Tutorial Tuesday #3–10 Tips for Efficient Farmers Market Shopping

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Welcome to another Tutorial Tuesday!

Note: The photo above is from one of the many little neighborhood fresh markets in Paris. Interestingly, families in Paris don’t shop once a week or once a month–they shop several times a week and buy what is fresh. This is easier because most people walk to and from work (or the metro) and the markets are everywhere. If I could walk past a bakery and purchase fresh bread every few days, I certainly would do it!

Shifting your food shopping from the grocery store to the farmer’s market can present some challenges. You don’t always know what you’ll find at the market (especially when you’re first starting out) and you do need to have a bit more flexibility in your meal planning. Continuing the theme of how to shop efficiently and affordably while still eating local, I have 10 tips from our own family experience!

Tip One–Know your farmers, know your farmers, know your farmers.

Before starting our locavore journey, my only experience with asking produce questions was asking the “produce manager” in our local grocery store, who usually knew almost nothing about produce or cooking. So, I was pretty shy and hesitant about asking farmers information. I thought it might be rude. But you know what? Farmers LIKE answering questions and they LOVE talking about what they grow. And guess what else? Many of them cook this food themselves! Also, farmers, in my limited experience, are pretty practical folks. If you say you’re on a budget and you have xx to spend on vegetables, they can give you lots of ideas for how to stretch your dollars and feed your family. Try THAT at your local grocery store!

Tip Two–Use Social Media

You know those picture books with Farmer Brown plowing a field with oxen or riding in a horse and buggy? Well, those books need a major update. Most farmers who sell to local markets are pretty media savvy (or at least they are getting there). They probably have a Facebook page, an email newsletter and/or Twitter account. Crazy, right? I get weekly postings on what is available from local farmers and farmer’s markets in my area. That saves me a LOT of time when planning menus because I’m not guessing at what I’ll find.

Tip Three–Pre-order the Important Stuff

Related to Tip Two, I’ve found that I can easily pre-order cuts of meat, types of cheese, seafood, eggs and large amounts of produce (like strawberries for jam) and pick them up at my local farmer’s market. Farmer’s like this because they know they are bringing items to market that will be sold. And I love it because I don’t have to get to the market only to find out that no one has any chicken breasts left.

Tip Four–Allow Flexibility for the Unexpected

From menu planning/shopping system, you might think I’m a control freak. Well, that would be partially true, but I also love getting to the market and finding out that something new is available. If I’ve planned my menu right (see below), I may be able to add something unexpected into our menu. Or maybe it becomes a lunch snack. I can also make a note of it and work it in next week. The point is, don’t make yourself so controlled that you miss the beauty of the market.

One example of this is my Slightly Badass Blackberry Jam. Be open to the possibilities as long as you can use the produce!

Tip Five–Incorporate Some “Go-To” Flexible Recipes

I have plenty of recipes (roast chicken) in my culinary tool box that are pretty straightforward, simple and easy on the brain. I like to have some other, flexible, veggie-loving recipes that are always in rotation and can use almost anything in the refrigerator. These recipes are a good way to use up what’s left at the end of the week and a great way to incorporate those unexpected purchases. Here are some examples:

  • Stir-fry (one protein + chopped up veggies + onion + a whole grain)
  • Quiche/frittata (basic quiche/frittata recipe + 1 c. vegetables)
  • Pizza (one whole wheat crust + 2 c. chopped veggies + sauce/olive oil + cheese)
  • Roasted vegetables and pasta (16 oz. pasta + 2-3 c. roasted veggies + sauce/olive oil + cheese)
  • Saladpalooza (bowl of washed greens + assortment of chopped veggies + 1 protein + dressing)
  • Soup (4 c. chicken stock + pasta/rice + 3 c. sautéed vegetables)
  • Quesadillas (2 tortillas + fat-free refried beans + 1 c. sautéed vegetables + cheese + salsa)

These are all recipes that can use unlimited combinations of vegetables, grains and protein, making the most of what is seasonal and available!

Tip Six–Shop With a List

Now that I’ve addressed flexibility, once you have your list, stick to it unless you are POSITIVE you will use it. Back away from the impulse purchases that have no relationship to your menu. If you don’t have a recipe that will accommodate, say, rutabegas, and you can’t freeze them for later (see below), then do not buy them. I mean it…scoot, scoot!

Tip Seven–Make Use of What You Have

Americans throw away an obsene amount of food each year. Sometimes it happens that I get a huge amount of one vegetable in our Produce Box and it’s more than we can eat right away. Or maybe we have a last-minute change of plans and we don’t end up eating all our meals. In this case, the freezer is your best friend. Rather than throw away chicken because we didn’t make a big dinner, I can roast or bake it while we’re finishing up homework, take it off the bone and freeze it for later. Or, like last week when I received WAY more spring onions that we needed, I chopped them up, bagged them in freezer bags in 1 cup servings and froze them for later. Greens, like collards, mustard greens, kale and turnip greens, can also be cooked and frozen to eat later. Don’t waste that produce!

Tip Eight–Stock Up and Put It Up

Eating locally does not mean surviving on nothing but sweet potatoes and collard greens all winter. You can enjoy local peaches in February, delicious local corn in December and turnips in July. You just have to plan ahead. We’re new at this, but it’s already become a very enjoyable part of our farmer’s market trips. Food preservation is one of the oldest culinary skills around and guess what? It’s fun! You have three options when preserving your precious bounty–canning, freezing and drying. When fruits and vegetables are at their peak, stock up (prices are also lowest at this time) and save those wonderful flavors for later. You will save money and get high quality, delicious food all year-long!

Tip Nine–Ask. And Then Ask Again!

The local food network in my area (and I’m willing to bet in yours, too) is a close-knit community of farmers, chefs, bakers, cheese makers, etc. If you want something and can’t find it, ask around. I was amazed at what I learned once I started asking. Somehow in my mind, I thought that our local food producers would be highly secretive and competitive. While there may be some competition going on out there, the people I have found are pretty straight up. If I want something they don’t have, they don’t try to sell me something else. They tell me who has it. Sometimes they’ll actually walk me down to the other vendor and help me out. Crazy. And lovely.

Tip Ten–Realize That Sometimes You’ll Blow It

I’m human. And I love seafood. So when fresh seafood starts coming to our local market in the early spring, I go a little crazy. And going a little crazy usually means I blow my budget. Maybe even by a lot. I think this spring we had an entire week of nothing but seafood. At the end of the day, though, it’s like a fun celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of lighter foods on our menu. As long as it’s not a usual occurrence, we’re ok. We make up for it over the next few weeks and we calm down our purchases. So stay on budget, but don’t let an occasional celebration ruin your joy.

What are your tips and strategies?? I’d love to hear them!

What would you like to see in next week’s tutorial?

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The Not-So-Sweet Side of Honey

kişisel resim Ελληνικά: κηρήθρα

Think you are avoiding high fructose corn syrup and toxins by sweetening your whole food recipes with natural honey? You may be surprised to find that what you are eating is actually NOT pure honey, but ultra filtered, diluted honey mixed with high fructose corn syrup and other additives. Not only that, your “honey” may include carcinogens and heavy metals. Yes, even if it says “honey” on the label.

Why?

The FDA requires that any substance labeled as “honey” include bee pollen. That is the only way to ensure that the honey is pure and that it came from an identifiable source. The problem is, the FDA doesn’t test any substance labeled “honey” to make sure it actually includes pollen. Well that just makes sense, right?

So companies outside the U.S. have been taking honey, ultra-filtering it (removing most of its healthy benefits), adding all kinds of filler junk and selling it to U.S. grocery chains in those cute little bear bottles as honey. This is especially concerning for pregnant women and small children, as it takes less toxic materials to impact small, growing bodies.

In 2011, Food Safety News tested more than 70 brands of honey for pollen. This is what they found:

•76 percent of samples bought at groceries had all the pollen removed, These were stores like TOP Food, Safeway, Giant Eagle, QFC, Kroger, Metro Market, Harris Teeter, A&P, Stop & Shop and King Soopers.

•100 percent of the honey sampled from drugstores like Walgreens, Rite-Aid and CVS Pharmacy had no pollen.

•77 percent of the honey sampled from big box stores like Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Target and H-E-B had the pollen filtered out.

•100 percent of the honey packaged in the small individual service portions from Smucker, McDonald’s and KFC had the pollen removed.

•Bryant found that every one of the samples Food Safety News bought at farmers markets, co-ops and “natural” stores like PCC and Trader Joe’s had the full, anticipated, amount of pollen.

And if you have to buy at major grocery chains, the analysis found that your odds are somewhat better of getting honey that wasn’t ultra-filtered if you buy brands labeled as organic. Out of seven samples tested, five (71 percent) were heavy with pollen. All of the organic honey was produced in Brazil, according to the labels.

So what is a honey-loving family to do? Here are some steps you can take to make sure that the honey you buy is actual honey and not Chinese high fructose corn syrup:

  1. Purchase your honey from a local farmer or at a local farmer’s market.
  2. Ask farmers about how they process their honey. You should buy raw or minimally processed honey if possible.
  3. Purchase your honey from a health food store (Whole Foods or Trader Joes, for example)
  4. If you purchase at the grocery store, buy honey labeled as organic.
  5. Avoid purchasing honey from a drug store or major discount store.

For more information and a list of products that were tested and did not contain pollen, click HERE.

Tutorial Tuesday #2–Asking Questions at the Market

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Welcome to what I hope will become Tutorial Tuesday! These short tutorials are designed to answer questions I get from readers about shopping at the farmer’s market and changing where our household groceries come from.

This tutorial is all about how to approach farmers/vendors at the market. We’ll go over what questions you can ask to help you find out where the fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy come from, how they are grown and what the farm’s protocols look like (protocol in this sense refers to the rules the farm uses when handling food–or what will become your food).

Asking people questions about the food they grow/raise and are selling themselves can seem a little intimidating. If you’re like me, you don’t want to seem rude or act as though you’re interrogating a suspect on CSI. You don’t want to be “THAT girl,” (or “THAT dude”), right?

Well, take a deep breath, pour yourself a cup of coffee and relax. ‘Cause the farmer’s market is a big ol’ happy place and people are genuinely glad to see you! In fact, farmer’s markets are some of the most social places I’ve been outside of food truck rodeos. If you are a rather…focused…shopper, this chattiness might make you uncomfortable, but it is part of the fun and really, it’s nice to see people actually talking and enjoying each other’s company. You can always head to your nearest grocery store self-checkout line later if you need some anonymity.

Here are some tips for being a proactive (but not rude-y) shopper. Let’s start with three things I have learned about farmers:

  1. Farmers Are Glad to See You. Farmers are not at the market to stand around and wait until their break time. There is no time clock to be punched. They are there to sell the products of their farms–something they are very proud of. And guess what? They actually PAY to be at the market so you can get your fresh veggies. I only know one grumpy farmer/vendor and even he’s grown on me some. Ninety nine percent of the farmers at the market are going to go all out to make you happy. ‘Cause if you’re not happy, they are going home with produce in their truck and that is not happy either.
  2. Farmers Are Proud of How They Run Their Farms. Asking a farmer, “What do you have that is pesticide-free?” or “Is your farm organic?” are perfectly fair and expected questions. If a farmer is not certified organic, they will tell you. And if the ARE, you will probably see a sign somewhere letting you know. Same with asking questions about antibiotics/growth hormones and meat. If they use them, they will tell you (and tell you why), but they won’t be put off by a question. In fact…
  3. Farmers LOVE Questions. Have you ever asked questions in the produce area of your local grocery store only to have the teenage “produce specialist” shrug or say “I don’t know…I don’t cook”. I hate that. Put that child to work stocking the Pop Tart aisle. The farmers I know absolutely love to answer questions about their produce and they often have lots of recipe ideas (even if they don’t cook)–and they will want to hear yours as well!

So what questions should you ask? Here are some terrific questions to ask at the market. These are printable handouts from The Sustainable Table, a truly wonderful resource! Whatever questions you ask, if you are friendly, you will get friendly right back.

Questions to ask a farmer (general).

Questions to ask produce farmers.

Questions to ask a poultry farmer.

Questions to ask a hog farmer.

Questions to ask a dairy farmer.

Questions to ask a beef farmer.

My recommendation is to pick two or three questions to ask each vendor in a given farmer’s market visit (unless you like looking like Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes). If you are at the market with your family, have each person (including the children) pick one question to ask each farmer they meet. Most children like to have a job and it gives them a fun, if somewhat scripted, way to interact with farmers as people (and one question is easy to remember). Teaching them to be proactive shoppers gives you parenting bonus points–and your results will make for lots of fun conversation on the way home!

I hope this tutorial has been helpful. Let me know! What else would you like to know about?

Next week’s tutorial will focus on the practical–how to manage your weekly menu when you’re not sure what you’ll find at the market.

Tutorial Tuesday #1–Where is My Farmer’s Market?

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This post is the first in what I hope will be a series of tutorials on shopping at the farmer’s market. Maybe you want to buy a bit more from the market or maybe you want to completely makeover your shopping experience. Regardless, a little information never hurt, right?

Making the shift from grocery store shopping to farmer’s market shopping can be a bit scary and uncertain. Will I be able to find what I need? What price is a fair price? What if I can’t find a particular vegetable? Do I have to pay in cash? What if I come up with a menu and can’t find my ingredients?

And most importantly, where can I find farmer’s markets closest to me?

In the past five years, farmer’s markets and farm-to-table restaurants have increased at an amazing rate. But if you don’t know where they are, their existence really doesn’t help you, does it? Finding the quality resources close to you is the first step in shifting your shopping habits toward eating locally.

Here are three easy steps to find out where your local markets are and decide which markets you want to visit.

1. Visit your Dept. of Agriculture and Cooperative Extension websites.

Typically, state departments of agriculture and county cooperative extension agencies are keenly interested in promoting farmer’s markets and local food products. Start by visiting your state’s website. You should be able to find the following information:

  • A seasonal listing of crops grown in your state;
  • A harvest schedule for such crops;
  • Lists of pick-your-own fruit and vegetable farms;
  • Lists of farmer’s markets;
  • Names of fruits and vegetables you can grow in your area;
  • Recipes using local produce.

2. Find a market near you.

Visit the Local Harvest website HERE. Local Harvest is a wonderful organization, and their interactive farmer’s market map can help you find resources in your area. They also have a terrific electronic newsletter and a blog you can follow!

3. Visit your markets online.

Before you pack your car full of recyclable shopping bags and head out to shop, check out your farmer’s markets online. It is disappointing to find a craft fair with two vegetable stands when you really want to do all your grocery shopping. You should find at least the following information on the websites:

  • Description of the market (mission statement) and upcoming special events
  • Directions
  • Hours of operation
  • List of vendors
  • Types of payment allowed (cash only, cash or debit, token system, SNAP)
  • General policies (parking, whether dogs are allowed)

Many farmer’s markets now have Facebook pages, email newsletters and Twitter feeds. If so, sign up! You will likely receive advance information about what is for sale at the market and any special events in the future.

Next post–Questions to ask farmers!

What is “Sustainable” Food?

the farmer in love - il contadino innamorato

the farmer in love – il contadino innamorato (Photo credit: Uberto)

So the first letter in “SOLE Food Kitchen” is “S” for Sustainable. But what in the world does that mean?

The word “sustainability” is probably this year’s most overused buzzword. It must be the trendy replacement for “green”. Everyone from businesses to teachers are trying to be “sustainable” in what they do and how they do it. Or, at least, they say they are. Who knows what they are doing in practice. In the case of many large food corporations, what they are really doing is “greenwashing” existing practices by using a word that bears no resemblance to reality. But that’s my peeve for the day.

More farmers are using the “sustainable agriculture” term, but what exactly does that mean? And how will I know if they are really “sustainable” or just using the jargon as a marketing tool? I found myself getting a little muddled on the subject, so I started doing some research to clarify the issues for myself. And here is what I found.

Sustainable agriculture is “farming that provides a secure living for farm families; maintains the natural environment and resources; supports the rural community; and offers respect and fair treatment to all involved, from farm workers to consumers to the animals raised for food.” (www.sustainabletable.org)

While sustainable agriculture includes organic food production, it is a larger philosophy that promotes living wages for farmers and farm workers, healthy environments for humans and animals on the farm, caring for the land so it is not depleted of its richness and fertility, and reducing the carbon foot print of our food by encouraging consumers to buy as local as possible. Unlike the term “organic,” there is no certification for a farmer to be “sustainable.”

So, how do I know if a farmer is using sustainable agricultural practices or not? The Sustainable Table initiative offers loads of resources to help consumers, including lists of questions to ask farmers, produce managers, even grocery store workers. This is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about sustainable agriculture. It is offered by the Grace Communications Foundation, a non-profit group dedicated to highlighting the connections between food, water and energy. Here is the link to their question sheets:http://www.sustainabletable.org/shop/questions/

Would a farmer lie about being sustainable? I can’t say “no”, but my guess is that the vast majority of farmers will be pretty upfront about how they grow their crops or raise their animals. The questions certainly help since they are very specific. If you get wishy-washy answers or defensive responses, keep moving!

We have found this strategy of coming prepared with a few questions that we ask every farmer to be very helpful in both understanding how farms work and also opening up a conversation with farmers we don’t know. I hope you find it useful as well!

Health Data and the SOLE Food Diet

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We are entering the 18th month of our local eating experiment and since I just had my annual physical, I thought this would be a great time to give you some data on how it has affected my physical and emotional health. A little data along with some recipes never hurt, right?

In January of 2011, we began our Year of Healthier Living. It all started with this conversation with my doctor:

Me:  I think there is something wrong with my thyroid. Really. I’ve gained 10 pounds, although I’m still exercising and eating Lean Cuisine’s for lunch every day. I feel tired a lot and I have terrible PMS mood swings.

Dr:  Hmm, your thyroid tests look fine. Maybe you need to watch what you’re eating. Your cholesterol is up, too–204 is getting high.

Me:  Ummm, I AM watching what I’m eating. I have a bagel for breakfast and low-fat yogurt, a diet frozen dinner for lunch with diet soda and a reasonably sensible dinner. I can’t eat any less and survive.

Dr:  Well, clearly, something is happening between your food intake and your exercise output.  Or maybe it’s just middle age.

Me:  GAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!

As frustrating as this conversation was, it forced me to look at–and I mean REALLY look at–what was going on in my diet. That weekend, I did an inventory of our pantry and refrigerator. Lots of processed, pre-packaged foods (hey, they’re easy and cheap), frozen vegetables (hey, they don’t go bad), diet soda and plenty of refined carbohydrates in the form of bread and bagels. In summary–almost all of our food was labeled “healthy” or “low fat”, but almost all of it came from a factory.

Time to make a change.

That year, our New Year’s resolution was to transform our eating for one year. In the 18 months since then, we have completely switched our diet around. What does that look like?

  • We still eat meat, but we eat smaller portions of it surround by ample portions of fresh vegetables.
  • We only buy meat, eggs and most dairy locally and only purchase meat that is free of antibiotics and growth hormones.
  • We purchase only locally caught, sustainable seafood.
  • Most of our meat is certified as humanely raised. 98% of our vegetables come from local sources and most are organic.
  • We drink water instead of diet soda.
  • We do not buy processed snack foods or pre-packaged meals.
  • We cook at home 6 out of 7 nights.
  • We can, freeze, dry and otherwise “put up” local fruits and vegetables when they are ripe, so we have them all year long.
  • We only shop the grocery for things we cannot find at the farmer’s markets (organic rice, yogurt, frozen mangos for smoothies–that kind of thing).

How does that affect one person’s health?

Weight

At that initial physical with my doctor, I was at the highest weight of my life outside of pregnancy. I was frustrated because it seemed to be spiraling out of control and no reduction in the amount I ate was affecting it.

In the first year, I lost 15 pounds without altering anything except to buy local meat and vegetables, cook more at home and use a nutrition app when I eat out. I’ve maintained that loss and now I am working on increasing my exercise and adding miles to my running.

Cholesterol

I have always had good reports from my doctor, so to hear that my cholesterol was high was a shock. Not only was my overall cholesterol high (204), but my bad cholesterol was high.

In the first year, I reduced my overall cholesterol to 193 and so far this year, I have reduced it further to 182. My bad cholesterol is down to 104 and my good cholesterol is up to 57. This is really great news!

Energy

One of my biggest concerns was that I was tired and lethargic. I don’t think I realized the impact that eating poorly was having on my system. Those diet frozen lunches were terrible–high in refined carbs and salt, with little nutrition.

I have more energy now than I have had in a long time. This year, I discovered that in spite of my healthy eating, I am still very, very low on vitamin D (thank you, long, cold winter). Now that I am taking a supplement to help with that, my energy level is fantastic and I have more than doubled the distance I can run!

Hormonal Imbalance

For much of my adult life, I have had wicked PMS symptoms–crying, anger, sudden outbursts. I hated it. Everyone around me hated it. Pretty miserable situation.

I’m not sure which part of my diet change has affected that, but this is an area where I have seen a very dramatic impact. While I can still have a little irritability, my PMS symptoms are almost gone and I don’t experience the severe water retention I had before. AMAZING! Is it the no hormone/no antibiotic meat? Is it the lack of hyper-processed food? Is it the increase in fresh vegetables? I have no idea, but I’m sticking with it all!

What does this mean for you? Well, everyone has their own decisions to make regarding health and nutrition. And, let’s face it, not everyone has access to fresh food or good quality farmer’s markets.

However…

I think our ongoing family experiment shows that part of our national nutritional problem is WHAT we eat. Another part of it is WHERE our food comes from.

If you want a cookie, fine, have a cookie (not 6). But a homemade, whole grain or whole wheat cookie with real butter and reduced sugar and a store-bought cookie from a box are not the same thing. They don’t taste the same and they don’t act the same in your body. I am not a scientist, but I can tell you that food from a box is not the same to your body as food from the garden.

SOLE Food Kitchen is not about depriving yourself of “the good things”. It’s about realizing that the “good” things–whole grains, organic, fresh vegetables, sustainable, quality meat and eggs–are a treat for your body as well as the environment. And hyper-processed, packaged foods are without a doubt contributing to our national obesity, low energy and other health-related problems.

At my physical this year, my doctor was amazed. She asked a lot of questions about our new eating plan. Her advice? “Keep doing what you’re doing!”

Right on, doc.

Understanding Pricing at Your Local Farmer’s Market

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We have been buying local fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs and cheese for over a year now, and I don’t think we would ever go back to grocery store shopping for those foods. Occasionally, I am tempted by a super sale at my local grocery store, but more often than not, when I break down and buy what I think is a bargain, I end up disappointed. It just doesn’t taste like anything. But I do hear other parents talk about how “expensive” it is to shop at the farmer’s market. Is it really??? In the end, it depends on what you want.

With farmer’s markets in full swing here (and gearing up in other parts of the country), I thought it might be a good time to look at why prices differ from grocery store to farmer’s market.

I came across this wonderful article on the Western Wake Farmer’s Market website. Thanks to Madison Whitley for giving me permission to reprint it here. I think it does an excellent job of describing why prices for fresh, locally grown food differs from what is charged at the grocery. For additional insight into why prices differ (and why fresh food is worth it), watch Food, Inc. It’s available on Netflix and is really an amazing documentary.

The Inside Scoop of Product Pricing at the Farmer’s Market

by Madison Whitley and Juliann Zoetmulder

Ever wonder why farmers’ market eggs cost $4 a dozen? Are you curious about why meat and produce cost double what it costs in the grocery store? These are valid questions that are on many customers’ minds as they shop the farmers’ market. With a little explanation, you may come to find that what you get for your money is really worth it.

Comparing farm fresh eggs and industrial big-box eggs is not an apples-to-apples comparison. You have to lift the veil a bit to understand what you miss from industrial, “cheap” eggs. You may pay more for farm fresh eggs; however, you get more value for the price. In a 2007 testing project, Mother Earth News compared farm fresh eggs taken from hens raised on a pasture to the nutritional data designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for commercially produced eggs. In this test, it was found that the farm fresh eggs contain one-third less cholesterol, one-quarter less saturated fat and two times more omega-3 fatty acids. Furthermore, the farm fresh egg contains two-thirds more vitamin A and three times more vitamin E. Beta carotene, an immune booster, is found in seven times greater proportion than the egg off the big-box store shelf. In general, the eggs from hens that roam around a pasture are richer in nutrients than typical supermarket eggs.

Even if the science does not “wow” you, look at the deep orange color of the farm fresh egg and taste its creaminess compared to an industrial egg. It tastes better and is more nutrient dense. For $2 extra dollars per dozen, you get exponentially more health and taste benefits. That’s sixteen cents more per egg or thirty-three cents more for your 2 egg breakfast that will sustain your body much longer than an industrial egg.

Despite these known benefits, customers are still hesitant to purchase their weekly grocery list at the farmers’ market because prices cannot compete with the low prices found at the grocery store. So why is the food at the farmers’ market more expensive? In actuality, it is the cheapest and healthiest food available. Sustainable agriculture does not rely on government subsidies from the Farm Bill and it does not have the huge environmental costs (transportation, for example) that industrial agriculture incurs. Finally, sustainable agriculture is not laden with chemicals, antibiotics, pesticides, and GMO’s. On the flip side, think about what we would be adding to our future health care bill by eating cheap meat, for instance.

Grass-fed beef has a number of compelling health benefits and since America is eating more meat than ever, we need to pay attention. According to a 2009 study by the USDA and Clemson University in South Carolina, grass-fed beef, often sold at farmers’ markets, is lower in total fat, saturated fat and calories compared to commercially produced beef. Grass-fed beef has higher amounts of total omega-3 fatty acids and a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Grass-fed beef also has higher vitamin A and E (alpha-tocopherol), higher levels of antioxidants, 7 times more beta-carotene, higher amounts of B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin, and higher amounts of minerals calcium, magnesium and potassium. The research also indicates higher levels of CLA (cis-9-trans-11), a potential cancer fighter, in grass-fed beef and higher amounts of vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA). Don’t forget that animals raised on small family farms are often treated more humanely than animals in commercial production facilities.

The nutrient density of products found at the farmers’ market is much higher, producing a much healthier product, which means that you don’t have to eat as much to get the same health benefits. So next time you are at the farmers’ market, don’t think about how expensive the products are and how much money you could save at the grocery store. Think about the quality of product you are getting, how many more nutrients are present in the food and what you are getting for you money.

As someone who has a monthly budget for food, I suggest purchasing the items that are at the front-and-center of your meal at the farmers’ market. You can always supplement your grocery list with items at the big-box grocery store. You will notice a difference in the taste and quality of your food, but not in your wallet. I promise.

Quality of Life and Health–Two Points of Comparison

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While on vacation in Paris last week, we stayed in an apartment rather than a hotel, which gave us a different perspective on what it feels like to really live in urban Paris. The differences between urban Paris and the quasi-urban town where I work in North Carolina are astounding. I thought I’d share them with you because they really point to the fact that our obesity problem is one that includes food, but is much larger than the issue of food itself. Sometimes, being in a new environment can help you see your usual environment in a whole new light. Here are some thoughts on how the supporting infrastructure for healthy food and transportation are wildly different between Paris and the city where I work, Raleigh.

Food Access

While Paris is mostly a concrete jungle, Parisians have ample access to fresh fruit, vegetables and freshly prepared foods day and night. Although we saw a Subway restaurant on our street, there were no other fast food restaurants in our neighborhood (yes, there are McDonalds, but mostly in the high tourist areas). Even the little grocery around the corner had a higher percentage of fresh food and very little processed, packaged food (and no malt liquor). On our street, the Rue Vavin, we had the following within in a one block radius of our apartment:

  • 12 cafes and restaurants, most of which offered outdoor seating

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  • 1 primeur or fresh fruit and vegetable shop

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  • 1 boulangerie or bread baker

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  • 1 boucherie or butcher

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  • 1 patisserie or pastry shop
  • 1 sandwicherie or carry-out sandwich shop

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  • 1 general grocery
  • 1 wine shop
  • 1 flower shop

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  • 1 fromagerie or cheese shop
  • 1 pharmacy
  • 2 subway stops
  • 4 bus stops

I work on a main street in “downtown” Raleigh, where within a one block radius of my office I have:

  • 6 restaurants, one of which offers outdoor seating; none open after 4:00 pm and only two are open on Saturdays
  • 1 pharmacy (which does not sell any fresh food)
  • No access to fresh fruits or vegetables or groceries
  • 2 bus stops

Actually, no where in downtown Raleigh is there access to groceries or fresh fruit and vegetables. While we do have a seasonal farmers market on Wednesdays, it is only from 10-1 and runs April to October. The State Farmer’s Market is not within walking distance and as far as I can tell, no city bus runs directly from downtown to the market.

Navigation

Most people in Paris walk, ride the subway or take a bicycle/scooter where they need to go. There are very few cars because (like most large urban areas) there is no parking and driving in the city seems more of a nuisance than a convenience. All around the city, there are bike racks where you can deposit a few Euro and rent a city bike for a while. You just return it to one of the racks when you are done. We saw many people running errands on these bikes, so they seem to be in good use (see the rack on the left of this photo?).

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Even children walk or ride their razor scooters to their local schools–I never once saw a school bus (even field trips were conducted via the metro and walking rather than by bus). In the mornings, I often saw small groups of elementary and middle school age children lining up at the local boulangerie (bread baker) or fruit vendor to get a snack on their way to school. In the afternoon, young people walked home, met friends in the plaza on our street and generally seemed to be happy and relaxed kids. My child was a bit jealous that French schools start later (9ish) and finish later (4ish) than American schools, which means children can walk while it is light outside instead of getting up and waiting for a bus in the dark. We saw parents all over the place walking children to school or strolling them to child care in the morning.

Here in NC, almost no one walks to school because it is almost impossible. There are very few areas around schools with good sidewalks and traffic areas (and specifically drivers) are not pedestrian friendly. In France if you hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk, you go to jail. In North Carolina, you get a ticket. Hmmm.

I saw no overweight children outside of tourists and no overweight French adults. I didn’t hear any children whining or complaining that they were too tired to walk or needed to sit down. It was amazing. I’m sure Paris has its share of problems, too, but it is an active, thriving city with a wonderful energy and clearly a commitment to serve the people who live and work downtown. That visit really opened my eyes to what a city can be if it focuses on ensuring people can live healthy within it.

Raleigh likes to think itself an up-and-coming city. But a look at a real city shows that this little kid on the block has a long, loooooong way to go before it is really grown up and ready for prime time. I hope it can get a bit closer by encouraging more actual downtown living, boosting meaningful public transportation and offering people who live and work downtown with the amenities people need to stay downtown. Building luxury apartments isn’t enough to make a town into a city, especially if you stop thinking about the residents as people and only think of them as property owners. Who never walk. And only eat in restaurants. And don’t have children.

Paris and Food Access

My first post from Paris! How is food access different here than in the states? Well, for one thing, fruit and vegetable stands are everywhere!!! All over downtown, there are little fruit stands, like this one that is just across the street.

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Also, in the subway!!! We came out of the Montparnasse station to find not one, but two fruit vendors!

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We have a lot to learn about access to fresh fruit and veg. And, well, a lot about pastry, too, but that is another post 🙂

Au Revoir!

Using Spices to Improve Health

Can spices save your life?

That’s a bit dramatic, but there is a good deal of research on how spices can help us live a healthier life. As we experiment more with different recipes and different ways to cook, we have also expanded the variety of spices we use in the kitchen.

About a month ago, I started taking turmeric in capsule form as an anti-inflammatory to help with some osteoarthritis pain in my neck. I haven’t had a flare up since, but of course I don’t know if I can attribute that to the turmeric or just being more mindful of protecting my neck. Only time will tell there. But turmeric, as opposed to some of the powerful drugs on the market, has no side effects and certainly can’t hurt you, so I’m all for sticking with this plan!

Here is a list of 5 spices that we are trying to incorporate into our meals.

Cinnamon–I usually use cinnamon for toast or for sweetened baked goods, but cinnamon is actually good in many savory dishes as well. I’m thinking of trying it on sweet potato gnocchi, in chili, on rice or quinoa and as part of a rub for steak.

Cinnamon has been shown to boost our ability to process glucose and maintain even blood sugar levels. It also has been shown to help with cardiovascular risk factors, including diabetes. The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine studied the effects of cinnamon on individuals with type 2 diabetes and found that it substantially lowered blood sugar levels over a placebo within two months. Apparently, cinnamon may also offer benefits against cancer, yeast infections, cholesterol problems and food poisoning.

For best results, don’t use the 2-year-old jar of cinnamon in your pantry (I tell myself), buy the quills and grind them using a spice grinder or a nutmeg grater. Ceylon cinnamon in jars is supposedly the highest quality for pre-ground cinnamon.

Turmeric–Turmeric has been one of those mystery spices to me. While I use curry powder in cooking, I never owned a bottle of straight up turmeric, which is often used in curry powder mixes. Now, though, I am all on board the turmeric train. This Indian spice is packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory powers that apparently protect and heal every major organ of the body. They key compound in turmeric is curcumin, which prevents inflammation that, in turn, causes other health problems. In fact, it has been shown to be as effective as anti-inflammatory medications (including Celebrex) without the side effects. It also shows indications for treating skin diseases like psoriasis and eczema.

Tumeric is the only readily available form of curcumin. It is a root and apparently difficult to grind, so pre-ground powders are the best source. Tumeric from the allepy region of India has twice as much curcumin as turmeric from other areas of India.

Here is how we plan to use more turmeric: soups and stews, on stir fried vegetables, in chili, melted into butter and poured onto vegetables, in egg and chicken salad.

Coriander–Coriander is the seed pod of the cilantro plant. It tastes completely different though. I haven’t warmed up to cilantro yet, but coriander is lovely. The healing power of coriander comes from two oils in the coriander seed that are powerful antioxidants.

Coriander is a powerhouse when it comes to treating digestive ailments, including irritable bowel syndrome. A study in Digestive Diseases and Sciences found that when compared with a placebo, those taking a coriander treatment experienced three times the improvement in their IBS symptoms of pain and bloating. Apparently, coriander acts as an antispasmodic, relaxing the muscles in the digestive system and calming the bowel and colon. It also has indications for helping with diabetes, eczema, high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Here is how we plan to use more coriander seeds: in our favorite broccoli and shrimp dish, in meat rubs, soups, stews, and in roasted vegetables like cauliflower.

Fennel–I’m one of those weird people who loves the black jelly beans at Easter. I love licorice or anything with that flavor profile, so fennel is just wonderful. I don’t cook with fresh fennel though, and that might be something I try this spring. The chemical anethol, present in fennel seeds, is a recognized phyto-estrogen, and fennel seeds in tea or in food are highly effective in addressing menstrual cramping. Fennel apparently also alleviates colic in babies and addresses arthritis and colitis.

Fennel seeds are more effective than ground fennel, which loses potency after 6 months.

While I am alone in my love of licorice, we will add fennel seeds to our diet in making sausage or sausage ragout sauces, and to our Italian type seasoning blends to go on tomatoes, in tomato sauce and with olives.

Ginger–Ginger has been long known for its digestive healing properties, but I didn’t realize that it also helps with motion sickness. In a University of Michigan study, volunteers subjected themselves to a spinning chair, and were spun until they were nauseous. They were later given 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams of ginger and in subsequent tests, they took longer to become nauseous. Note to self: take ginger before getting on the teacup ride at Disney.

Fresh ginger is more effective than dried, powdered ginger. Knobs of fresh ginger will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks or indefinitely in the freezer.

We can add more ginger to our diet by using it in stir fry, using it in salad dressing, and as a tenderizer for meat. I also love it pickled with sushi.

So, yay, 5 easy ways to boost our healthy living while cooking and put a little variety into our dishes. I love all these ideas, but turmeric is definitely the most compelling little health booster I’ve seen. I’m on the lookout for recipes!

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