Seasonal Food – Who Knows About It?

Loganberries (small)  06.7.30 008.jpg Over the past century our connection with basic food production has largely been lost. But now there are urgent environmental as well as direct health reasons to ensure everyone understands how food is produced. People as consumers (in both senses) need to know about food miles, short produce supply chains, nutritional value and the annual cycle of food production through the changing seasons.

One obvious starting point for this crucial ‘sustainability’ message is schools; and another is allotments.
Apples 06.7.30 011.jpg The way that people find out about food seems to vary from generation to generation. This wasn’t always the case. For millennia you ate what you could grow and, if you were lucky, also what you could swap of your surfeit for someone else’s surfeit.
Then came the developing trade routes, some ancient and exotic (the Silk Road, also a route for spices and much else) and others, far more mundane to our modern minds, such as Salters Lane, the mediaeval travellers’ way which appears in British towns and villages as widely spread as Hastings, Redditch, Tamworth, Chester and Stockton-on-Tees, along with other similar reminders of trade in by-gone eras.
Also within Europe, for instance, were the horrors of such deprivation as the Irish potato famine of 1845-9 and more recently, for some within living memory, informal and formal food rationing (the World Wars of 1914-19 and 1939-45) – a deprivation it is now often considered was more of the palate than of essential nutritional substance.
Different expectations, the same basic understanding
In all these cases, however, fabulous or tragic, ancient or contemporary, people understood something about the genesis of their food. It was either from plants or from animals, nurtured intentionally or garnered whence it appeared. If you wanted to eat, you had to engage in some way in the production or location of your meal.
This, it could be argued, is what is different in times past from how things are today. It can certainly be said that although people must still find their food somewhere, it tends to come pre-prepared, in labelled packets, frozen or perhaps in tins, but not self-evidently from plants and animals.
In much of the western or ‘first’ world the conscious link with what is rather romantically referred to as ‘the soil’ has quite largely been lost. Most people now expect to be able to eat anything they can afford and that they take a liking to, any time they choose.
The downside of choice
Nobody would disagree with the general idea that variety in our diets is a good thing. But in practice it doesn’t seem to be like Strawberry pot 06.7.30 010.jpg that. Our food arrives on the shop shelves (the only place now where most of us hunt and gather) processed and packaged, and often laden with things we don’t need as well as those we think we want….
For every interesting flavour and texture there are frequently too many empty calories, too much refined sugar and the ‘wrong sort‘ of fats, if not always too few vitamins and minerals. (Contrary to popular belief, frozen and tinned food can, we are told, be as nutritious in these respects as the ‘real thing’. Indeed, given that frozen and tinned foods are usually very fresh when they are processed, they may well have more nutritional value than the produce lying ‘fresh’ in the market.)
And herein lies the rub. There is a confusion in perceptions between ‘fresh’ and ‘well-preserved’ foods, between ‘produce’ and ‘ready meals’. And most people have only the vaguest of ideas about the essential differences between, say, strawberries or carrots flown in ‘fresh’ from California or South Africa, and those grown in glasshouses close to the point where they are sold…. which in turn means we cannot fully appreciate concerns around ‘food miles‘, local / short supply chains or, to return to our original theme, nutritional value-for-money.
Allotments (sheds & netting, Sudley) 06.7.15 003.jpgClose to the land, close to the retailer
At last some retailers (including some of the biggest) are beginning to acknowledge some of these issues. They boast that they have short supply chains, that their produce are prepared immediately after cropping, that they are willing to promote sustainable ‘seasonal’ products; and they even sometimes offer nutritious recipes to cook from basic (and less basic) ingredients which are fresh and wholesome.
Now it is up to everyone to make sure they understand what is meant by all this.
For not the first time in this debate, much of the answer has to lie in education, in encouraging children to nurture living things; in making sure children know that food does not grow on supermarket shelves, and that they understand how the seasons can be harnessed to ensure a supply a healthy and varied diet.
The other obvious approach is helping people, wherever they live, sustain their own communities, to visit farmers’ markets, and grow at least some of their own food, in allotments or by sharing back garden space, or even just in pots.

From little acorns do great oak trees grow, just as from modest ideas about strawberry pots or rows of peas and potatoes can the notion of seasonal food once again take its place in our understanding of a sustainable world.

Posted on July 26, 2006, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Education, Health And Welfare, Events And Notable Dates, Knowledge Ecology And Economy, Politics, Policies And Process, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience, Sustainability As If People Mattered, The Journal. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Dear Hilary, I’m enjoying a quick wander through your site (very interesting stuff). I just thought I’d add my thoughts on another way perhaps to re-engage people with seasonal produce – through farmers’ markets (of which there are several each month on Merseyside).
    I feel that they can help people to reconnect with & enjoy the change of seasons, plus help them realise the importance of buying local & enjoying the difference between what looks nice & shiny on the supermarket shelf & farmers’ market produce which might have a bit of soil on, or look a bit knobbly, but tastes fantastic.
    (I’m biased though – I brew beer locally & sell it through several farmers’ markets!)

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