BA.5 omicron subvariant is highly contagious. If you are eligible for a second COVID-19 booster shot, get one! Double down on eating healthy (eat more fruits, vegetables, grains, fish, and smaller amounts of lean meats) to reduce your risk of severe illness. Get some physical activity and be well rested.
Q I try to buy all vegetables at a farmers’ market, thinking vegetables will be “in season” and fresh, but I have seen produce that couldn’t be grown locally. What is meant by “seasonal vegetables?” JT, Greenville
A I often stop at a farmstand on my way to the beach. Buying and consuming local, seasonal produce has benefits for your health, the local economy and the environment. To know what produce is seasonal in North Carolina visit www.seasonalfoodguide.org/veg/lettuce/north-carolina. At my favorite farmstand, a poster hangs at the entryway “Fresh Harvest Dates for Vegetables in Carteret County.” The poster credits N.C. Cooperative Extension, Farm Bureau-Carteret and The Crystal Coast. Right now, you will find several types of squash, cukes, snap beans, sweet corn, okra, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, field peas, herbs and flowers and watermelon. But of course, there are other items there as well. Kylie Nowicki, a fourth-year Brody medical student, investigated this further. As Kylie says, “here is what I ‘dug up’ on buying produce at farmer’s markets.”
“Seasonal” produce refers to the fruits and vegetables harvested and sold within the same season and varies depending on location. At the farm stand Dr. K visits regularly, she found corn and peaches from South Carolina long before the North Carolina crop “came in.” Farmers often are in a cooperative or have agreements with other farmers to both provide increased variety and enhance their income. You can find a list of certified farmstands and farmers’ markets at ncfarmfresh.com.
Farmers strive to provide consumers with the highest quality, fresh, locally grown fruits, vegetables, ornamental plants and related farm products. They might have frozen and canned produce, as well. There are farmer’s markets throughout North Carolina, and vendors at those markets must follow each market’s rules and responsibilities. Some allow farmers to sell only their own produce, while others allow vendors to sell items, such as lemons or avocados, purchased from distant farms or farm cooperatives. LaRita Johnson tells us the Leroy James Farmers Market in Pitt Country (https://www.pittcountync.gov/599/Farmers-Market) has growers who are in co-ops. Those vendors grow some of their produce and get other produce from local farmers.
While not always cheaper than store-bought, freshly harvested produce usually contains more flavor and nutrients, is more ecologically friendly, and experts say may even be better physiologically suited to our needs. Dr. K says that as a child she accompanied her mom to the farmer’s market once a week because the produce was less expensive than in the store, whereas this year during our strawberry season, many local grocery stores had berries on “sale” for less money than the “pick your own” farms. We can guarantee you that the local berries were superior in taste, smell and nutrition than those traveling from California, and worth the extra money — even more reason to support local farmers!
The seasonality of “seasonal” produce also may support your body’s natural nutritional needs. Think about it this way, in the winter season when the weather turns colder, more dense foods, such as root vegetables, potatoes and butternut squash are in season. Whereas in summer, with warmer temperatures requiring more hydration and less caloric density, berries, melons, and tomatoes are ripe for eating. In contrast, out-of-season produce, while available year-round, comes from distant areas and may lose some of its nutritional value while in storage or transit. So if you enjoy green beans in the winter, you may get more nutrients for your buck by purchasing frozen vegetables that were processed at the peak of their ripeness.
You asked about seasonal produce, but the same can be said for seasonal seafood. The peak of freshness and abundance for all seafood comes at certain times of the year. The North Carolina Sea Grant has created the “North Carolina Availability Chart” that shows the peak season for the most popular fish and shellfish. Visit ncseagrant.ncsu.edu.
Right now, you would do well to select local shrimp, blue crab-hard, tilefish, tuna and look forward to spotted sea trout and flounder coming into season soon. The experts suggest eating fish at least twice per week. Helpful nutritional information about fish and shellfish can be found at seafoodhealthfacts.org.
And if you are concerned about mercury in fish, check out the chart at fda.gov/food/consumers/advice-about-eating-fish, which lists “best,” “good,” and “to avoid” choices. Note that the tilefish from our Atlantic Ocean is a “good” choice while it is to be avoided from the Gulf of Mexico.
So whether it’s produce or seafood, consider letting the seasons help shape your plate.