Issue 30

Eating Fresh Locally

Eating Fresh Locally

Anyone who has read books by Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin or Barbara Kingsolver has heard the same advice: eat fresh foods grown in your area by local farmers. It is the best way to get tasty, healthy foodstuffs and support the local food economy.

Well, that’s all fine and good during July and August, but in Nebraska, we have this thing called “winter.” It’s cold and snowy. Maybe in Minnesota, the kids play in snowdrifts and skate on frozen ponds, but it’s a different story here. We scurry from car to building, cross our fingers and wait for May. The Good Life is on hold.

Meteorologically speaking, Nebraska isn’t the worst place to be. (Pity the people in Minot, ND.) Our traditional food growing season pretty much runs April-ish to October-ish, and the farmers markets operate from early May to early October. The changes in seasons bring all sorts of great limited-time-only foods, like morels in May and winter squash in September.

If you want to support local farmers and get fresh foods in the frozen months, you’re out of luck, right? Well, that’s the way it used to be. Thanks to the increasing demand for local foods throughout the year, producers are finding ways to grow and sell the things you want to eat. From greenhouses and hoophouses, to greengrocers and fast food joints, local is now a year round proposition. But where can you find it?

We’ll start with fast food, since that’s a really strange place to find local food, especially in winter. Runza restaurants started buying tomatoes this summer from Garden Fresh Vegetables in O’Neill. GFV grow their tomatoes hydroponically in greenhouses, so they’re available all year. (Yes, hydroponics can be used for growing something legal.)  When you order your burger with tomato, you’re eating a juicy slice of Nebraska.

A quiet addition to Omaha’s grocery options is Tomato Tomato.  (Sing it: you say tomato, I say to-mah-to.)  Located at 156th and West Center Road, Tomato Tomato is a division of Garden Fresh Vegetables, but they offer a retail outlet for many local producers that you’d find at a farmers market in better weather. You can browse the selection of greenhouse produce, meat, eggs, cheeses and honey products. Since the people who run the location are involved in agriculture, you can ask questions and get real answers. Imagine that!
If you’re a lazy shopper or addicted to the internet, check out the Nebraska Food Co-op.  Billed as Nebraska’s online, year-round farmers market, it is an exhausting source of available products (538 items in October). It makes you wonder why you’ve never heard of these people before, but they’re out there. Subscribers can order directly online, and the co-op network gathers food from the farms, sorts the orders and delivers to urban locations. In Omaha, orders are delivered to Jane’s Health Market in Benson.

If you’re really hardcore about supporting a local farmer and getting the true taste of cool weather crops, Honey Creek Farms in Iowa runs a winter CSA. CSA is community supported agriculture or subscription farming. A member prepays for a weekly delivery of produce, and the transaction is direct between the farmer and the eater. Honey Creek Farms is distinctive in their focus on a winter season instead of the traditional summer CSA. Although they utilize a greenhouse, they grow veggies that prefer cool temperatures, especially Asian greens. Want local mizuna? No boring grocery store varieties here.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give some credit to the grocery chains. While the majority of their produce comes from California, Mexico, Chile or some other far-off land, they do carry some local goods, it’s just harder to find them. Tomatoes from Omaha Red’s in Gretna, tomatoes from Garden Fresh Vegetables, onions and herbs from Blooms Organic and other homegrown goodies are among the choices at Whole Foods, Hy-Vee and other markets. It’s worth searching them out because it encourages giant corporations to pay attention to people who care enough to grow small-scale crops as a profession.

I admit that I mourn the lack of fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes in February. If you do a taste-test of winter tomato options, you’ll probably find that locally produced fruits are the best of the bunch. If you ask nicely, the produce manager might whip out a knife and slice up a few for tasting. Inquire about the sources and find out what the store buys from local sources, when they deliver and if they are considering more crops. It’s all about demand, people! If you don’t ask for the good stuff, stores will assume that everyone wants cardboard-flavored food.

There you have it. There’s no good way to stop yourself from freezing during Nebraska winters, it’s part of life. But life can be a little tastier if you know where to look and who to ask. Eat up!


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