Sarene Marshall is the managing director of The Nature Conservancy’s global climate change program. This is the first of her four-part series on the importance of eating locally produced food.

In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver marks the beginning of her family’s quest to eat locally with a chapter entitled “Waiting for Asparagus” that reflects how many people (especially gardeners like me) feel right about now. Having spent the winter months bundled up, staring at a near-barren landscape in my backyard, I am itching for spring. But the season means much more to me than the opportunity to shed some layers of clothing and finally GET OUTSIDE. It marks the start of six-plus months of fabulous, fresh, local (yes, even home-grown) food.

While the Kingsolver’s experiment did plenty of good for the planet in the form of reduced fuel consumption (American food travels 1,500-2,500 miles on average from farm to consumer), it was the connection to FOOD, as much or more than the environmental implications, that cemented her commitment to local eating. She’s not the only one. In The $64 Tomato, William Alexander confesses that, despite the many challenges of home gardening, he “was hooked on the food.” In other words, one taste of a fresh-picked tomato grown steps from your table, and there is simply no going back. Sadly, since the majority of mass-market produce is bred for appearance, disease-resistance and shelf-life over flavor, most people never know what they are missing.

Make your own connection between food and conservation this Earth Day and throw a Picnic for the Planet. Join all the others who are putting their dot on the map and taking the Earth to lunch.

I understand where Kingsolver and Alexander are coming from. After a season of eating lots of soups and casseroles (usually based on canned and frozen goods), or resorting to mediocre, out-of-season produce (often shipped from around the world) featured in the grocery stores, I am desperate to sink my hands into the earth and my teeth into the incomparable flavors of spring and summer.

Mind you, I am not the likeliest candidate for a gardener or “locavore.” I was born in the South Bronx, and my family was not the outdoorsy type. My mom has frequently described her definition of camping as a budget hotel. But one thing my Italian heritage did instill in me was a love of food. And if one looks even quickly at Italian cuisine, you discover that it relies extensively on ingredients (olives and wine, anyone?) abundant in its Mediterranean climate. Look a little deeper, and across Europe you see a tradition of synching culinary culture not only to the climate but also to the seasons. I once spent my early spring birthday in France and Switzerland to discover that practically every restaurant featured an asparagus dish, in celebration of its much-anticipated arrival.

There is some wisdom of these ways. Beyond the extra satisfaction generally gained by enjoying a scarce or fleeting pleasure (like, maybe, the season’s first fresh-picked asparagus?), I’ll note that, despite their love of cheese and olive oil, the incidence of obesity and several other related ailments are lower among Italians, French and Spaniards. And their way of eating provides a connection to the earth and the cycles of life that have guided humans for millennia.

So, in the spirit of spring and Earth month being around the corner, it might make sense to consider a few ways we can all improve our local and seasonal food connections, and in the process, improve our health, happiness and planet. Join me over the next few weeks as I explore three tactics I employ in my own quest for a more sustainable diet: gardening, pick-your-own farms, and buying from local farmers. Stay tuned!

(Image: Asparagus. Image credit: adactio/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. I’m a systems ecologist working with a community group to promote community agriculture, nutrition, and environmental education. Our clients are from a poor minority group in Holyoke, MA.
    The efforts you are discussing are of great interest to us
    and we very much appreciate your work. We have received a 26 acre plot on the Connecticut River(2/3 restoring forest, 1/3
    community farm) where we involve the community, particularly the youth, in also restoring the degraded forest. TNC in general, and this site in particular provides us with a lot of inspiration and educational materials for our work. Thanks.

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