I recently acquired a hand-me-down chest freezer from a colleague, and have since been daydreaming about all the ways it is going to enhance my food life. From preserving berries and greens at peak freshness to caching away soups and stocks, the extra freezer space will help me spend my food dollars more strategically. With a little forethought, it provides an alternative to relying on distantly sourced, subpar produce in the bleak winter months. Frozen foods have long been marginalized by foodies as pale, second-rate substitutes for their fresh equivalents, but those sentiments are starting to shift. Here are a few pitches for ushering in a new age of appreciation for these undersung foot soldiers of the local food movement.
The Climate Change Pitch
The lab-coated grand jury has spoken: Homo sapiens is a measurable contributor to climate change (United Nations IPCC, 2018). To most this is not news, but it does prompt us to ask how we can take action to mitigate rather than augment our role in driving carbon emissions. Since food production, consumption and disposal are among the primary ways we interact with the planet, our diet seems like a logical place to begin. Eating food in the 21st century is a wildly intricate process that involves far more steps than we can even comfortably wrap our minds around. As such, any quest to shrink our carbon stomach-print must begin by simplifying our relationship with food.
Like any process, food sourcing can be simplified either by eliminating steps or by reducing them to a more observable scale. By establishing a vibrant regional food economy, we can accomplish both of these aims. Unfortunately the farther from the equator a community is, the fewer days per year it experiences that are suitable for food production without implementing massively energy-intensive workarounds like heated greenhouses. Simply put, it costs energy to work against the seasons. Embracing frozen produce as a piece of the locavore pie allows us to grow while the sun shines and freeze the resulting bounty to get us through the less productive winter months.
The norm, of course, is to import fresh produce from wherever it is most cheaply grown, which involves considerable carbon emissions. Frozen storage has carbon costs of its own but industrial freezers are gaining in efficiency, and unlike freight transit vehicles they can be easily converted to run on renewable energy. Moreover, a recent study in the U.K. discovered that the carbon footprint of a typical family meal was 5% smaller when made with frozen ingredients as opposed to fresh ones. Consider that for plant-based foods on the national market, transportation accounts for over 16% of total emissions and suddenly you are talking about substantial carbon savings when you choose local frozen produce as an alternative.
The Food Waste Pitch
A 2011 study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization examining food waste in several industrialized countries found that 40% of all food is wasted along its journey from producer to consumer. For fruits and vegetables that figure is closer to 52%. What’s more, close to half of that waste occurs before it even reaches the distributor, let alone the end-consumer. These are wild numbers when you consider what is lost: not widgets or knick knacks, but the stuff that sustains human life and health.
The first logical front to attack this waste problem on is pre-season crop planning. When there are established outlets for small-batch (i.e. 1,000 lb rather than 10,000 lb) freezing, producers can look at historical data and estimate a certain percentage of projected yield that – either because of quality or short shelf life – will not sell on the fresh market. Growers can then make arrangements with regional processors for this portion of the crop to be frozen, locking in a fair price ahead of time without the urgent pressure to move perishable inventory mid-season. In this way, farmers can turn potential waste into nutritious and saleable food.
Of course, January’s fireside predictions are not always borne out in the field come July. The occasional bumper crop or crop failure is a given, so it is important to develop ways to both preserve unusually large harvests and ensure a steady supply of frozen products when yields are lower than expected. A collaborative sourcing model that spreads these risks out over several growers can help ensure that no one is hung out to dry, while also capturing literal tons of good food before it becomes waste.
The “Slow Money” Pitch
Our economic system is not set up to make capital readily available to small farms and food businesses, which are often perceived as risky ventures. If we wish to safeguard sources of healthy food and ensure conscientious land stewardship, we need to create a framework for directing resources to the next generation of farmers and food innovators. There is a well-documented multiplier effect that kicks in when dollars are spent at small independent businesses rather than national or transnational chains, with the net result that two to three times more of this “slow money” stays in local circulation.
Enfranchising frozen foods as bona fide culinary players in the regional foodshed expands opportunities for small and mid-size growers, offering them outlets for far more food than they can sell fresh. Tapping into the frozen market can create new revenue streams, allowing producers to re-invest in farm infrastructure that will help them capture more of the existing harvest and even grow their production to meet new demand. Moreover, as chefs give frozen foods a second chance, they rely less on the Just-In-Time inventory model touted by broadline distributors and can begin to redesign their kitchen spaces to accommodate more frozen storage.
If you are willing to work with frozen produce, all it takes is a little planning and collaboration with growers and food hubs to secure year-round local sources of many kitchen staples. As these collaborations mature, they form an increasingly resilient food web that shifts the culture of cooking in both professional and home kitchens. In this model, any fruit or vegetable that can be grown in a given region represents an opportunity to recapture food dollars and watch the multiplier effect ripple through the local economy.
The Regional Food Security Pitch
Most dollars we spend immediately subdivide into pennies that scatter all over the world. Sheer geography blinds us to the real human, environmental and social consequences of our economic choices. Nowhere is this truer than in the food world. Only by sourcing from local producers can we witness the impacts of our food choices and vote with our dollars for best practices that create a foundation for lasting regional food security. By food security I mean not simply access to calories, but community-wide access to healthy, real food from trusted producers who belong to the same community as the eaters they are feeding.
There is an emerging scientific consensus that extreme weather events are on the rise, and such events can impact regional infrastructure for transporting food goods. Major flooding, winter storms and other natural disasters can create serious obstacles for both shipping out and bringing in food. Despite the temporary nature of these phenomena and the damage they cause, a pinch in the food supply has immediate effects on a community. More importantly, access to good food should be a basic right and its absence is linked to other types of disenfranchisement, as the plight of many food deserts shows. Freezing and storing the local harvest is one way to establish reserves of good food in the interest of community resilience and improving food access for all.
In the long run, food security is best preserved by fostering a culture that values food from soil to belly. This hinges on treating cuisine as a cultural asset to be protected and built upon as we pass it from generation to generation. A key piece of this cultural inheritance is the understanding that each food has its time, and is best enjoyed during that brief glorious window. The next option we should look to is preserving it as that window closes, while it is still fresh. Though some will call me a blasphemer for saying it, one can only eat so many pickles. We need to think of frozen produce not as a consolation prize, but a snapshot of summer that we can unearth to warm us on the coldest day of the year.
The Quality Pitch
To be sure, none of these pitches will sway anyone who thinks they are just window dressing designed to make them forget the reason they spurned frozen foods in the first place: a nagging sense that they are weak stand-ins for their fresh counterparts. Fortunately, there is growing evidence to the contrary, as frozen foods are gaining credence and approval in the realms of both flavor and nutrition.
Despite their long-standing stigma, frozen foods are shedding their bad reputation as eaters and chefs make increasingly complex decisions about where they get their food. In a 2014 survey of food industry professionals, 75% of respondents believed there are unnecessary negative connotations attached to frozen food, a staggering 60% increase from an earlier version of the survey conducted just three years prior. Such a precipitous shift in industry opinion indicates that this is more than just a fringe idea.
According to several recent studies frozen fruits and vegetables have equal or greater nutritional value than their fresh cousins. This is in large part because fresh produce has been shown to decline in nutrients the longer it sits between harvesting and eating, whereas frozen produce stops its nutritive shot clock the moment its temperature drops. Hence the popularity of the term “fresh frozen,” which conveys a useful message despite its ubiquitousness as fodder for claim-tastical food marketing campaigns.
Bringing it back home
If any of these pitches resonate with you, we are fortunate to have some great options for frozen local produce in northwest Michigan. One is Goodwill Industries’ Farm to Freezer project, a job training program that teaches kitchen skills by freezing small batches of local produce. They carry a wide range of fruits and vegetables, which are available at many area grocers. Oryana Natural Foods Co-Op recently partnered with Farm to Freezer and Cherry Capital Foods to pack and distribute a line of Fair Harvest berries, starting with organic strawberries grown at Ware Farm in Benzie County. Some area CSAs, such as Providence Farm in Central Lake, even offer frozen Michigan fruit as an optional add-on to members’ shares. As we weather the harsh realities of a Michigan winter, here’s to taking some time to honor the freezer and carve out a more respectable place for it in our foodshed.
United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5? (United Nations, 2018), available from https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/.
Nicco Pandolfi works as a librarian at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, MI. His poetry and prose have appeared in Dunes Review, Pulp, and Edible Grand Traverse. He mostly writes about what he mostly thinks about: music and food.
Cold, Hard Harvest: Making the Case for Frozen Produce by Nicco Pandolfi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. This work was first published in Edible Grand Traverse magazine.