Eating Local 101

Duke Integrative Medicine chef shares tips on purchasing local produce

Andrea Munson, left, reviews a recipe with Chef Cate Smith after a seminar on buying local produce. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

Andrea Munson speared a blueberry with a toothpick, popped the berry in her mouth, then selected another blueberry from a different bowl.

"Oh," said Munson as she savored the second berry, "these must be the local ones."

She was right.

"Local berries pack a lot of flavor because they are picked at their peak," said Cate Smith, executive chef for Duke Integrative Medicine and Duke Diet and Fitness Center.

The blueberry taste test was part of a "Buy Local, Buy Green" seminar sponsored by DukeWell, Duke's health improvement program. The free, 90-minute seminar at Duke Integrative Medicine in June offered tips on how to eat locally and covered the environmental and health advantages of a local diet.

Smith said the Triangle area is rich in options for buying local food with farmers markets, community sponsored agriculture, roadside farm stands and grocery stores that stock produce from local farms. She said she considers food "local" if it makes it to market in less than six hours. That's faster than most grocery store produce, which ripens for a week or more in transit while travelling an average of 2,000 miles from field to shelf, she said.

"Buying local is great for the local economy and for reducing your carbon footprint, but for me, the most compelling reason to buy local is flavor and freshness," Smith said. "You just can't get that from food that has been trucked across the country."

Smith also likes the educational aspect of getting food from local farmers. She encouraged buyers to ask farmers about use of pesticides, genetically modified seeds and water supply sources.

"Fruits and vegetables are living, breathing things that soak up whatever is around them in their environment," Smith said. "If you meet the person you are buying food from, you can ask questions about how and where it was grown."

Shoppers can expect to pay slightly more for local food, since most of it is not produced in bulk, she said. But, she added, smart shoppers can find a bargain by following these tips:

Consider when and where to shop. Larger farmers markets in Raleigh and Greensboro often have lower prices because of stiffer competition. If you shop smaller markets, go late in the day when farmers may be willing to offer produce at a discount to avoid returning it to the farm.

Ask for the "uglies." Farmers often sell misshapen produce at a discount. "The taste isn't affected by the look," Smith said. "We aren't perfect, so why should we expect all of our food to be perfect?"

Clean and prep promptly. Prepare your produce to eat as soon as you get home to avoid food waste. Collards, herbs and asparagus stored with their stems in a vase of water stay fresh longer. Summer squash rubbed with vegetable oil should stay fresh in the pantry for weeks. Green onions will keep growing with their roots in water. Carrots and radishes can be sliced and placed in water to stay crisp. "Americans waste up to 40 percent of the food they buy," Smith said. "If you open the fridge and your carrots are ready to eat, you may avoid throwing out limp, unused carrots at the end of the week."

Munson, a financial management analyst for Cell Biology who participated in the blueberry taste test, attended the seminar because she is trying to eat a diet low in chemicals. She regularly buys local produce through the Duke Mobile Market and the Duke Farmers Market  but said the class gave her additional ideas for learning more about whether her meat, tomatoes, lettuce and other produce has been exposed to pesticides.

"There's a whole language and culture to learn about local food, but this class has helped me feel better about asking questions of the farmers," she said. "As I know more, I'm willing to pay more for healthier food."