Eating Locally and Nutrition

We hear plenty about how eating local foods, which inherently involves eating seasonal foods, is a great benefit to the local economy and farmers, as well as to the environment. Use of fossil fuels is drastically reduced, as are packaging and other forms of waste. But does eating locally, particularly is the winter months, provide adequate nutrition?

The answer is “yes”, although some general tips may be needed in order to pinpoint staple foods that are available year-round (grains, meats and dairy, nuts, seeds and oils) and the seasonal foods, generally produce, that will complement them to provide adequate nutrition. It is a good idea to include some combination of these foods every day:

  • Whole grains (oats, barley, whole wheat breads and pastas, quinoa, brown rice, etc.) will provide some protein, carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Fiber plays a key role in preventing heart disease and some cancers, and keeps your body regular and able to remove toxins.
  • Meats (including eggs and fish) provide protein and fat, as well as some vitamins and minerals, some in larger quantities than those found in plant-based foods. Grass-fed animals produce meat that has a better proportion of healthy fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for reducing inflammation in the body.
  • Beans (dried or canned) provide protein and carbohydrate, fiber, vitamins and minerals. These are a great staple for vegetarians, as they contain some hard-to-find minerals, like iron and zinc that are most plentiful in meats.
  • Dairy also provides protein and fat, as well as calcium and Vitamin D, nutrients that help keep your bones strong and may also prevent certain cancers.
  • Nuts and seeds provide healthy fats, protein and some vitamins and minerals. They are also good fiber sources.
  • Oils, such as canola and olive oils, provide healthy fats and vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps to keep hair and skin healthy as well.

The foods listed above can provide a backbone to your diet to keep it healthy year-round. Now let’s fill it in with fruits and veggies! Here are general lists of what is available in Southwest VA, by season:

  • Winter: some greens (kale, Swiss chard), potatoes and sweet potatoes, apples, onions, garlic, leeks, winter squash (acorn, butternut, spaghetti), and root vegetables (carrots, radishes, beets).
  • Spring: mushrooms, asparagus, spinach and other greens, turnips, peas, lettuce and mesclun greens; winter squash, potatoes, and onions are still available.
  • Summer: apples, berries, eggplant, peppers, pears, greens, melons, peaches, nectarines, grapes, cucumbers, summer squash, okra, green beans, corn, tomatoes.
  • Autumn: squash, pumpkins, broccoli, apples, pears, onions, garlic, leeks, peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, corn.

Fresh fruit stand with boysenberries, raspberries, cherries and grapes

Getting 4-7 servings of various fruits and veggies each day will provide the vitamins and minerals that you need in addition to the other nutrients found in the “staple foods”. Remember to focus on getting variety, choosing lean, grass-fed meats and whole grains, and getting plenty of fruits and veggies. Finally, don’t forget to enjoy your food!

How Far Away is Still Local?

The local-eating movement is gaining momentum, especially in areas like Blacksburg, where local farming and food production like baking and making cheese, butter and jams create wonderful opportunities for foodies each week at the Farmer’s Market. Even Virginia Tech has the Farms and Fields Project, providing locally produced food when available, and organic food to supplement it. But when it comes to purchasing food, how can we prioritize all the different foods- local, organic, etc? What is considered local?

When it comes to choosing what kind of food to buy, the S-L-O principle is a great place to start: S-seasonal; L- local; O- organic. Here’s why:

  • Seasonal foods are the freshest and have not undergone extensive growing methods to make them grow in unusual regions, or been shipped in from far-away lands. Although the global marketplace allows us to buy these foods, these are not the most sustainable options. Locally grown fruits and vegetables are the primary foods that are available in our area in-season.
  • Local foods are usually seasonal as well, and now you’re supporting your local economy! Even if you don’t want to change your eating habits drastically, buying local foods when available rather than the same food from 3000 miles away will do a world of good! Staples such as breads, dairy, eggs and meats are great examples of locally available foods in Southwestern VA.
  • Organic Foods are grown with the farmer and land in mind, and with less pesticide use. When a food is not available locally, choose organic to promote sustainable farming practices and healthier food choices overall. Nuts and seeds are a good example of foods that may not be locally available very often, but can be found organic and in bulk for easier (and probably cheaper!) purchasing.

So, how do we define local? We don’t. The idea is to get as close as you can, when you can. The closest option for local produce is to grow your own. Talk about getting your money’s worth! But a personal garden is not realistic for many people. That is why we are promoting awareness of local foods. Going to the Farmer’s Market when possible is a great way to follow the S-L-O principle. Looking at food labels to see where the food you are purchasing was grown or produced, and maybe choosing a closer one when possible, is a good choice also. And finally, choosing to dine at establishments that utilize local and/or organic food is great too. Take a look at the NRV Local Food Directory (available on the VT College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Extension and Outreach website: by clicking here) for listings of farmers, restaurants, local food brands and Farmer’s Markets for more information.

Resources:

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