Farmer's markets and CSAs
The supermarket isn't your only choice for obtaining food. In addition to health food stores and giants such as Whole Foods that specialize in organic, relatively additive-free foods, most of us have seasonal access to farmers markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture).
Farmers markets have become increasingly popular. According to Wikipedia, their numbers have grown from 1,755 in 1994 to 5,274 in 2009. Locally grown foods have caught on, and that's good for everyone. These markets offer fresh food in season--and the season may be longer than you think--and give you a chance to talk with the grower. Not only can you find out about the farmer's agricultural practices, you can often get tips on how to cook and store the foods you're buying, and even get help solving a gardening problem of your own. I know I certainly have.
Farmers markets are also important for local agriculture. Small farmers get very little of the money you fork over for goods at the supermarket. When you buy at a farmers market, you get fresh food--much higher in nutrients than supermarket produce, which loses more nutrients the older it gets--but you are also supporting local farmers and gardeners. You may also find vegetables you can rarely get in stores, like fresh peas or Swiss chard, because the farmer doesn't have to ship them all over the place or worry that there's not a huge enough market for a specific item to justify carrying it.
Many farmers markets offer locally produced honey and maple syrup. It's an especially good idea to buy local honey, as there are no federal regulations defining honey or spelling out what it can contain. Some commercial honeys have sugar syrup added, possibly along with other adulterations. Local honey will vary in flavor and color depending on the blossoms visited by the bees. In my experience, it tends to be less bland, and I swear that I can actually smell the flowers.
If you want to find organic whole grains, the farmers market might be the place to find out where to buy them, if nobody offers any at the market itself. Same goes for naturally raised meats, free-range chickens, and eggs. Our farmers market sometimes has tables or booths where farmers advertise their products, offer to sell shares of their cows, and so on. One farm even has home-made cheeses that they sell occasionally at the market.
I love farmers markets. There's an almost carnival-like atmosphere at the best ones, with people stopping to chat and a general feel-good vibe. Seeing the piles of vegetables of every hue and shape is a lift in itself. Before we started growing our own veggies, I always over-bought at the farmers market, because everything looked so darn good I wanted it all! We often made two trips back to the car in those days ...
Local foods are also kinder to the environment. Many local gardeners grow their crops organically, although they may not go through the arduous process of having them certified as such. They're not dumping noxious chemicals into the soil, causing water runoff problems and putting stuff in your food you'd rather not have there. They're also not using fossil fuels to transport their foods over long distances, and they're not overpackaging (just a bag for the veggies, maple syrup in a quart bottle, and so on).
You can find a farmers market near you at Local Harvest. If you haven't made it a practice to shop at your local farmers market, do yourself and those you feed a big favor and find one. It was a tradition with us on Saturday mornings, spring through fall, to go to ours back before we had a big garden of our own.
Local Harvest can also put you in touch with a CSA. Community-suppoted agriculture is becoming more popular. Where we currently live, we've seen an expansion in the number of CSAs. What's a CSA? Read on.
A typical arrangement is that you sign on with a farm--sometimes a small network or cooperative of farms--to receive a weekly allotment of vegetables and sometimes fruits and herbs. You pay a set amount and get your food for a certain number of weeks. What you get depends on what's in season and bountiful. Often, you can pay a reduced price in return for a few hours of labor on the farm. Sometimes a CSA will deliver the weekly box of goodies; others require you to pick them up every week.
I've never used a CSA, but people who do seem to love them. One of my daughter's friends commented that she had really gotten an education in cooking vegetables she'd never previously tried, just because they were part of the weekly delivery. Kind of like getting a surprise once a week. And it makes you really eat your vegetables, because you've paid for them up front and who wants to waste money? So if this sounds like something you'd like, check out Local Harvest and see if there's one not far from you.
Growing your own
Maybe you're not the gardening type, or maybe you don't have the space for a garden. Or maybe it just seems intimidating. Well, I'm here to tell you that today, just about everybody can grow something edible. You can grow herbs in a pot on a sunny window sill. There are kits available that let you grow salad greens on your kitchen counter. Heck, mushrooms grow in the dark, and you can buy kits for that. Check out some seed catalogs on-line if you have the urge to grow something and don't have much space.
If you have a patio or small backyard, there are more possibilities, and you can start small--or stay small. But today there are, for example, varieties of tomatoes meant to be grown in containers, or even upside-down in a hanging planter. Think it's silly? Have you ever tasted a fully ripe tomato you just picked?
Some vegetables and herbs make beautiful borders or just dress up a yard. If I didn't have a big garden, I'd consider growing red and green leaf lettuces in a sunny bed in the yard. They are beautiful, with color variations and differing leaf shapes and sizes. Perennial herbs, like oregano, chives, lavender, thyme and so on, would also be in my yard, provided it had enough sun. Some ornamental peppers are edible, and they're vivid, bright fruits against green foliage. All I'm saying is that you don't have to dig up your yard to grow a few things.
Trellising is another option for those with limited space. You can trellis tomatoes (as we have the past two years), cucumbers, pole beans, and peas, for starters. When we lived in town we had a trellis for sugar snap peas. Jim constructed it so that the trellis arched overhead, and the kids loved walking through as if in a tunnel, snapping off peas as they went.
If you have any interest in this at all, do consult some seed catalogs and be amazed at the variety of seeds and ways to grow them. Even if you buy seedling plants instead of seeds, the catalogs often contain a wealth of information on how to grow vegetables and fruits, especially on-line. But remember, reading about gardening and gardening itself are two different things--you can't really know how to do it until you actually do it. It's one of those hands-on learning things. Which is why it's fun!
Locally raised meats and poultry
It's worth the time and effort to locate sources of humanely raised pork, grass-fed beef, and free-range chickens (and chicken eggs). Sometimes, as I noted above, farmers markets will have free-range eggs--ours does--and even meats, or at least will have one or more sellers who will take orders.
Eat Wild is a web site that includes a directory of sources for non-factory-farm meat animals, eggs and dairy. Some producers will even ship foods to you. Some will send you samples. I highly recommend grass-fed beef and animals raised without hormones or antibiotics. Animals allowed to graze, or who are fed the diet they were meant to eat, are raised humanely, an important consideration for me. Their meat is also better for us meat-eaters. And it tastes better, too. I'd often heard it said that grass-fed beef has a stronger taste. Yeah: it HAS a taste. For years I wondered why I couldn't replicate my mother's pot roast and gravy. The answer became clear the first time I cooked a grass-fed chuck roast.
Some farmers offer cuts of meat; others, quarters or halves. In the latter case, you'll need a chest freezer, and probably a family to share with. We order our beef from a guy who's absolutely dedicated to his animals and to cross-breeding so the beef has better flavor, marbling, and so on. (Bonus, in his case: he's one of the few people anywhere to dry-age the beef.) Grass-fed and naturally raised animals generally are leaner. I've learned that free-range chickens and grass-fed beef need care in cooking, but that's not hard to learn.
Not too far from us is a family that raises hogs. They sell their products (frozen) at one of the local farmers markets, at some local stores, or at their farm store. (This last involves the customer driving up to the house and knocking on the door to get someone to come out and sell him/her the products--we live in the country, you know.)
If you've never eaten a fresh, free-range egg, boy are you in for a treat. You'll be shocked at the color of the yolk--more of a bright orange than yellow--and by the flavor. Free-range eggs are higher in omega-3 fatty acid, higher in vitamin E, and have greater amounts of other nutrients than conventionally raised chicken eggs. The so-called free-range eggs in the supermarket can't compare, mainly because they're not really free-range; they're allowed access to the outside, which may be a barren square of fenced-in dirt. During the summer, real free-range chickens are eating weeds, grasses, and insects, and that diet makes for a richly flavored, brightly-yoked egg.
So get out of the supermarket and find out where your food really comes from and who grows it. It's more fun than the supermarket, more social, and offers fresher, much higher quality food. Be adventurous!