Have you ever bought a local carton of fresh strawberries in early June and marveled at just how delicious they are? A June strawberry is a thing to behold—its juices practically dripping down your chin, its deeply fragrant smell, and jewel-bright color.
There’s a reason, of course, why eating a strawberry goes from something mundane to an almost magical experience in late spring and early summer: peak season for many varieties of strawberries is from early June through early July in the United States (depending on where you live, of course).
In our modern world, no matter where we live across the United States, we tend to eat all manner of fresh produce year-round and think nothing of it. So we no longer think of food as seasonal. Our latte flavors, sure—but our food? But to our not-so-distant ancestors, finding a fresh strawberry in December would have been completely unimaginable.
The difference seasonal food makes
Even though our modern food system makes it possible to eat strawberries in the dead of winter (although they pale in comparison to June strawberries), there are benefits to eating with the local seasons that extend beyond taste. Eating foods at their seasonal peak is also better for our health, our wallets, and the environment, too.
Consider, for instance, that watermelons and tomatoes, which both have their peak season at the height of summer, are incredibly rich in lycopene—an antioxidant that absorbs both UVA and UVB radiation. One study found that eating foods rich in antioxidants like lycopene can be protective against sun-caused skin damage. In a remarkable way, the earth is producing the exact foods that will best serve us during the season when we are outside in the sun the most.
In-season fruits and vegetables may also be denser in nutritious elements like antioxidants than those grown outside of your local season, because they are often fresher than out-of-season produce. For example, the strawberry that you eat in December was probably grown in Mexico (or another place where strawberries are still in season), so they spend a lot more time “on the road” in the time between when they were picked and when they’re atop your morning bowl of yogurt and granola. So not only did that June strawberry taste better to you, it was probably better for you, too.
Which brings us to the environmental impact of eating out-of-season. Consider the carbon footprint of a bell pepper grown in-season (July through September) at your local farm compared to one grown out-of-season in South America; the potential impact on the environment of our season-less eating habits becomes pretty alarming. Sometimes costs reflect that: consider how cheap ears of corn are in the autumn—at my local grocery store at this time of year, the price can go as low as six ears for a dollar—compared to how much they’ll cost (if they can be found at all) several months from now.
Of course, getting fresh produce of any sort, in-season or out, can be a real challenge for far too many families in the United States. Food deserts (that is, parts of the country that have fewer grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables and more quickie marts with sugar and fat-laden foods) are a real problem, and I believe our first priority when it comes to food should be to feed our families with the most nutritionally-dense food we have available (and affordable) to us. But for those with a plethora of fresh food sources at our disposal, eating with the local seasons can be an excellent way to fuel our bodies, to ethically fuel our local economy, and to be good stewards of the environment.
After all, some of us wait all year for “Pumpkin Spice Latte Season” and would never consider asking our barista for one until we can do it while clad in a scarf and jeans. Knowing what we now do about how in-season food affects our bodies, wallet, and environment, perhaps we will one day await strawberry season with the same fervor.