The health/real food/sustainable/buy local folks tend to be all about the fresh.  “Buy fresh, buy local.”  And it’s not that I don’t appreciate the many benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables (in fact, I can honestly say that I’ve been eating more fresh grapefruit in the last month that I have in… years).  The problem is that we both marginalize groups of people and we neglect reality when we focus too much on saying assorted phrases that translate to “fresh is best.” Skip focusing on fresh, let’s stick with the message the VEGETABLES are best.

Eating is an individual act. There are many aspects that should tie into a decision on what to buy. I recently read a study looking at elders in Kentucky in the early 1990s, particularly looking at gardening and food preserving practices. A cultural preference for canning green beans was linked back to the traditional cooking methods. Green beans were, essentially, simmered all day until very soft. Canning meant less work and quicker preparation in the future. Now, I don’t like canned green beans. But, by insisting that fresh is best, do we reject valid cultural maenings? History? Proustian green beans, anyone? (Canned, in particular, can have substantially more salt and sugar that fresh or frozen but I still say it’s better to eat your vegetables than not if canned is strongly prefered or more readily available.)

I’ve been a fan of frozen vegetables for years, especially since I think kale tastes better once it’s been frozen. Previously, that translated into a few afternoon in the kitchen transfering kale from boiling water to ice water to draining rack to freezer bags. This year, given my move, I’ve been using grocery store frozen vegetables. It’s so easy; there is no waste. OK, maybe a piece or two lands on the floor (but the dog eats it) and technically there may be wasted trimmings prior to being frozen.

Eating fresh requires organization, effort, and ready access to either frequent shopping or some kind of cold storage like a fridge. For those struggling with resources like time, energy or money due to a new baby, family stress, financial stress, illness, work stress, or any other reason, frozen (or even canned) can be an extremely sensible and frugal choice. They’ll wait: you can cook it today or two weeks from today.

I am delighted to see growing efforts in minimal processing for regional food systems, and hope that one day the local food advocates will be pushing frozen kale or cranberries or sugar snap peas at you as much as they’ve driven the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” message. However, I don’t reasonably think we’ll convince everyone to boil their own beets and rutabagas all winter while they chow down on cabbage and winter squash. Using that minimally processed, more familiar produce is one way to preserve a wider range of foods for year-round consumption and increase the strength and resiliency of regional food systems.

Why should we eat fresh?
1. Fresh can taste the best.  There’s no broccoli so wonderful as the broccoli you picked an hour ago.  Raspberries should really be eaten within 30 feet of the canes. 

2. Fresh can also have higher nutrient content (by a very small amount) if properly handled and eaten promptly.  Fresh has no added salt or sugar, much less weirder sauces which may contain ingredients like trans-fats.

3. Crops picked for the fresh market often receives the highest price for the producer. This is true for conventional, mainstream markets or for alternative sources like CSAs and farmer’s markets.

Why pick frozen or canned?
1. Fresh is perishable. If you tell me you’ve never hauled something in the process of decomposing out of your fridge, I’ll be astonished. Waste from purchasing fresh foods can be high, if life takes unexpected turns. Even just sitting around for a week in your fridge can reduce nutrient content significantly.

2. Fresh comes in non-negotiable packages (usually). You still have the rest of the ear of corn even when you only need 1/4 c for your salsa. While this may be less of an issue for larger families, it can be more challenging for one or two. Waste is an enormous problem in the US. Fresh produce, unforunately, is a major contributor.

3. Fresh, if eaten out of season, can be grown and shipped from distant areas. This may be Florida (mmm… grapefruit), or it might be New Zealand. Shipping may lead to higher greenhouse gas production (depends on what you’re comparing it to), higher loss of nutrients, and a shorter shelf life in your fridge. There may be issues with farmerworker conditions, or environmental consequences (also true of seasonal produce but distant locations are tougher to evaluate).

What do you think? Do frozen and canned have a role in your kitchen, and if so, what role?