Syracuse University Magazine

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Eating Local

If you enjoy plucking apples from a tree, gathering homegrown green beans from a backyard garden, or braking for sweet corn at a roadside stand, there’s no doubt you relish locally grown fruits and vegetables. “Asparagus is amazing when it’s coming on,” says Jennifer Wilkins, the Daina E. Falk Endowed Professor of Practice in Nutrition at the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. “Talk about a rambunctious growing season! It’s so short, but you can do a lot of other things with asparagus—pickle it, can it, freeze it—and still enjoy it at different times of the year.”

For Wilkins, the idea of taking advantage of such offerings led to the creation of a food guide for the Northeast that emphasizes a nutritious, seasonally varied diet fueled by local and regional products. As national food recommendations evolved during the past two decades, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid (1992) to the current MyPlate (2011), Wilkins took the dietary guidelines a step further, developing the Northeast Regional Food Guide (1996) while on the Cornell University faculty. In 2014, she updated the guide—the first of its kind in the country—producing MyPlate Northeast. “When I had just moved to the area from Seattle, I was interested in learning about the Northeast food system and what we produce here agriculturally,” says Wilkins, who joined the Department of Public Health, Food Studies, and Nutrition at Falk last year. “The idea was to put dietary guidelines into the context of the Northeast region.”

 While many foods—such as dairy and meat products, eggs, and whole grains—are available year-round in the Northeast, most regional fruits and vegetables are best enjoyed during their peak times, though some, such as apples and root crops like carrots, store well and maintain their quality for extended periods. According to Wilkins, new food technologies, including enhanced temperature and humidity controls, have extended growing seasons and improved storage capabilities. In Wilkins’s guide, the Northeast stretches from Maine to Delaware and features different climatic zones, ones that are continually changing, providing varied growing seasons and a wider range of foods and availability. “The picture of what is local and seasonal is really a moving target,” she says.

With many food consumers attentive to locavore dining trends, the role of farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, and farm-to-school programs have increasingly shaped what appears on the supper table. From an environmental sustainability perspective, Wilkins says it’s important to consider the costs of today’s national and global food distribution system and embrace foods that provide maximum nutrition and energy versus per-gallon fuel costs—a current research interest of hers. It’s also important to remember food’s multifaceted roles in our society, with its connections to culture, ethnicity, history, and the environment. “All food is local somewhere,” Wilkins says. “If you realize the different costs in having food come from distant places all the time, you’re more likely to care more about protecting the land around you and the farms in your region.” —Jay Cox

Image courtesy of Jennifer Wilkins