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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fresh Winter Foods

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood talks with nutritionist Jennifer Wilkins of Cornell University about what winter vegetables are available, and how best to eat and use them.


CURWOOD: Winter will soon be over, officially at least, anyway. But in the northern climes it will be months before there'll be a new crop of local produce. Still, you don't have to rely solely on fruits and vegetables flown in from thousands of miles away. Cornell University nutrition educator Jennifer Wilkins says there's plenty of local produce available right now in the northern regions.

WILKINS: There is quite a variety of foods that are grown in the region that are stored, that can be consumed in the wintertime. A lot of vegetables, for example, beets, burdock root. Potatoes, of course, everyone's familiar with. Parsnips, less familiar but wonderful. Rutabagas. Sprouts can be grown in anyone's kitchen and available all year round. Sweet potatoes, turnips and a whole host of winter squashes.

CURWOOD: Dr. Wilkins, I can go to the store today, right now in the middle of winter. I can buy big strawberries from California and bananas from Panama. I mean, if technology lets me do this, why shouldn't I?

WILKINS: Well, locally grown is often fresher, and fresher produce retains more nutrients. Produce that is transported shorter distances will also have a lower risk of food contamination or a lower need for post-harvest pesticide treatments. And I think more and more, as industrialized as our food system is and as globalized as it is, it has served to separate farmers from consumers and consumers from the land and the cycles of the land and the climate in which they live.

CURWOOD: Are there other reasons to buy locally grown food?

WILKINS: Well, one would be the level of fossil fuel use in the current food system, and the level of petroleum that's used in transporting food around. If consumers are concerned about this limited resource as well as the pollution that's generated from its use, buying food that has not traveled as far is one way of decreasing that. Another reason for consuming locally grown foods is to add more support to our local farmers and processors. We have, in New York State for example, a loss of about 20 farms a week, about 1,000 a year, from one state alone, and this trend is not unfamiliar to other states in the region. So buying produce from local producers is one way to increase their market share, make them more economically viable, so that they can stay in business.

CURWOOD: Now how can we find out what's grown in our own region and what's in season?

WILKINS: One of the things that consumers can do that are interested in having more local foods available to them is to ask for them. To talk to produce managers and request information about the sources of the food. And voice their concern about local agriculture or their interest in having more fruits and vegetables that are produced locally. And I know I'm saying fruits and vegetables, but this also applies to meats and dairy and beans and legumes and grain products as well.

CURWOOD: Now what about buying canned fruits and frozen vegetables in the winter time, here in the Northeast? Are they better or worse for me than fresh produce?

WILKINS: In terms of nutritional value, they're quite comparable. Certain nutrients are lost in the processing of any food, but you have nutrient losses from the time food is harvested to the time it's marketed, depending on how far it travels, how long it travels, the conditions of storage while in transportation. Oftentimes, many nutrients can be preserved in foods because it's transported a very short distance from the time it's harvested to the processing plant. So in terms of nutritional content, there, it's great to eat processed, canned, frozen fruits and vegetables in the winter time.

CURWOOD: What's your favorite winter food? Your favorite winter produce?

WILKINS: Well, I would have to say parsnips. You can slice them and saute them in a little butter add a very little salt and some freshly ground pepper and they're absolutely wonderful.

CURWOOD: How long does it take?

WILKINS: About 10 minutes.

CURWOOD: Well, maybe I'll try those tonight.

WILKINS: And you can saute them with a little butter and put maple syrup on them, which is also a local product, and have them for breakfast.

CURWOOD: Oh ho. Dr. Jennifer Wilkins is a nutrition educator at Cornell University. She recently published the Northeast Regional Food Guide, available from Cornell University Press. Thanks for joining us and bon appetit.

WILKINS: Thank you very much.



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