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Publication Date: Friday, July 13, 2001
"Vitamins A, C and E are complex families of nutrients, and if we rely on supplements we're likely to get only one or two out of the whole complex, so it's much better to get our nutrients from food."
@dropname:Ramona Richard, certified nutritionist and senior instructor, IET, Los Altos.
(July 13, 2001) Farmers' market produce offers richness of both flavor and nutrients
by Diana Reynolds Roome
Packing in a minimum of five daily servings of fruits and vegetables can be a challenge. Whatever the nutritionists tell us about optimum health, for many people a squirt of tomato ketchup on a hamburger is the closest they'll get to a salad most days.
But a visit to the farmers' market in downtown Mountain View on a Sunday morning shows that nature still knows how to tempt us into eating what's good for us, if we'll only let her. Deep gold apricots, vine-ripe tomatoes gleaming in the sun, plump cherries, and vibrant green pea pods would awaken the taste buds of the most jaded processed-food consumer. It's so good that you can eat much of it just as it is, straight from the stall. Who said only fast food is fast?
The beauty of fresh produce goes deeper than its eye appeal. Recent research shows that colors indicate the presence of specific nutrients with powerful effects. "A variety of deeply colored fruits and vegetables gives you a wide range of antioxidants," says Ramona Richard, certified nutritionist and senior instructor at IET, an institute for nutrition training in Los Altos.
The pigments in fruits and vegetables, especially deep yellow and orange, dark red, and dense green, protect against a surprising number of common ailments, from heart disease and cancer to arthritis and macular degeneration (a condition that can lead to blindness). So if we prepare our meals like a painter using the broadest possible palette, we do ourselves a big favor. "Vitamins A, C and E are complex families of nutrients, and if we rely on supplements we're likely to get only one or two out of the whole complex," says Richard. "So it's much better to get our nutrients from food."
Color and taste are at their most intense right after picking. Some vitamins (especially C) are at their highest concentration then too, and decline steadily with every hour. Most of the locally grown food at the farmers' market is still growing in the fields one day before we take it home.
"This is straight from the farm, and so fresh," said Mickey Murray, a past resident of Mountain View who returned on a recent Sunday especially for the market. She and a friend looked at the produce of the Nou Moua family, who have a farm in Fresno and were displaying three kinds of eggplant: purple-skinned Japanese, lighter mauve Philippine, and a tiny, egg-shaped Indian variety. "It's cheaper than the supermarkets, so people can buy more produce here," added Murray.
Art Okada, shopping with Lynn Kitajima and her sister, said they would probably stir-fry the eggplant with garlic and onions. "At a normal grocery store we wouldn't see these,"says Amy Kitajima, "so we try new things and buy things we wouldn't eat that often."
Most small producers, especially those belonging to California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) or California Association of Family Farmers (CAFF), protect the health of their crops by constantly changing them and adding new varieties. They grow according to the suitability of soil, climate and season. The soil is cultivated to retain a full range of minerals, far more than the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium typically present in commercial fields. Vegetables are only as good as the soil they grow in, and will contain the minerals that are present there, says Richard.
Farmers who practice community supported agriculture (CSA) allow individuals to buy a share in the season's crops, thus assuring a customer base for their produce. The Bay Area has quite a few such farms.
Maraquita Farm, based in Watsonville, delivers weekly boxes to neighborhood sites for pickup (including one in Los Altos, close to the Mountain View border). A newsletter usually written by the farmer, Andy Griffin, gives insight into farming life as well as vegetable history and lore. Recipes compiled by his wife, Julia Wiley, provide inspiration for using even unfamiliar produce - such as red orach, beetroots, kohlrabi, and fennel.
Often, however, the beans, broccoli and potatoes grown by the couple are so tasty they need nothing but light steaming (a method that helps preserve nutrients)."A fresh organic potato tastes so good that it shatters all preconceptions about what a potato can be," says Griffin. Chard, too, is so tender and buttery that there's no need for butter to enhance it.
An e-mailed preview of each week's share is useful in planning meals, but the element of surprise is the ultimate spice.
"Some people tell us it's always an adventure to see what's in the weekly basket," says Andrew Scott, agricultural manager at Hidden Villa's certified organic farm in Los Altos Hills, where customers pick up shares at the farm itself. This and the spectacular freshness (almost all items are harvested on the same day they're collected) can enchant even those who are most reluctant to eat their veggies. Customers report that cherry tomatoes and bunches of carrots often never make it home after pickup; they're consumed in the car, often by eager kids who profess not to like vegetables.
CSAs give people an opportunity to connect to the land that is unusual in areas as urban as the Bay Area. One is Hidden Villa, where people stop to talk to the farmer at Hidden Villa or his apprentices, see the food growing in the fields, and sometimes go for a walk there. "Seeing crops growing, visiting the animals and looking at the compost is very meaningful to many people," says Scott. "They're excited about making the connections, and they really want their children to know where their food comes from."
These connections also offer customers a guarantee like no other of freshness, and ecologically sound soil cultivation and pest control. They can eat the food without fear of chemical residues. They enjoy the connection with earth, seasons, and growing cycles. Hearing what the rain has done to a harvest, how bugs are being combated, how an heirloom seed experiment is faring, gives a sense of connection with the land that people in cities and suburbia normally miss.
Rural living in MV
The Schmitz family, whose Farm Fresh Produce stall has stood for 14 years on Grant Road, still farms 15 acres there, planting them with corn, squash, tomatoes, beans, pumpkins, and harvesting fruit from the few remaining apricot trees in what used to be a large orchard. They have brought a little bit of rural living to the center of Mountain View, supplementing their own produce with that from farms in the Central Valley and Watsonville. Three of their suppliers have recently closed due to the ever-increasing costs of production. "We've only been able to keep going due to community support," says Diane Schmitz. "One day we're not going to have any food produced here."
Most local supermarkets buy at least some of their more perishable produce from California farms. Mountain View Market Inc. gets almost all its vegetables (from sing qua and watercress to daikon and bitter melon) from in-state growers. But much is transported across the continent or from abroad. It can take up to 10 days to appear on the shelves, and because of the time lag many items (especially those that damage easily, like peaches and tomatoes) are picked unripe and treated with spoilage retardants.
"Food is a form of energy," says Richards, "and if it has to travel thousands of miles, part of its life will be gone. When food is fresh, it not only has the maximum amount of nutrients it ever will, it also has its full life energy."
Though there's no English word that expresses this quality, most people intuitively recognize it when they see it.
At 19 months old, Spencer Viaggi knows it as well as anyone. "He loves cherries, strawberries, plums," says Spencer's father, Christopher Viaggi, whirling him around on his shoulders at a recent Sunday farmers' market, to the boy's obvious delight. "We take him through the market and give him little bits of everything."
Spencer may have a hard time saying the word "nutrition" for a while yet, but he's a living example of what the very best can do for a body.
The Mountain View farmers' market is held Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Dana and Hope streets. To learn more about Hidden Villa, log on to www.hiddenvilla.org. or call (650) 949-8647; for more on Maraquita Farm, log on to www.maraquita.com or call (831) 761-3226; and for more about Farm Fresh Produce, visit the farm at Grant Road and Covington in Mountain View.