Commercially grown produce passes through many hands on its 1,500-mile journey from the grower to your grocer. How many of those hands were washed? How was that food grown? When you start asking questions, you begin to see the beauty of eating local.
The main problem with our food system is that once a food has left the grower, there is not much hope of tracing it. Most of the produce is gathered from many sources, some overseas, and mingled before being sorted, packed and shipped. That makes food-borne illnesses particularly difficult to trace. In the case last year of the tainted peppers, the Food and Drug Administration suspects the problem originated in Mexico but can't be sure.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million Americans get sick each year from food-borne illnesses, and 5,000 of them die. Author and nutritionist Marion Nestle notes that statistically the risk is quite small in our country, considering "there are 350 million people eating several times a day. But if you're one of those people (who get sick)," Nestle says, "it's not very nice."
Apparently, many of us agree, as a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that nearly half of consumers have changed their eating and buying habits because they're afraid they could get sick by eating contaminated food.
On the other hand, local produce usually is grown and harvested by the same hands within 24 hours of being sold. Local producers tend to be more careful because it is often their own families, friends and neighbors who eat the produce.
Be on the safe side; stock up now on local tomatoes, peppers and other fresh produce, and preserve it yourself for the winter. You will not only be assured the healthiest product but also help the environment and the local economy.
Dehydrating tomatoes is an easy method of preserving that doesn't take a huge block of time like canning. Quarter the tomatoes; lightly salt them; and lay them out on cookie sheets in a slightly warm oven. They should dry overnight.
Tomatoes also freeze well, if they are packed in tightly sealed packages and used within about three months. Drop them in boiling water for a few seconds; peel them; remove the stem ends; and freeze them whole, or chop them coarsely and freeze them.
Canning is a little more laborious, but the results are sauces and stewed tomatoes that can't be beat. Canning also helps to preserve the nutritional content of tomatoes better than drying. To can tomatoes, make a big batch of your favorite sauce; pack it into canning jars; and process the jars in a boiling bath.
Pickling is a great way to preserve the last of the green tomatoes before a frost. An easy "no-fuss" pickling method is to make refrigerator pickles. Once you empty a jar of regular pickles, save the brine, and refill a clean jar with brine and green tomatoes. Let it sit in the fridge for a few days, and enjoy.
Some gardeners clip the remaining tomato vines and hang them upside down in root cellars or basements. That allows the remaining green tomatoes a few more frost-free days to ripen. You also can extend the season by putting unripe tomatoes in paper bags and letting them ripen on the countertop.
Preserving the harvest is one way to ensure your family gets the healthiest and best local produce year-round. Canning, drying and freezing are equally good ways to savor the abundance of summer long into the winter. Whatever your favorite preserving method, do it now, while produce is at its peak in nutrition and flavor. For a little extra time and effort today, you can have a higher-quality, better-tasting and safer alternative to imported produce.