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Eco Etiquette: How To Eat Local This Winter

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For those of us in the Midwest, summer is so much easier when it comes to eating local -- lots of farmers markets stocked with goodies from local growers, bakers and purveyors. Now those little meccas of low-impact food are closed for the season. Any suggestions for how we can continue to lesson our impact on the environment as we head back indoors for our grocery shopping?

-Maggie

Say what you will about the smog and traffic in Los Angeles, but it's pretty darn fantastic to be able to pedal on over to my local farmer's market year-round. That's one of the advantages of living in sun-soaked California, the nation's breadbasket. San Joaquin Valley, to the north, produces nearly half of all the fruits, nuts, and vegetables sold in the United States (though that number has declined in the past three years due to drought); San Diego County, to the south, has more farms than any other county in the country.

These agricultural tidbits went largely unnoticed by me until a trip to Boston in the dead of winter a few years back, after I had already moved out West, when I realized that it was only in LA that grocery stores offered almost entirely local produce; even the Beantown Whole Foods I visited featured -- you guessed it -- California's finest fruitage.

Believe it or not, you don't have to live in the Golden State to enjoy farm-fresh food 365 days a year; there are winters farmers markets, even in some darn-cold areas of the country. The Chicago Green City Market, for example, runs year-round, and will feature 47 vendors this winter. But just because farmers markets elsewhere are closing up shop doesn't mean you should just throw in the CO2 towel and start buying anemic-looking tomatoes and asparagus that have been flown in from Chile to the local Jewel. Want to know how to procure farm-fresh, local food even in a four-foot snowstorm? The answer is as simple as C-S-A.

For those who aren't familiar with community supported agriculture (CSA), it's pretty much like buying a subscription to a local farm: You pay a fee, usually per growing season, and in return receive a share of fresh, locally nurtured fruits and vegetables -- some farms even offer dairy, eggs, and meat. The great thing about a CSA is that you enjoy whatever is in season: Depending on where you live, that can mean spring peas and asparagus in April; strawberries and corn in July; and apples and sweet potatoes in October.

With the spread of the local, organic food movement, CSAs have become very popular in recent years; so much so that many are now offering winter goodies to help keep their shareholders happy and not-so-fat (thanks to nutritious eating). A friend who recently finished an internship with Illinois' Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm told me that selective freezing enables the farm to offer its pasture-raised chicken and humanely bred Angus beef even throughout a brutal Chicago winter.

I did a survey of CSAs around the country and found that surprisingly, winter offerings can be quite diverse: Garden of Eve's farm share on the East End of Long Island includes stored vegetables like beets, rutabagas, and winter squash, as well as organic eggs; Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport, Maine, offers fresh salad greens and baby carrots from its greenhouse (which is heated with a renewable fuel, of course); and Hog's Back Farm in Arkansaw, Wis., delivers cold-hardy crops like broccoli and kale to pick-up sites in nearby Minneapolis and St. Paul. To search for a CSA that offers a winter share in your area, check out the LocalHarvest website. But don't wait -- many are already sold out for the season.

Reducing your carbon footprint and supporting good health are important reasons to join a CSA, but I think an equally compelling consideration right now is to support your local farmers -- and your community -- through this economic winter.

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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