They say variety is the spice of life.
But consuming a range of produce can also enhance our lives.
“Some of these fruits and vegetables have different qualities,” said Jennifer Burns-Peterson, supervisor for Dietary Services at Peconic Bay Medical Center, adding that the range of nutrients found in produce can reduce cancer risk and increase antioxidant intake.
Burns-Peterson often tells patients to consume all the colors of the rainbow to ensure they’re getting vital nutrients. And the North Fork is home to farms that can supply just that.
The farm-to-table discussion often focuses — understandably — on supporting local farmers and the health of an area’s economy, but Burns-Peterson says your local farm stand contains a range of items that can benefit someone’s personal health as well.
Of course, so does the grocery store. But farmers note that getting to know local growers gives consumers an inside look into their food, allowing you to make informed decisions about your health.
Burns-Peterson gave tips on what to put on a shopping list based on individual health goals. Peter Treiber of Treiber Farms shared the best times of year to find the products at farmstands.
Vitamins and Benefits: This leafy green vegetable can be served raw as part of a salad, cooked or blended into a smoothie. Burns-Peterson says you’re biting into vitamin A, vitamin K, B6, potassium, copper, magnesium, manganese, antioxidants and flavonoids when you consume kale. All in all, Burns-Peterson says it boosts the immune system, heart health and the digestive system. Meanwhile, it can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
Season: Year-round for both fresh and storage
Vitamins and Benefits: Your grandmother may have told you eating carrots helps your eyesight. It turns out she was onto something. “It does help with night vision,” Burns-Peterson said. “That comes from vitamin A.” The orange veggie ideal for salads, soups or sides also contains carotenoids, which may reduce cancer risk, and fiber. “That fiber allows the body to utilize the right food or nutrient and excretes the rest, so it has some cholesterol-lowering benefits,” Burns-Peterson said.
Season: June through August
Vitamins and Benefits: Blueberries get their rich blue color from a water-soluble pigment called anthocyanin, but it doesn’t just give this small berry its signature color. Burns-Peterson says it helps fight free radicals, damaging elements in everyday life linked to cancer and premature aging. Blueberries are also an excellent source of vitamins A and C.
Season: August through November
Vitamins and Benefits: There’s a reason for the cliché phrase, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” “It’s high in fiber, especially if you eat the whole apple,” Burns-Peterson said. “Because it’s high in fiber from the skin, you are also lowering cholesterol and blood pressure.” She also said the fiber generally balances out the natural sugars apples contain, making it a more diabetes-friendly fruit than bananas. And it may make a trip to the dentist a little easier. “When you bite into it, the friction from the skin degrades the plaque off your teeth,” Burns-Peterson said.
Season: August through October
Vitamins and Benefits: Versatile peppers make for an easy snack or side. They also work well in dishes like stir-fries and summer salads. When you nosh on a pepper, your body is getting loads of vitamins, including vitamins A, B6, C, E and K. They also contain potassium and folate, the latter of which doctors encourage people of child-bearing ages to incorporate into their diets “[Folate] decreases the risk of having children with spina bifida,” Burns-Peterson said. But many people can benefit from chowing down on peppers. “Peppers have a nice amount of iron,” she added.
Season: May and June
Vitamins and Benefits: This green veggie hits seasonal menus each spring and indulging in it does the body good. Asparagus has naturally occurring vitamins A, B, C, E and K and folate, potassium, phosphorus and fiber. “It helps keep you regular, lowers cholesterol and has a tremendous amount of antioxidants,” Burns-Peterson says.
Season: March through May, September through November
Vitamins and Benefits: Quite simply, “Spinach is a superfood,” Burns-Peterson declared. The dark green leaves are full of vitamins A, B, C, E and K, folic acid, iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. “It does have some health benefits for eye health, decreasing the risk for cancer and chronic disease,” Burns-Peterson added. “If people have an autoimmune disease, this is the kind of food people should be eating on a regular basis.”
Season: July through November
Vitamins and Benefits: Typically more of a pungent add-on to dishes, garlic boasts some major health benefits. “The iron and vitamin C combination helps people ward off risk and decrease the risk of becoming anemic or iron deficient,” Burns-Peterson said. The smell on your breath may cause people to step back, but the nutrients can keep illness at bay. “It can come at sickness,” Burns-Peterson said. “People will chew on a clove of garlic or sleep with one to cure a cold … I don’t think you need to sleep with it, but putting it in your food can help keep your immune system up.”
Beyond the Nutrition Label
“Local” doesn’t always mean healthy and Mimi Edelman of I & Me Farm says words like “organic” have been watered down and misconstrued over the years.
“There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors,” Edelman said.
People generally think of “organic” as chemical-free, but the EPA does have a small list of pesticides and herbicides growers can use to protect crops from weeds, insects and infection.
Shopping local offers consumers the chance to pull back the curtain on how their food is harvested.
“Asking questions and visiting the field is a great way to learn and feel more comfortable in whether your food has the vitality you’re seeking,” Edelman said.
Edelman and Treiber offered tips for approaching North Fork farmers.
Start With Signage
Typically, farmer’s markets and farmstands have signs with valuable information like the origin of the food. Those peppers may have been harvested right behind the farm stand, or they may have come from another grower down the street.
“It’s important that the farmers put the origin of the product even if it’s from another farm,” Edelman said. “The origin and the ability to trace the stewardship is there.”
These facts convey transparency and let you, the consumer, know whether you should strike up a conversation with the person selling the produce or research a different farm to learn about the growing practices.
Knowing where your produce came from can give you a chance to ask the grower questions directly. But proceed tactfully, not accusatory.
Edelman said approaching a farmer and saying, “I hear you use these types of products on your produce,” will only put them on the defensive, but she’s seen it happen.
“Farming is incredibly difficult and people’s livelihoods are in the balance, so appreciate that they are probably trying their best, even if they use the occasional spray,” he said.
Visit the Farm During Working Hours
Making a trip to the farm and walking the grounds can give consumers an up-close look at a farmer’s practices. It also leaves the door open for a face-to-face discussion. Edelman suggests asking questions like:
What is your land stewardship?
What are your practices?
What allows you to have a robust harvest?
How do you manage weeds around your crops?
These questions will help consumers learn what the farmer uses to protect crobs and produce a robust harvest, such as cover crops or herbicides.
“Come at it in an inquisitory, I-want-to-learn way,” she said. “Most farmers will recognize that’s the beginning of a trusting relationship.”