Many thanks to the Alliance for Food and Farming and Markon for inviting me to the Facts, Not Fears: Produce Safety Media Tour in Monterey, California. The Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) is a non-profit organization which exists to deliver credible information to consumers about the safety of fruits and vegetables and Markon is the foodservice industry’s premiere source of fresh produce. This post is sponsored by AFF, and all opinions are my own.
In mid August, I joined a small group of fellow dietitians to tour strawberry, romaine, celery, artichoke, and iceberg lettuce fields in and around Monterey, CA. We talked to farmers, food safety experts, and researchers, and we tasted just-picked produce plucked straight from the ground. We learned about sustainability and innovations in fruit and vegetable production, discussed how different types of pesticides are used on conventional and organic farms and regulated for safety, and we talked a lot about the steps taken every day to reduce the risk of pathogens on produce.
What would a food tour be without a hairnet selfie! I’m here with dietitian pal and the most curious person I know, Keri Gans, RDN.
I don’t have a green thumb—plants die under my watch—so I have the utmost respect for anyone with a backyard vegetable garden or a farmer who grows fruits and vegetables for consumers across the U.S. and the world. Growing produce is hard work, and an incredible amount of TLC goes into every precious plant. In other words, getting a fresh, safe, delicious and nourishing head of romaine or a carton of strawberries from the farm to your table is no easy task. I appreciate farm tours, because I learn so much.
Here’s a little video I put together to showcase some of the farms we toured.
Over the years, I’ve been invited to tour wild blueberry barrens in Maine, avocado and almond groves in California, and apple orchards in Washington state. For this trip, I spent two glorious days in Monterey, CA. Seven other dietitians were invited on the tour. We asked a lot of questions, ate a lot of fresh produce, and spent some leisure time biking along the beautiful coastline of Monterey and grabbing lunch at La Bicyclette in Carmel, CA. I’ll share some pics from our lunch later down in the post.
You could not have asked for a nicer group of women to tour with. I thoroughly enjoyed their wit, intellect, and zest for adventure. From the left there’s Anne from fANNEtastic Food, Alexis from Hummusapien, Carrie from Nutrition by Carrie, Keri Gans, RDN, Melissa, host of the Sound Bites Podcast, Sharon from The Plant-Powered Dietitian, and Heather with Heather Mangieri, RDN.
Every strawberry grown on Rocha Jr. Berry Farms is picked carefully by hand and then sold through Cal-Giant, one o the sponsors of our tour.
31,000 acres of strawberries are grown in California, and they’re picked by 50,000 harvest workers. With cool nights and warm days, they’re grown year round. The high, raised beds are covered with plastic to keep the ground warm and to keep weeds at bay.
Everyone Should Eat More Produce:
According to the Centers for Disease Control, only 1 in 10 Americans eats enough fruits and vegetables each day. It’s clear that eating fruits and veggies is important for good health, so what’s holding you back? Cost? Convenience? At a loss for how to prepare it? Worried about pesticides? All that worry can have a negative impact on consumption. Research shows that fearful produce safety messaging can confuse consumers and may result in reduced purchasing of fruits and veggies–organic or conventional.
Fear not: Consider that fruit and vegetable farmers feed their families the same produce they grow, harvest, and sell to you and your family. In other words, food safety is just as important to them as it is to you. USDA and FDA data show that pesticide residues on foods tested are at levels well below the tolerances established by the EPA and “pose no safety concern.”
Want to learn more? Check out this Pesticide Residue Calculator from AFF.
These harvest workers at Ocean Mist Farms are using a machete-like knife to cut and trim each bunch of celery. The leaves that are trimmed away are tilled back into the soil as a form of nourishment. When I saw all those leaves, I thought they were going to be thrown away, so I was happy to learn that they’re used as fertilizer.
After tasting a stalk of just-picked celery at the farm—it was so sweet—I thought about one of my favorite recipes on the blog for Kale and Wild Rice Salad with celery. Let me know if you try it!
Do I Eat Conventionally-Grown Produce or Organic?:
Produce is the mainstay of my diet. I’m not vegan or vegetarian but I do embrace a mostly plant-based diet. So for me, it’s important to know where my food comes from, how it’s grown, and to feel confident that it’s safe to eat. I’m lucky, because the supermarkets where I live sell both conventionally grown and organically grown produce, and we also have access to farmers’ markets, which sell local produce.
I’m often asked whether I eat conventionally-grown or organically-grown produce. And my answer is always that it depends. I have confidence in the U.S food supply, so I purchase both conventional and organic produce. If there’s a fruit or a vegetable that we eat every day, I tend to gravitate to organic. But if it costs a lot more or doesn’t look fresh, then I go with conventional. I love locally grown, and I buy it when I can. I also prefer produce that looks, feels, and smells fresh. (It’s okay if my produce is ugly!) Bottom line: I can go either way when it comes to conventional vs. organic. I trust both.
Innovations from Farm to Table:
Sixty five percent of the lettuce grown in California is romaine. Consumer demand is high, which means a lot of people power to pick it. But this innovation has made picking romaine a lot more efficient, and it really blew me away.
Unlike other lettuce varieties like iceberg that are picked by hand, machines at Taylor Farms are used to cut each head of romaine with a high-powered stream of water. I likened it to a water “laser beam.” Anything left behind gets tilled back into the soil.
Our farm tour coincided with Markon’s annual foodservice produce meeting. So on the second day of our trip, we joined a few hundred other guests and worked our way around the Produce Expo. I lost count, but I must have stopped by 20 booths where I was talked to producers and distributors. While their focus was on foodservice, I spotted a few new products that will eventually make their way to a supermarket near you.
Perfect for a child’s lunchbox (or yours!), check out these individual packages of grapes and celery sticks. And how cute are those baby romaine lettuces. I’m envisioning the leaves as taco “shells.” Seedless lemons anyone? Talk about convenience.
Markon is working on a new cardboard package for strawberries designed to reduce plastic and increase the shelf life of the berries. The benefit: Less food waste.
California is a dream. I loved the farm tours and was truly amazed at the work that goes into growing safe produce that consumers can trust and enjoy.
And speaking of produce, when our posse of awesome RDs went to lunch at La Bicyclette, we ordered a bunch of veggie-topped pizzas and salads, including this Stone Fruit Salad made with arugula, cherries, peaches, nectarines, red onion, and marcona almonds.
What’s holding you back from eating more fruits and veggies? What do you think of the new innovations? Do you tend to choose conventional produce or organic produce or both? I’d love to hear from you.