When I was a kid my mother used to take me to a Sunday street market in a small town not far from where we lived. I remember it so vividly, several blocks buzzing with people.
This place was so vibrant and alive: the stalls full of variety of fruits and veggies, picturesque people, the noise, the smells, everything was very simple but at the same time so genuine. And best of all food was fresh, these people came from small farms in communities not far from that town, most of that food was probably hand-picked up earlier that day and obviously everything looked great and healthy. My mum as a good herb lover used to get these huge bunches of coriander and parsley, I even remember the aroma when we returned to the car with all these veggies!
I am glad that as a kid I had the opportunity to experience this place and even eat that amazing fresh food. These days going to a supermarket is far from an enlightening experience, even when they try to convince us that the food is super fresh, well maybe that’s not always the case.
Today inspired by those memories from my childhood, I’d like to examine few aspects about produce sold in supermarkets and also few alternatives to consider.
What’s not so great with produce in supermarkets?
Supermarkets are convenient, they offer products we need and consume on regular basis and that’s great, however when it comes to fresh food there are few things I’d like to highlight:
Avoiding waste is a hard task
As discussed before packaging is often the norm in regular supermarkets and it is prevalent even in fruit and veggies. Despite the fact that we got used to this way of shopping, it doesn’t mean is good for our health and the planet. Packaging generates massive amounts of waste, especially plastic waste and it is often hard to avoid it in supermarkets. For instance it is impossible to buy herbs without a plastic, often organic food is wrapped in plastic and for some fruit and veggies even if you buy them loose they have a sticker on, so buying 10 kiwis = 10 stickers to landfill.
Food travels around the world to be there available for us all year around. Kiwis from Italy, grapefruit from USA, mandarins from Israel? We often don’t pay attention to the labels, but if you look closer some of the fruits and veggies we buy in the supermarkets are imported because they are not in season locally.
I know this is convenient, we have the products we like to eat whenever we want, but all this transportation comes at a cost to us (often these products are more expensive) and of course the environment. Also even if these products are air-freighted, can this food be that fresh? This leads to the next point…
Fresh produce isn’t always that fresh
In many cases, fruits and veggies sold in supermarkets have been picked too early and remain in the supermarket for months before they reach the shelves. According to the Age, here in Australia:
The only reason apples are available year-round is modern technology. The actual picking time is short — between January and April. The industry takes its best apples and essentially puts them to sleep, sometimes for up to 11 months. In a process called controlled atmosphere storage apples are kept at zero degrees and deprived of oxygen, which slows their metabolic rate to prevent full ripening.
Thousands of boxes of bananas are stacked in specially designed rooms. Over five to seven days, the bananas are heated to between 16 and 18 degrees. Food-grade ethylene, a man-made copy of the hormone bananas naturally release, is added to trigger ripening and create uniform yellowing.
Think about all the electricity and resources that those processes require.
Supermarket standards in fruit and veggies lead to food waste
Supermarkets have some rigid cosmetic standards when it comes to fruit and veggies, they want all the veggies looking almost the same size, colour, shape and be perfect. Well, that leads to a big amount of food wasted, because the farmers can only sell products under these standards and in some cases the rest of the food and all the resources that went into growing it are wasted.
I love farmer’s markets for a couple of reasons:
- Food is really fresh. In many cases the vegetables have been picked the same day. So you know you are eating food with most of its nutritional content. Also they sell seasonal produce which again means you buy what nature is providing at that particular time and grown near the area where they are sold.
- Often fruit and veggies taste better because again is fresh and they are picked when they are ripe and at its best.
- Often food is sold with no packaging (or minimum), no stickers and in general less waste.
- You can buy different varieties of fruit and veggies. Supermarket only sell the type of produce that is popular and easy to transport and store. These farmers often grow heirloom plants and many other uncommon varieties so you can taste something new and different.
- In many cases food is more affordable because you are buying directly from the farmer. This is particularly common if you attend near the closing time, you can find many bargains.
- These farmers usually come from local towns therefore that food doesn’t travel long distances reducing CO2 emissions and fossil fuel usage which is better for the environment.
- When you buy from the farmers you are supporting local families and businesses, so that they can keep growing our food and offering a valuable service to the local communities. It is also nice when you go to these markets because you get to know who is growing your food, they can answer questions you might have, it is a different dynamic.
- You can find plastic-free organic food or pesticide-free vegetables which have less synthetic chemicals residues.
I think some people link farmer markets to small towns and a place to visit on a day trip, however farmer markets are getting quite common and maybe there is one near you!
Here in Australia, one of the resources I use is Localharvest. They help you find more sustainable food sources including farmer’s markets location. I like the fact that you can see them in a map, just enter your postcode and it will show you what’s available near you. Follow this link.
If you are in USA, you can also find it there, visit this link.
Otherwise if you are reading from a different location just Google what’s available in your town.
If farmer’s market is not an option, usually there are small fruit and veggie shops locally where you can find fresh food. You can go there and have a look, some are great, others are not that different to the regular supermarkets but I’d look for local produce (you can always ask them) and free from packaging (or closer).
I personally have a couple of farmer’s market nearby but they only operate once a month, so I can’t rely on them for my weekly shopping. For this reason, I buy my fresh food in a small shop near my house and I love going there. It is a family owned business, they mainly sell fresh local food, some organic some conventional and the packaging is minimum. Over time we got to know the people working there and the owners and it is a lovely place, I know I am supporting a local business that I believe in and it is doing a great work for the community and the environment.
Buy/get produce from your neighbours app
These days thanks to technology there are ways to connect with people growing food around you and buy excess food from them. It is extremely local and a good way to connect with others in your community.
We usually use Ripe Near Me which is quite popular in Australia, and it operates in different countries around the world. This short video explains how it works:
There is another app focused on preventing food waste called OLIO and it has a similar concept, however in this area is not that popular so we have never used it.
Start Growing your own food
If you have a garden or even a balcony start growing some veggies. You can’t go more local than that! There is a lot of satisfaction when you harvest food you have grown.
You can start small, maybe some herbs. It is all about trying. I personally was never drawn to gardening but I started helping my husband here and there (he loves gardening) and it is a quite relaxing and enjoyable activity.
There are also many benefits from gardening. For instance this article from CNN lists stress relief, better mental health, exercise, brain health and nutrition among the positive aspects of this hobby.
“There is something about putting your hands into the soil that restores the human spirit” – Rhonda Hetzel
These are few ideas to consider about buying your fresh food. I would like to invite you to look beyond the regular supermarket and explore other options, maybe healthier for you, maybe cheaper, maybe more exciting, who knows? If you never try you’ll never know!
Let me know in the comments below which of these options you are willing to try and why? Is there any tip you want to share about buying fresh food beyond the supermarket?
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Thanks for reading,