Produce in Chicago's Winter Wonderland

A Locovore's Perspective

We don't have a definition for "local food" like we do "organic." Is a bushel of apples shipped from Michigan to Chicago "local?" It isn't clear. But it's better than the countless food miles accrued when apples are shipped from Washington state to Chicago. So, it's all relative. But the more you cut down on food miles - the amount of gas used to ship food across long distances - the better, say local food lovers, or locovores.

Local eating gets harder as the months wear on. Many farmer's markets - which have gotten more and more popular in recent years - close down in October or November. So Chicago locovores need to be creative to keep up their eating habits through the winter.

Buying locally grown produce can have the potential to improve local economies, increase food security and access to food, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to the USDA. Many locovores keep these things in mind when they pop over to a farmer's market. Some also think it's healthier for the buyer to eat food when you know where it came from.

But winter brings a particular challenge in the north. Farmers can overcome weather to meet demand using indoor farming - including hydroponic (or water-based) farming - like The Plant, a non-profit indoor farm in southern Chicago. Outside, farmers can cover their rows, as seen in the photo to the left of Chicago Lights Urban Farm on Chicago Avenue, or use various types of greenhouses.

The number of winter farmer's markets rose 52 percent From 2011 to 2012, according to the USDA.

Currently in Chicago, there are eight winter farmer's markets, according to Metromix. The number has grown over the last several years, farmer Henry Brockman says.

The top ten states for winter markets include New York, Maryland, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, according to the USDA.

Local food, local stories

A few people from different parts of the locovore food chain share their winter tales.

Belli's Chicago: A recently opened, year-round grocer

World continents

Onions

Apples

Butternut and acorn squash

  • From Nichols Farm & Orchard in Marengo, Ill., Hazard Free Farm & CSA in Pecatonica, Ill. and Tempel Farms Organics in Old Mill Creek, Ill.
  • Winter recipe: Squash mac & cheese

Sweet potatoes and beets

Brussel sprouts

Alexandra Curatolo started Belli's, a small store in Pilsen, to encourage local food consumption all year round. She opened the store in November using funds raised online through a website called Kickstarter. She sells fresh produce that comes from indoor urban farms, as well as outdoor farms using scientific methods to ensure their crops grow, despite the falling temperatures. Farmers store the crops for her, and deliver them as needed to the 1215 W. 18th St. location.

“"The biggest thing for me is making that conscious decision to put money towards something that's tangible. Local businesses, the community. It's a conscious decision to support something.”

- Curatolo, on shopping local

Henry's Organic Farm

Henry Brockman's farm in central Illinois provides food for his family through the cold months. Freezing, canning and storing assures Brockman and his family can eat - and sell - their organic produce the whole year.

His main method is a four-foot-deep, walk-in root cellar on the farm. The cellar keeps vegetables cold enough, but makes sure they don't freeze, at around 50 degrees. If they get too warm, they can begin to sprout. It's a very old-fashioned method of storing produce, he says. The family also freezes greens, corn, beans and peas for the winter months and cans.

"More and more farmers are trying to produce, sell and store veggies over the winter," Brockman says. "Just over the past few years it's gotten a lot easier (to find food in winter), because there are a lot of winter markets open in Chicago."

Image used with permission from Henry's Farm's Facebook page.

DIY: Keep your food fresh all winter

From an Illinois farm veteran, a foodie Northwestern student and a local food-loving entrepreneur, here are some tips on how to stay local without spending too much or letting it spoil.

Production by Annalise Frank.