It’s OCTOBER, and I’m hungry for a fresh apple, the crunchy tang of a McIntosh, or a sunbaked Cortland exploding with sweet plum flavors. I know apples because I grew up on an apple farm that my family still runs today. By the end of the month, or the first frost, we will sell about 3,000 bushels of fruit to customers who drive, in some cases, over 100 miles to pick apples, pears, and plums from our trees.
But I am not home, so I am searching for a fresh apple at my local supermarket. In front of me is a large poster that reads “Supporting Farmers in the Northeast.” I’m optimistic. But in the bins of vegetables beneath the poster, I see long cucumbers wrapped in plastic. The stickers on them read “Canada.” I ponder this. A mistake? I pick up a large Vidalia onion and, when I examine its sticker, discover that it is from Georgia. Then it occurs to me that the sign merely proclaims support for local farmers; it makes no claim that the vegetables surrounding it are actually from the Northeast.
In the apple aisle I find 10 varieties beautifully displayed to showcase uniform size and coloring. They have been picked green, then dipped in wax to prepare them for cold storage and transport — these apples have traveled 3,000 miles, from Washington state. Commercially raised apples are bred to ship well, with thick skins and strong fruit structure. The USDA recently approved entrance into the country of a genetically modified apple that does not turn brown when peeled. Soon you will be able to buy apples peeled as far away as China. Consumers will gain convenience and lose nutrition.
Taste and nutrition are linked in fruits and vegetables. An apple tree wants us to eat its fruit when the seeds are the most mature. Thus, when the seeds are ready, the fruit ripens, increasing in sugar content and other nutrients that make it tastier. In many cases, tree-ripe and garden-fresh are even better than organic. A recent University of California study showed that organic peaches, blackberries, and corn picked green actually had less nutrition than conventionally grown counterparts that were allowed to ripen before being harvested. But ripe fruits and vegetables are hard to ship.
I glance back at the huge poster with its image of an iconic farmer in his fields, a red barn in the distance. The poster draws me into the narrative of the happy small farmer, when in reality the supermarket’s industrial standard distribution system makes buying from small local farms impractical.
Buying organic vegetables has become equally complex. “Organic” is a certification regulated by the USDA and guarantees that fruits and vegetables have been raised without pesticides or chemical fertilizer. But though “organic” once represented small farms trying to work with the logic of nature to grow food, it is now the fastest growing sector of the food economy and an $11 billion business. The organic produce I find in my supermarket come from three main growers in California. Carbon footprint aside, like most fruits and vegetables entering cold storage and transport, they are probably sprayed with fumigants to prevent bacteria and mold.
Between the industrialization of the organic food industry, and the clever marketing that plays off our desires for fresh food with increasingly deceptive labeling, the best way to find healthy food may be a return to the simple adage: Buy local.
The past few weeks have been an apple farmer’s dream — sunny days that increase fruit zesters and snappy nights that stop chlorophyll formation, allowing the shy pigments, carotene and anthocyanin, to be revealed, coloring apples red (and more nutritious: these pigments are antioxidants). But the only Northeast apples that I eventually find in my supermarket are Paula Reds, ironically shipped here from the Hudson Valley, not far from my family’s orchard. They are small and green. I leave without buying them.
Leila Philip is a professor in the English department at the College of the Holy Cross. Her latest book is “Water Rising,” a collaboration with artist Garth Evans.