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California cabbages vs. Tampa tomatoes

“Food nowadays lacks flavor and nourishment,” my nostalgic grandmother said. “It has no taste whatsoever. And it’s all because of those things they spray on the farms.

“In our times, you could relish even raw vegetables. … They were fresher, healthier and more delicious.”

MONTAGE GRAPHIC/MARLOW GUM

But she need not worry – all the technological progress in food production seems to have backfired, instead sparking a young but surging agricultural trend to rediscover the vintage ways of food production.

Progress taking us backward? Ironic, but true. We’ve already witnessed the rebellion against genetically modified foods and the subsequent increasing aversion to them. Farming methods are changing – essentially undergoing an agricultural renaissance.

This rebirth challenges people to look back on the traditional ways. Increasing health awareness and the manifestation of disorders caused by lack of nutrition has given impetus to this movement that emphasizes natural, environment-friendly methods of farming. Therefore, the area under recent scrutiny is choosing between the two natural methods of food production – organic versus locally grown.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic food as that which is “produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.”

Food items that meet USDA organic standards get labeled with a seal. However, the use of the seal is voluntary. Moreover, the USDA makes no claimsthat organic food is safer or more nutritious than conventional food.

The difference lies in the way that organic food is grown, handled and processed. On the other hand, locally grown food has a more flexible, consumer-specific definition. For some, it is food grown in the city – but others stretch its definition to the state of their residence. It usually means seasonal food grown on farms within a 100 to 250-mile radius from one’s home.

For example, carrots sold at Tampa Whole Produce Market would be considered more local to the USF community than the ones shipped from California. The idea is to obtain food that is grown as near as possible, ensuring its freshness and nutrition content.

Also, “money spent on locally produced foods stays in the community longer, creating jobs, supporting farmers and preserving local cuisines and crop varieties,” said the Toronto Vegetarian Association, promoting locally grown food and encouraging people to support it.

Making the choice between organic and locally grown food can be tough at times.

“This new trend has emerged because of the increased focus on disease prevention, health promotion and environmental responsibility. Thankfully, there’s a new focus on organic foods,” said Kim May, L.D.N. and USF Student Health Services senior dietician. “Choosing organic foods may offer additional benefits. For example, organic foods may contain more nutrients than non-organic foods. It could offer protection against a variety of chronic diseases and also enhance various bodily functions.”

On the other hand, some may believe that the various benefits offered by locally grown food outweigh the safety features of organic foods.

Amber Kenney, Residence Life Coordinator for USF Residence Services, is avidly nutrition-conscious and prefers locally grown foods.

“I tend to read food labels, monitoring what type of ingredients are in canned, jarred or boxed foods, but would prefer my vegetables and fruits to be fresh,” Kenney said. “I am not a vegetarian, vegan, nor have strict dietary needs, I just enjoy eating healthy. Buying locally grown food, I also would be supporting our community and those who can provide the food to the local groceries.”

For students who bear the cumulative pressures of academia, jobs and extra-curricular activities, the choice between organic and locally grown food – or simply nutrition, for that matter – is mostly of secondary concern.

Kristin Carattini, a freshman majoring in chemical engineering, learned about the trend through College Health Promotions, an undergraduate course that explores nutrition and health issues, different types of diets and the myths associated with each.

“A certain amount of trust is involved when one is not sure of how the food is grown and the environment it’s grown in,” Carattini said. “I would rather buy organic food if it was made available more locally.”

She hints to a major issue of concern – barriers to access. Most students who live on campus have meal plans, and for freshmen, that plan is mandatory. A majority of them eat on-the-go, compromising healthy diets with quick snacks.

Moreover, their finances are already limited. Hence, nutrition is often a very low priority.

The spotlight is on antiquarian farming. More and more people are becoming informed and demanding fresher, healthier food. Such is the impact that even culinary imperialists – the inhospitable supermarkets – are driven to stock their shelves with more organic and locally grown foods.

So what should you do? Retrofit your room with a solarium to produce your own fruits and vegetables? Not necessarily.

In an article for the National Geographic’s Green Guide, editor Mindy Pennybacker offers some suggestions:

Think about what you eat. If you want local, buy local. If you want organic, buy organic. The point is to make a conscious choice. Your best bet is to go for the hybrid option – locally grown organic food. Not only is it grown nearby (ensuring nutrient density due to almost no transit), but also is organic (ensuring certified food safety).

Try to eat local, especially in the season of abundance from late summer through early fall – the best time to find locally grown fruits and vegetables. Find local harvest fairs and upcoming food events at Foodreference.com/html/upcomingfoodevents.html. Find a farmers’ market near you at Ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/map.htm and Localharvest.org. Tampa residents may want to consider Sweetwater Sunday Organic Market (6942 Comanche Ave., 765-0282, Sunday noon – 4 p.m.) or Tampa Wholesale Produce Market (2801 East Hillsborough Ave., 237-3314, Monday to Saturday 3 a.m. to 10 a.m.).

Look for food labels and read them carefully. Distinguish authentic, reliable seals (USDA Organic, Food Alliance, Healthy Grown etc.) from the ones that are solely intended for marketing purposes (Fresh, Antibiotic-free, Natural, Hormone-free etc.). Know your labels from Thegreenguide.com/doc/110/labels.