Supporters say that eating what's fresh and in season can make you healthier.
"This could get a little fringe-y for you," Lora Krall warned. Krall, a Winona registered nurse, was talking about the benefits of eating foods when they are in season, which she believes include better health. The concept may not be supported by science, but in the years since Krall has been preparing fresh, home-cook food using seasonal ingredients, it has worked for her: so far, she has avoided chronic health problems that run in her family.
"My belief system is that our bodies live in a certain environment and we become used to that environment," said Krall, 50. "When I eat the foods I am used to growing up with, I feel healthier. In fact, I am healthier. I haven't had a cold in a couple or three years, easily."
A hundred years ago, nearly all fresh produce was seasonal. Even a decade or two ago, some items were only available at certain times of the year. But the modern supermarket offers strawberries in January, tomatoes in March, Brussels sprouts in June, asparagus in November.
Wait -- isn't year-round availability a good thing?
"We have kind of dumbed ourselves down," Krall said. "By having all kinds of foods available all year long, we don't get the benefit of listening to our bodies to find out what we crave."
Seasonal eaters (seasonivores?) like their fruits and vegetables harvested, usually locally, at their peak of ripeness and flavor. Around here, that means asparagus and rhubarb in the spring, tomatoes and corn in the summer, pumpkins and cranberries in the fall. In January, we have autumnal crops with a long storage life: carrots, potatoes, onions, rutabagas, turnips, cranberries, apples, wild rice.
Some also include non-regional foods shipped from elsewhere at their peak, such as citrus fruits in the winter and Vidalia onions in May.
"Our menu is probably 75 to 80 percent locally sourced ingredients," said Don Saunders, chef and owner of In Season restaurant in Minneapolis, whose menus are built around seasonal foods. "But we also don't limit it to that. ... Texas grapefruit is one of my favorite things in January and February."
Eating seasonally offers indisputable advantages; in-season produce is usually cheaper and often tastier. "I never buy tomatoes in the winter," said Dana Jackson of the Land Stewardship Project in Minneapolis, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable agriculture. "I buy cabbage quite a bit because it's pretty low priced, and it keeps well."
Because seasonal eating overlaps with local eating, advocates point to the benefits of supporting and local economies. "When I think about seasonal eating, I think about farmers all over the region," said Caroline van Schaik, also of the Land Stewardship Project's Winona office. "[Their] financial viability and existence depends on us buying from them, not just when it's really easy to eat local, but when it takes a little more imagination and creativity and the willingness to say, 'You know what? It's not strawberry season, it's rutabaga season, and that's what I'm going to eat right now'."
Some believe that eating in sync with nature's rhythms is actually better for the body and spirit.
"Nature shapes our physical as well as our emotional landscape, I think," said food writer Beth Dooley, whose books about seasonal cooking include "The Northern Heartland Kitchen: More than 200 Recipes to Satisfy Seasonal Appetites" (University of Minnesota Press, $29.95). "When we allow our appetite to be more finely tuned to seasonal foods, we'll probably eat better, we'll probably eat less, and we'll probably make smarter choices."
Produce fresh from local fields may contain more nutrients than produce that's been shipped, but otherwise there's no scientific reason to consider in-season foods more healthful, said Ann A. Rosenstein of Burnsville, author of "Diet Myths Busted: Food Facts Not Nutrition Fiction" (Idyll Arbor, $18.00). Frozen foods of any season are comparably nutritious to their in-season counterparts.
"The health benefits of eating foods in season are minimal compared to eating whole, unprocessed foods year around instead of processed, chemically enhanced foods," said Rosenstein, a fitness instructor for Life Time Fitness and author of the website The Diet Fitness Diva (dietfitnessdiva.com). Trying to eat seasonally, she said, simply adds to the stress and confusion already surrounding dietary choices.
Dooley doesn't advise a rigid approach to seasonal eating as much as an awareness of its opportunities. "I try not to become a fanatic ... then it becomes a diet," she said. "The notion of diet, constraint and rules really work against trying to live sensibly and trying to really be in tune with where you live and where you are. It's really about responding to what you're presented with, responding to whatever season you're in."