Being mindful of our food

Paul McKenzie, N.C. Cooperative Extension
Dec. 08, 2013 @ 09:40 AM

Food. It nourishes and sustains our bodies. It keeps us healthy and makes our children grow strong. And this time of year, as we gather around a table with family and friends, partaking of treasured family recipes prepared with loving hands, it indeed nourishes us even more deeply.

In decades past, the foods from the holiday table were intimately connected to the time of year. Pumpkins and sweet potatoes and apples and pecans are all harvested in the late summer and fall, and keep well for weeks or months. The foods often came from our own farms and gardens, or those of a nearby neighbor.

Today, however, we can visit the grocery store any day of the year and find mind-boggling variety. Need a tropical mango grown in Central America? Stop by the store on the way home from work. Have a taste for strawberries or grapes in December? They are there for the asking.

I am all too happy to partake of such variety and abundance. We would do well to remember, however, that our food supply may face big challenges in coming decades.

Consider that a growing world population depends on abundant production from U.S. farmers. As we approach and pass six billion people on this globe, the pressure on farmers to increase yields and produce more efficiently is going to grow.

Further, the soils upon which we raise our food are essentially a non-renewable resource. Soil lost to erosion, housing developments and asphalt is, for all intents and purposes, lost forever.

Next, our food system today is international, and therefore vulnerable to conflicts and natural disasters in faraway lands. The food on your table could easily have come from a farm in California, Europe or Brazil.

Finally, our farm population is aging. In Vance County, the average age is around 60. Our nation desperately needs young farmers to fill their boots. And in fact, the agricultural sciences are a growing, high-tech industry with good paying jobs.

I don’t have easy solutions to these challenges. But I think we need policies and programs that protect farmland. We need to encourage our young people to learn about agriculture and consider careers in that field. And we need to constantly look for ways to shorten the distance from farm to table.

A simple thing we can all do is to buy more North Carolina grown products. This great state has incredible diversity in the crops we grow, from the mountains to the sea. We can look for those North Carolina products at the grocery store, stop by the local roadside stands, visit nearby farmers markets and seek out restaurants that feature such foods.

As you seek out more locally grown products, you may in fact rediscover the delights our grandparents knew in eating with the seasons. A locally grown strawberry in May will be all the sweeter for the wait. The bland January tomato that was shipped from far away will lose its appeal.

We are so fortunate to have a strong agricultural heritage in this state and community and hardworking farmers who raise the food that sustains us. May we all remember these things as we count our blessings for the year.