Eat local this Christmas to help our climate and share the love

By Alexa Mergen

Sourcing local foods to serve at holiday tables brings love to every bite. Hospitality becomes all-inclusive as we receive from places and people who nourish us and give to those we serve, at home and through our churches.

When it comes to food, love is local. Purchasing local foods benefits your neighborhood economy, saves on fossil fuels used in transportation and plastic packaging, and results in a smaller carbon footprint. Eating organic produce eliminates some of the carbon emissions used to produce pesticides and herbicides.

In addition, fruits and vegetables tend to be fresher and may have greater nutritional benefits when they come from small farmers tending healthy soil.

A good place to shop locally is at farmer’s markets. Allow your eye to be drawn to color and shapes. Stay open to foods that are unfamiliar and surprising. Broccoli leaves, for example, are usually discarded in favor of crowns. The flavor of the fresh leaves is mustardy and green. Steam the leaves or blend into soup.

Rich, roasted mushrooms provide a meaty side dish with creamy pureed butternut squash. Simmer pears into a fragrant compote with California dried fruit, like apricots or prunes. Bake a brightly scented orange cake or tangy lemon bars using winter citrus. Ask market vendors for preparation ideas. They are usually happy to teach.

Over a third of the country’s vegetables and three-quarters of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown in California. That means placing plant-foods in the center of the holiday table is relatively easy for those of us blessed to live in Northern California.

A celebration of plants takes us back to the beginning:

“Then God said, ‘I’ve given you every sort of seed-bearing plant on Earth and every kind of fruit-bearing tree, given them to you for food. To all animals and all birds, everything that moves and breathes, I give whatever grows out of the ground for food.’” (Genesis 1:29-30 MSG)

Enjoy grains, grasses and legumes, too. Northern California farms produce wheat, rice and beans. Locally grown wild rice is opulent when served with vivid green Brussel sprouts. At one tiny urban farm in West Sacramento, a local farmer grows black eyed peas that cook up buttery. Look around your community: Local food options like this are everywhere.

If a farmer’s market is out of reach, look for California produce at the supermarket. Select apples, yams and other colorful foods grown in the state. Build in a little more time on your shopping trip to read labels and ask questions of the store’s department managers.

More of what December offers in our region includes: pomegranates, cabbage, carrots, fennel, leafy greens, parsnips, winter squash, an array of herbs, a raft of nuts.

For those who consume meat, dairy and fish, seek close-by options.  For example, look for California oysters instead of shrimp shipped from overseas.

And if you’re planning holiday toasts, look for wine made in California. Even coffee and chocolate can be purchased from local roasters and confectioners to recognize artisans in your area.

We will always eat foods that travel to us — out of convenience and for comfort. It’s difficult to imagine a snickerdoodle cookie without vanilla from tropical orchids or pancakes sans syrup from eastern maple trees. So think “intention” and not “perfection.” By choosing local foods as much as possible, our actions reflect the sense of stewardship inherent in our beliefs.

The word “steward” derives from an Old English word meaning “house.” When we worship formally, we enter the house of the Lord. The “eco” of “ecology” comes from the Greek word “oikos” which also means “house.” Nourishing ourselves and our families and friends with plants grown from local water and soil honors the temples of our bodies and the ties of community, all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small.

Alexa Mergen is a writer and yoga teacher, and attends St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Sacramento.