My heart gets a warm glow in it every time I open the freezer door. The freezer is tucked away in the basement between the breaker box, an old well and the recycling bins. Inside it is a rainbow of colors: red, orange, yellow, green and purple.
It is chock full of food grown by local farmers: red raspberries, butternut squash, sweet corn, broccoli, blueberries and many shades of peppers. It is the first time since buying the freezer three years ago that we have managed to fill it. All of the ingredients are destined for soups, omelets, pancakes, smoothies and more. By spring, with luck, the freezer will be bare, and we will be ready to start over.
I got really into storing food for the winter a couple of years ago at a local grocery store. My wife had just placed a bag of frozen broccoli in the cart. Somehow, a tiny label on the bottom caught my eye. "Grown in China."
Pictured above, a variety of produce can be stored for winter.
Grown in China? The broccoli we were going to buy was grown halfway around the world, in a place I have never been to and will probably never see. It traveled, frozen, in a boat, to a freezer truck and then to a store.
Imagine the energy that took. It took gas to run the tractors in the fields and more gas to run the freezers on the boat as it traveled thousands of miles. Then there was even more gas to drive the frozen broccoli to the store. All so I could buy something to help a farmer on the other side of the planet while eating summer food in the winter. According to a 2010 New York Times article, we import $3 billion worth of food from China each year.
I couldn't do it. The broccoli returned to the freezer section, and I made a promise to myself to try not to buy things from across the world if they could be grown locally.
This has helped me become aware of the seasons. I know when strawberries get ripe, when to start buying sweet corn and when to get out to the U-pick berry patches to pick berries. Fall is the squash season, with a bushel of squash getting chopped and cooked and put into the freezer. (I like chopping. It gets rid of a lot of those internalized anger issues.) Bit by bit, season by season, the freezer filled to the brim.
It took less work than expected. It was a couple hours of picking berries here and there in the summer, cooking an extra dozen ears of corn for dinner to scrape off the cob, an hour or two of squash chopping in the fall every couple of weeks.
Most of the effort was in paying attention to the world. Each week of the season brought new produce with it. Strawberries gave way to blueberries which stop around the time raspberries ripened. Spinach disappeared from the market around the time kale and swiss chard appeared.
I really have to hand it to all the farmers. They have the ability to plan, plant and care for an entire spring, summer and fall's worth of food for me to eat months before I show up to eat it. It really made me aware of what is growing here and when.
While Warren's farmers market closed at the end of October (and I already miss it), the one in Jamestown has moved indoors and is at the Lillian Ney Renaissance Center on Thursdays.
We are fortunate to live in a time when, for a price, we can pretend it is summer all the time and eat fresh food year round. There are always berries from Chile and New Zealand, fresh greens from California, bananas from Costa Rica, and food from all over. All of it comes at a cost. It's the cost of gas and water to grow food, gas to transport food, and gas to bring it home.
When you buy something grown locally, everyone benefits. Not only do you keep the money in the community by supporting your neighbors, but you also eliminate the impact of burning gallons and gallons of fuel to bring that food around the world.
Thinking about the foods that I still buy from other places, such as pineapples, bananas and other foods that don't grow here, made me think of my compost pile as a melting pot of global nutrients. The compost pile is where I dump banana skins, orange peels, mango pits and pineapple cores so they can rot into soil. I add this soil into my garden to grow onions, potatoes, peas and other veggies.
My garden soil is better traveled than I am. It is made up of nutrients and minerals that were in vegetable scraps from California, pineapples from Hawaii, mangos from Costa Rica, tea from Argentina and bananas from all over the tropical world. There is only one person I have met who is as well traveled as the dirt in my garden.
It is humbling and disturbing to think of the world that way. We live in a society of perpetual summer, where people who live in the tropics send us food all year round at a tremendous cost. Much of this food is thrown away. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen boxes of rotten bananas and other produce piled behind stores. We import food from around the globe to feed our hunger for fresh produce, then toss it into a landfill where the nutrients will be unavailable for thousands of years.
Next time you shop, stop for a second and look at where your food came from. Think about the journey it took to get to your hand. As the holiday season approaches, look for local food for your feasts and local presents for your friends and family. (Visit our Don't Buy It; Make It event on Nov. 23 for gift making.) It will make a world of difference to your community.
The Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn until dusk. The building is on winter hours and is open Mondays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Visit jamestownaudubon.org or call 569-2345 for more information.
Jeff Tome is a naturalist at the Audubon Center & Sanctuary.