This site is based in Northern California, so my focus has been to find the places to get the healthiest, freshest, most sustainably produced food in this area. However similar rules would apply for residents in Southern California. I have listed the sources of food somewhat in order, so the most preferred location is listed first which is of course to…
Grow your own : Even the smallest yard or pots on a deck can yield bountiful harvests. In the fall, winter and spring try planting a mixed lettuce (mesclum mix) in a pot on your deck or a small plot in your yard. You can cut the lettuce with scissors for salads and it will keep coming back again and again. In the summer you can plant the same spot with a determinate tomato (they are smaller in size). If you have room in the yard for a larger tomato, cherry tomatoes such as Sweet 100 or Sun Drop will produce a bounty of tomatoes for salad. Fresh herbs can also be grown in pots as ornamentals. Rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, chives and tarragon are perennials so they will be available to use in your cooking for years after planting. Basil and parsley are annuals but are easy to grow and add flavor, color and nutrients to your cooking. Think outside the box and you can probably find all kinds of little spots in your yard to plant vegetables, fruits and herbs.
Buy direct from a farmer: There are several ways to do this. Some of us are lucky enough to have farms that sell directly to the public nearby. My county, Placer, has a website http://www.placergrown.org/ that lists all the farms in the county that sell directly to the public. Another website http://www.localharvest.org has a search feature where you can enter your zip code and find farms nearby. You can also use this feature to find a CSA that serves your area.
What is a CSA? CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. You can sign up for a box of vegetables, fruit or both to be delivered weekly to a location close to your home or work where you can pick it up. The farmer gives you whatever is in season on the farm in the box, along with recipes and other tips for using the produce. Everyone I know who has joined a CSA has increased their intake of fruits and vegetables as they start learning how to use up what comes in that box every week.
You can also buy directly from a farmer’s market. The number of farmer’s markets in the U.S has doubled in the past 10 years, and California has the most markets of any state. In fact, one of every three farmer’s markets in the U.S. is in California. California has some of the most strict regulations in the country for farmer’s markets. These regulations guarantee that when you buy at a certified farmer’s market the farmer that sells the produce to you is the farmer who grew the product. To find a market near you go to http://www.cafarmersmarkets.com
Buy from a store that supports local farmers and purchase the local products: Some natural foods stores or farm stands focus on buying local. For example in Sacramento the Natural Foods Coop buys local produce almost exclusively. Other stores, such as regular grocery chains, are starting to designate which produce is locally grown, although each store has their own definition of local. They also will tell you if foods are grown in another country, and often they will let you know if food is California grown. If I can’t find locally grown, then I at least try to find California grown. If I can’t find California grown, I often will try a substitute ingredient that is grown in California, or I will consider using a different recipe.
One of the most important ways to change our shopping is to start from the local ingredients first, then look for the appropriate recipe. Instead, many people start with the recipe, then go to the store looking for ingredients that may not be in season in California. If at least most of the time you use foods that are in season locally, your food costs will be lower, the fresher ingredients will make your food taste better, and you will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced getting the food to your table. To find out what is in season in your area, you can check the California farmer’s market website http://www.cafarmersmarkets.com . The epicurious website also has an interactive map with what is in season. Here is that link:
Another side note to remember when purchasing food: Although more of us than ever are bringing our own grocery bags to the store, many of us forget the dramatic energy and environmental costs of eating so much packaged and processed food. For example, you can purchase oats in bulk by putting it in your own bag, or already packaged in the cereal section. Disposal of the packaging is only part of the environmental cost of the pre-packaged product. Think about the energy required to run the machines to put it into the bags. Now imagine the energy and packaging required to make a box of processed cereal, between the processing of all the ingredients, shipping ingredients to the factory and then the mixing and processing and boxing of the final product. If more often you choose to just cook up some whole grain oats that you purchased from the bulk bin for breakfast, you will be helping the environment and your pocketbook. Eat more local fruits and vegetables, whole grains and other unprocessed foods, and you will save money, improve your health and protect the environment. Talk about a win-win-win!