Eating in Season: Your Need-to-Know Basics

No matter what month you set foot into the produce section of many supermarkets across the U.S., what meets your eye is an amazing wealth of colors and shapes from the bountiful display of vegetables and fruits. What you see is a virtual feast! In many instances—and regardless of the calendar month—you might find all 38 of our WHFoods Vegetables and all 19 of our WHFoods Fruits. However, the colors and shapes that catch your eye in any given month do not necessarily represent foods of the exact same quality in terms of flavor, texture, nutritional quality, or potential health benefits. That's because each variety of vegetable and fruit has its own unique and preferred growing season. Due to ways in which our food supply has changed, however, it has become more and more difficult to appreciate this seasonal aspect of our food.

How Things Have Changed in the Produce Section

Thanks to the globalization of our food supply and everyday distribution of vegetables and fruits worldwide, what catches our eye in the produce section might be a food from North America, Central America, South America, or from countries as far away as Australia, South Africa, and China. In many cases, certified organic vegetables and fruits are also likely to have traveled long distances from other countries. To better understand how this worldwide distribution of food works, let's take the example of avocados.

Within the U.S., July is typically the biggest month for shipment of domestically grown avocados. For example, 947 million pounds of domestically grown avocados were shipped within the U.S. in July 2016. This volume was 20% more than any other month, and more than twice the amount for any month between August and March. From this perspective, we might call July the "peak month" for avocados.

However, since avocados shipped from Mexico, Chile, Peru, and the Dominican Republic often greatly outnumber domestic shipments, monthly avocado totals not only get significantly increased but they also get evened out, resulting in 1.5-2.5 billion pounds of avocados made available each month for commercial storage facilities, commercial food processors, and, of course, U.S. consumers in supermarkets across the country. Given this year-round import of avocados from other countries, together with strong U.S. harvest from February through September, it seems reasonable to ask whether growing seasons still matter, and if "eating in season" still makes sense.

Why Eating in Season Remains Important

All of the plants that we eat—including vegetables and fruits—owe their existence to the rhythm of the seasons. While we might think about this plant-season relationship as nothing more than a question of mere survival, this relationship extends much further. Plants are nothing short of astonishing in the "sense" that they have developed for the seasons. Plants "know" when spring is about to arrive because they can sense the shrinking hours of darkness during the night, or the accumulation of chilling hours over the winter. From season to season, the pigments in plants change both in number and pattern in order to optimize intake of sunlight. In one study, researchers have found the flavonoid amounts in broccoli to vary four-fold depending on the season in which it was grown. In another study, the anthocyanin content of pomegranate was determined to vary two-fold in relationship to season. Vegetables and fruits grown in season are not guaranteed to have the most nutrients since there are many different factors at work here (for example, soil quality, water availability, geography, and landscape). But you can increase your chances of higher nutrient quality by selecting vegetables and fruits grown in season.

Eating in season is important for other reasons as well. Foods planted and harvested in season tend to thrive in ways that out-of-season foods do not. Vegetables and fruits need enough time to develop during the growing season in order to fully mature. In addition, they need the right conditions to flower and produce fruit. Unless timed properly, the result can be insufficient texture, flavor, or insufficient nutrient content in comparison to the expectations that we would normally have for any particular vegetable or fruit. One great way to summarize these circumstances is with the word "freshness"! Freshness means thriving, freshly harvested in-season foods!

The fact that vegetables and fruits tend to thrive when they are in season can also help make them less expensive. Sometimes you can get fantastic deals on vegetables and fruits when they are at their seasonal peak! One of the reasons that you can end up with these cost savings involves the balance between supply and demand. When plants thrive, there can be an overabundance at the time of harvest and lower prices can help clear the shelves of this overabundance.

In-season eating can also be important from the standpoint of sustainable agriculture. While it is not impossible to grow foods year-round in a sustainable way—for example, through the use of passive-solar high tunnels (solar-heated hoop houses) to grow varieties of lettuce, spinach, and leafy greens in parts of the country that experience cold winters—the most natural way to grow foods is to let natural outdoor temperatures and moisture ranges and sunlight patterns take over. In addition, for vegetables and fruits that are insect-pollinated, special steps must be taken to bring about pollination unless plants and pollinators are naturally in sync with the flow of the seasons.

Because seasons form the natural backdrop for the life of plants, it only makes sense for them to serve as the natural backdrop for planting, harvesting, and eating!

Our WHFoods Seasonal Produce Chart

At WHFoods, we believe that seasonal eating remains as important as ever! For this reason, we have created a 12-month Seasonal Produce Chart that includes virtually all of our WHFoods Vegetables and Fruits. As a strategy for creating this Seasonal Produce Chart, we reviewed harvest information from the states of California, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, and Connecticut, as well as nationwide in-season recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA's) SNAP-Ed (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education) that is funded by the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). We hope you will enjoy using this chart to make your in-season selections both easier and more frequent!

A Special Note about Farmer's Markets and Locally Grown Foods

In many instances, there is no better way to guarantee in-season foods than to visit a local farmer's market. When foods are grown in your immediate community or region, they not only share your exact same season of the year, but they don't require extended periods of time for shipment to your community. Some on-farm stands feature vegetables and fruits that were harvested on the same day as purchase, and others actually offer a "you pick" option. While locally grown vegetables and fruits are not guaranteed to be high quality, they are highly likely to be grown in season and to be made available to you on that basis. It's also worth noting here that many of the vegetables and fruits that you see at a farmer's market may not be labeled as organic but may have been grown using the same principles, and perhaps even principles more carefully focused on sustainability.

Another great source of in-season options are Community Supported Agriculture groups (CSAs) in your area. CSAs are a way to support and buy produce directly from farmers. In most CSAs, you make a financial commitment up front to purchase foods throughout the growing season; yet, depending upon the CSA involved, this expense may work out very reasonably on a week-by-week basis.

One website that we like for finding locally-grown, in-season foods is Local Harvest. You can use the search field on this website to search by zip code or town name to find farms, farmer's markets, and CSAs in your local area. You can also search by food name!

Priorities for Eating in Season

When we compare all of the in-season options described above, we consider the priorities described below as your best bet for eating in season:

Our Food of the Week Schedule

Each week our website celebrates our Food of the Week. One of our key goals in presenting you with a Food of the Week is to give you a practical option for enjoying a food that is in season! Occasionally, we will feature an out-of-season food as our Food of the Week. For example, we feature strawberries on the week of Valentine's Day, even though we know that their more natural months would be April through June. But we also know that chocolate-covered strawberries are a popular choice on Valentine's Day! Overall, however, our featured Food of the Week allows you visit our website year-round and get practical information for an in-season food, as well as an easy-to-follow and delicious recipe that features our in-season selection.

References

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