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Health Hack #45 - Savor The Seasons

As we’ve alluded to over the course of the past few articles (Finding Compatibility Between Ourselves and Our Food Choices + Stay Clean, But Not Too Clean), when an emphasis is placed upon the journey and integrity of one’s food choices, the notion of eating with the seasons begins to arise intuitively. In search of foods that are harvested thoughtfully (i.e. organic), we look first towards our local purveyors. Why? Cost, freshness, and in support of our local communities. When we opt for the complex and time-laden transit of food products harvested far outside of our area, we do so at the expense of cost, freshness, and local support.

If committing to organic - or even smaller farms employing organic, regenerative practices, who don’t yet and may never possess the infrastructure to acquire a costly organic certification - we often, if only subconsciously, think local. It’s no coincidence that our local grocery stores specializing in organic inventory - from Mom’s Market to Whole Foods to Weavers Way to Kimberton Whole Foods - tout numerous relationships with local farms. Taking it one step further, our farmers markets represent the very height of this connectivity, that which uses our food choices as the tie that binds us to our local farming community.

What is most unique about a farmers market (as opposed to a grocery store) is its inherent limited array of options. One won’t find every cruciferous vegetable under the sun, and this is especially true in our region. Unlike California or Florida, we see wildly fluctuating temperatures throughout the year, with upwards of 100 degrees separating an annual high from an annual low. Only certain foods will thrive at certain points in the year.

A Dichotomy of Age

There’s an interesting dichotomy at play within these organic and seasonal paradigms. While they form many concentric circles as alluded to above, they’re not as cohesively bound together as one may think, or as we’d argue they should be. Consider the pie chart of organic consumption based on age. The largest piece of the pie? Age range 31-40, clocking 33.8%. Trailing not super far behind at number two is 21-30, at 25.1%. Millennials lead the way here, soaking up more than half of all organic food consumption nationwide. The full remaining split:

21.9% - Age 41-50

12.5% - Age 51-60

6.4% - Over 60

0.3% - 20 and Under

As a millennial myself (loosely defined as falling within the age 22-38 range), it’s quite clear that my generation is most tuned into the organic movement. From an anecdotal perspective, it’s my age demographic that most often questions us on our restaurant’s food origins, and it’s my age range comprising a large percentage of the fellow shoppers at our local grocery stores named above, particularly the smaller ones. However, the skew is different at the local farmers market.

There are admittedly no studies supporting these anecdotal observations, nor are there studies shooting them down, either. Anecdotes as they may be, I’ve observed that the average age of a farmer’s market or roadside farmstand customer is well above my millennial bracket. Despite consuming less than 20% of our nation’s organic produce, adults aged 50 and above are well represented on the market scene, arguably comprising more than 50% of the audience.

What does this all mean? The marriage between the ideals of organic and seasonal? But the divergence of attraction towards one over the other based on age?

Tying These Two Together

We live in an age of accessibility. Within a few years we’ll likely see drones delivering items we’ve ordered only hours earlier right to our doorsteps. Everything is accessible. Complex systems for shipping and freight coupled with ingenious software make whatever we want available all of the time. I believe this is where my generation learned to take seasonality of food for granted. What of it, if the grocery store has everything under the sun, all of the time? How are you supposed to parse through what’s hyper local, fresh, and seasonal, versus something that was harvested overseas two weeks ago? It’s difficult in this era. The accessibility factor has marred the merits of the local market or farm. Who cares? Frankly, we held this viewpoint as restaurant owners until only very recently.

On the other side of this conundrum are those who came of age before organic really meant something. Farming practices have run amuck at hyper speed within the past three decades, and one didn’t have to be so aware of organic versus conventional much before the turn of the century, since baseline farming practices possessed far more integrity than now. It’s not surprising that Americans aged 50 and up haven’t jumped on the organic bandwagon. They weren’t confronted with the ills of factory farming when their buying habits were being formed.

My millennial generation grew up on Food, Inc. We came of age when Whole Foods was just becoming all the rage, likely back when they were still 100% organic. Our news feeds were (and still are) inundated with stories that warn us of pesticide residues in our foods and the inherent dangers of RoundUp. While we missed the boat on seasonality, organic was common parlance from day one. It may not have been a practice, but we were aware of its virtues.

Switching generations once more, the farmers market and roadside stand preserves that seasonal feel that accessibility has ruined for all of us youngins. I distinctly recall Jersey tomatoes as being oft-cited by my parents as summer grew near. Same for that deeply cherished Jersey corn. Not surprisingly, both foods were present in our weekly meals all summer long. But not beyond the summer. Once their season had passed, my mom would wait until the following year before revisiting her dearest market.

Ultimately, we should begin contemplating these two perspectives as inextricably bound. We ask first for sound practices in how our food is derived, and we trace that story back to the soil. In doing so, we ask questions, and we find thoughtful ways of ensuring that our food’s journey is one that we’re at peace with. This need not imply organic all of the time, but rather a transparent process with environmental sustainability in mind. Is the net impact a positive one for both parties, both food and human? If the food is real, and the process is respectable, then chances are that it will benefit us.

Why Seasonal?

There is a sect of nutritional thinking that champions the notion of seasonal eating as remaining congruous with our circadian biology. From evolution’s perspective, this makes sense.

As described in a previous article (Why Metabolic Disease Is So Rampant: A Quick Evolutionary Tale), insulin resistance is an innate human quality, evolutionarily derived. It was a mechanism by which we remained alive through harsh winters, when all food sources disappeared. Our bodies ability to generate an abundance of insulin in wintry months compelled us to develop excess adipose tissue (fat) that we were able to live off of during a season of food deprivation, much like a hibernating bear. This insulin mechanism was initiated by the fall harvest of sweet fruits, which we ate in abundance. It was held in balance throughout the year by the availability of foods with a much lower overall glycemic load in the spring, summer, and fall. It’s only in our modern era of non-seasonal eating (and, to be fair, the far worse issue of processed food consumption) that we consume far too much sugar for our own good. Our ancestral paths showed us the light. Eat at the peak of harvest, in your local surroundings. Doing so will bring better health and longevity.

The evolutionary/biological reasoning isn’t a very obvious one, and certainly isn’t likely to move the needle all that much. What is, is the simplest rationalization of all. Food tastes better when it’s in season. When it’s the best for our health, available in the most abundance, accessible closest to our home, and costs less than at any other point of the year, it also happens to taste its best. What more reasons do we need than these to begin worshipping the seasonality of our food?

Savor the Seasons.