The typical New Year's resolutions always include eating less and exercising more. But this year, how about finally deciding to eat right? That is, eat what's best not only for you, but for the environment. You also might discover that it's liberating to break out of old habits and discover new foods. You can also finally find out when it's important to buy organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables, and when it's okay to save that extra buck the next time you find yourself in the produce aisle of Berkeley Bowl.
The first step to a more eco-friendly you is a handy guide produced by the Environmental Working Group. Although it's been around for a while, the "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce" is a great tool for deciding when it's vital to buy organic. The guide, produced in 2006, lists more than forty nonorganic fruits and vegetables that contain the most concentrated amounts of pesticide residue, based on an extensive computer analysis of pesticide testing by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Food and Drug Administration.
The guide's "Dirty Dozen," that is, the twelve most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables, are: (1) peaches; (2) apples; (3) sweet bell peppers; (4) celery; (5) nectarines; (6) strawberries; (7) cherries; (8) lettuce; (9) imported grapes; (10) pears; (11) spinach; and (12) potatoes. Note that in every case, these fruits or vegetables are typically consumed whole.
By contrast, the "Cleanest 12," the fruits and vegetables that contain the least amount of pesticide residue, according to the guide, are: (1) onions; (2) avocadoes; (3) sweet corn; (4) pineapples; (5) mangoes; (6) sweet peas; (7) asparagus; (8) kiwis; (9) bananas; (10) cabbage; (11) broccoli; and (12) eggplant. And what do these fruits and vegetables have in common? They're typically — though not always — peeled before being eaten. For the complete guide, go to EWG.com and search for the "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce." The guide comes in a convenient, wallet-sized format.
Overall, the effects of pesticides on human health is not well understood, and in some cases, not studied at all. But according to the Environmental Working Group, there is a growing consensus that small doses of pesticides can adversely affect people, especially pregnant mothers and small children. So, from a personal health perspective, it makes sense to head down the organic aisle when shopping for apples, lettuce, strawberries, peaches, etc. But it probably won't do you that much harm if you try to save money and buy nonorganic onions, avocadoes, asparagus, bananas, etc.
But what about the effects of pesticides on the environment? "Usually, they're tied pretty closely to the effects on human health, but because of how pesticides are applied, they're not always the same," said Ben Feldman, program manager for the Berkeley Farmer's Market. But there are parallels. "Take strawberries," Feldman added, noting that strawberries tested with some of the highest concentrations of pesticides. "They're treated with methyl bromide, which is probably one of the most destructive pesticides. It basically sterilizes the soil."
But there's more to eating right than avoiding pesticide-laced produce. One of the best ways to help curtail greenhouse gas emissions, for example, is to buy locally grown foods. "Stuff that's flown in from South America has a massive carbon footprint," Feldman noted. Fortunately, Northern California is home to some of the best farmland anywhere. And because of our temperate climate, not to mention our unique microclimates, it's possible to grow lots of different foods year-round. "You might be able to grow lettuce at one point in the year in Davis, but then you might be able to grow at another point in Santa Cruz," Feldman explained.
In fact, there are more than sixty different kinds of foods grown and raised locally year-round, according to a great second tool for eating right — "The Local Foods Wheel" for the San Francisco Bay Area. Produced by professional chef Jessica Prentice and her friends Sarah Kline and Maggie Gosselin, the wheel also shows what locally grown foods are available during specific times of the year. But don't fret; even if you're a creature of habit, like Eco Watch, you can still buy some of your favorite foods whenever you want them without having to fly them in from Chile or Mexico.
Year-round Bay Area grown fruits and vegetables include: lettuce, carrots, potatoes, onions, mushrooms, garlic, and broccoli. Year-round locally raised meats and seafood include beef, chicken, lamb, oysters, and clams. Eggs are also available anytime along with milk, butter, and cheeses. And of course, there's Eco Watch's personal favorite — wine. To get the complete list, the wheel is available in Berkeley at the Ecology Center on San Pablo, Mrs. Dalloway's bookstore on College Avenue, and Pegasus books on Shattuck Avenue. In Oakland, it's available at the Pasta Shop in Rockridge. For more places, check out LocalFoodsWheel.com.
But if you're intent on going local all the time, then you'll have to give up some of your ingrained habits. You just won't be able to make the same salad every day with the same ingredients. But what you'll lose in familiarity, you'll gain in discovering new food that tastes good, because it's fresh, and not ripened artificially after being picked green in Latin America. "You have to pay attention to what tastes good, and when it tastes good," Feldman noted.
So what's available now? The best place to buy locally grown foods, organic or otherwise, is at your closest farmer's market. And according to the wheel, celery, cabbage, wild mushrooms, and Brussels sprouts are just some of the veggies currently in season in the Bay Area. Of course, it's also prime time for turkeys and Dungeness crab.
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