce is a vital element of a greener eating strategy. The benefits of buying and eating locally seasonal food are wide and far-reaching, beginning at the individual health level and even having the potential to influence entire food systems.
Most consumers lack information about the environmental impacts of food consumption. Environmental arguments alone have not proven effective when trying to influence individual behaviors. However, when the benefits to family budgets, individual nutrition, and the food experience itself are also highlighted, people are more likely to make choices that benefit them as well as the environment and economy.
Article Categories: Food & Nutrition Science