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FEATURE ARTICLE - JULY/AUGUST 2008
Think Globally, Can Locally
Canning local fruits and veggies will tantalize your taste buds and reduce your carbon footprint all year round.
Even after you’ve bitten into the last ripe peach from the tree in your backyard or the last strawberry from the farm on the outskirts of your town, realize you don’t have to say goodbye to those succulent local favorites at the end of summer. By canning and preserving local produce, you can enjoy it out of season, stretching an abundant harvest to nourish you year-round.
Why not just go to the store and pick up more peaches and strawberries during the winter? Because they likely came from a warmer climate thousands of miles from where you live, and transporting them from the tree to your fruit bowl has environmental costs well beyond the price you pay at the store.
Eating local produce—either from your own garden or a nearby farm—helps limit your “food miles,” or the distance food travels from the farm to your plate, thereby cutting CO2 emissions. Buying from a local farmer also supports your community’s economy.
Perhaps best of all, preserving fresh produce by canning it allows you to enjoy the freshest-tasting peaches, berries, tomatoes, and green beans long after the summer farmers’ markets close up shop. Here’s what you need to know. …
Easy and Fun
Canning may seem like an obscure chemistry project or a long-forgotten art from yesteryear, but don’t get intimidated. To can foods like tomatoes and peaches, all you need are glass jars and a pot of boiling water. Basically, you’ll mix in a few natural ingredients like salt, water, or fruit pectin to help preserve the fruit or vegetable of your choice, pour it all into glass jars, and boil the jars to seal them shut. This process ensures that what’s inside those jars will keep in your cupboards for up to a year.
As a child, 22-year-old Becca Derry of Baltimore, MD, helped her parents can fruit butters and jams twice a year. Being part of the process from an early age taught Derry that canning was doable and fun.
“Canning is a real skill that I possess now,” she says. “You don’t need that much knowledge or that many things. I could move into any kitchen, get jars, boil water, and teach other people who are interested.”
Why Go Local?
Canning and preserving local fruits and vegetables is a great way to eat local and have your peaches and green beans in December, too. David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance says that a third of the nation’s fruits and vegetables come from California, which means produce in this country travels an average of 1,500 miles to get from the grower to your supermarket.
“These miles are accumulated because the raw fruits and vegetables are sent to processing facilities, then manufacturing plants, then warehouses, and finally retail stores,” says Morris, who blames the long distance our produce travels in large part on the fact that the US food supply is dominated by a handful of agri- business giants.
This chain of distribution wastes more than fuel alone. Experts note that a good portion of all produce shipped long distances will be damaged or destroyed in transit. And needless to say, the food that survives the journey will not be as fresh as produce grown locally.
When you buy produce in bulk from a local farmer or grow a plentiful harvest in your garden, you capture fruits and veggies at their peak season, so they often taste better than what you could buy at the store, too.
Buying local is also the best way to support family farms and workers. Local Harvest, a nonprofit Internet database of farmers’ markets and local food resources, reports that when you buy produce from a large supermarket, only 18 cents of every dollar spent goes to the grower, and the rest is shared by various middle merchants in shipping and sales. When you buy local, through a farmers’ market or community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangement, you cut out those middle merchants, so the bulk of the profits goes directly to the farmer. If you can buy from a local organic farmer, you’re also helping to direct extra money to support and expand the most sustainable farming methods.
“By buying more fruits and vegetables than we can eat during the summer and fall growing season and canning them for the winter months, my family has more than doubled the amount of local produce we buy each year,” says Real Green associate editor Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist. “Nothing is better than opening a jar of organic heirloom tomatoes in the middle of January and knowing that they didn’t travel across the country—or around the world— to get to me.”
“Plus,” she says, “preserving your own food means you’ve always got something in the cupboards to eat. Many nights we’ve been out of groceries and just popped open a jar of homemade tomato sauce to eat with pasta for dinner.”
Canning local foods is not just eco-chic—it saves you money, too. You’ll cut costs when you buy in bulk when the harvest is plentiful—and cheap—and preserve what you can’t eat for later. You’ll also avoid the extra costs associated with packaging, cleaning, or shipping, which are often added to corporate farmed produce. And, if you can some produce from your own garden, all it will cost you is the little bit that goes toward seeds, reusable gardening tools and canning equipment, and the few additional ingredients you’ll need.
“For some canned foods, I’ve done the math and I know the cost-benefit analysis works out that they are cheaper to make yourself,” says Andrew Korfhage, Green America’s online editor and an avid canner. “For example, the second-quality tomatoes at my farmers’ market at the end of the summer can be bought by the box for pocket change, and I make a delicious sauce with them that is much cheaper than buying packaged sauce from the grocery store all winter.”
But even when he hasn’t done the math, Andrew says he’s not sure it would matter if canning them is cheaper than buying cans at the store. “I can’t put a price on the value of supporting local farms and organic orchards, nor on the joy of having delicious food in my kitchen all winter that I got to preserve myself,” he says.
With the money you save from buying local produce or growing your own, you can make sure any other ingredients you use are organic and Fair Trade. For example, fruit jams often require sugar, which is tied to environmental degradation and sweatshop-like labor conditions. Buying Fair Trade sugar, on the other hand, supports workers’ rights and sustainable farming methods. (For more information, see our Real Green article, “The Sweet Side of Fair Trade.”)
I Think I Can, I Think I Can
Canning requires very little equipment—and it all can be used again and again. Glass jars, particularly Mason-brand jars with self-sealing lids, are the standard canning container. Wide mouthed Mason jars have a lip of about three inches, which makes pouring easier. These jars rarely break and can be reused, but remember to use new lids every time. The lid of a sealed can will contort when you remove it; a perfect airtight fit is only possible once.
Metal cans are a possible alternative to glass jars, but most people shy away from them because they are more expensive, require a complex sealing process, and cannot be reused because they cannot be resealed.
Boiling Water Canner: All fruits have a high acidity level and can be safely canned—even into jams and fruit butters—with the cheapest type of canner available, a boiling water canner. Boiling water canners are pots deep enough to cover submerged jars with 1–2 inches of water. They come with a rack to lift the jars off of the direct heat, so the bottoms won’t burn.
Pressure Canner: Extra pressure and heat are needed to kill certain types of harmful bacteria that can congregate on low-acidity foods, including the bacteria that causes botulism. All fresh vegetables and tomatoes (which are technically a fruit) have a low acidity, meaning their pH level is 4.6 or greater. To can low-acidity vegetables, you will need to buy a pressure canner, which reaches higher temperatures that a boiling water canner.
A pressure canner is a lightweight kettle with twist-on lid fitted with a gasket. It will have a dial to help you regulate the pressure and a vent to release steam. Pressure canners can reach temperatures of 240°F, which will kill botulism bacteria that could thrive in a sealed can of low acidity food.
You can also use pressure canners to can high-acidity fruits, so you don’t need to buy a boiling water canner, too. If you don’t want to purchase a canner, you can also use a pot you already own and purchase a canning rack separately. Or put a cake rack into a deep pot, and use a jar lifter to transfer jars to and from the hot water.
When Becca Derry started earning a degree at Oberlin College, she joined the Canning Operation of the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA) to continue her childhood passion for eating locally during all seasons. Launched in 1950, OSCA is a student-run organization empowering Oberlin students to dine and board communally and sustainably. Since 2000, five students have been elected each semester to can local produce for all Oberlin co-ops for the winter season.
Derry says that many OSCA co-op members were not aware of the Canning Operation until preserved food began showing up in the winter. “When jars of peach chutney mysteriously appeared, that started a different kind of conversation [about why canning contributed to a sustainable lifestyle],” she says. “Food is such a basic thing. We all buy food and consume it. Anyone who buys local, organic, and vegetarian is making choices that our culture has made out to be neutral—but they are choices that sustain communities and the environment.”
Home canning is a safe DIY project, as long as you follow safe canning procedures to avoid any chance of harboring botulism bacteria. Botulism is a serious and potentially fatal form of food poisoning caused by the bacterium clostridium botulinum. Botulism spores thrive in moist, sealed environments, and a sealed can of food could be a place for them to reproduce.
High-acid foods, including all fruits, are resistant to botulism, so all you need to can them is boiling water and sterilized jars. All vegetables and most types of tomatoes, however, have low acidity; only a pressure canner can reach 240°F, the proper temperature for killing botulism bacteria in low-acid vegetables.
To be safe, always use a pressure canner when canning vegetables and tomatoes, and follow the processing time and heat requirements outlined in the recipe you are using. Never eat food from a can with a bulging lid or that smells strange. Keep your canning area as clean as possible, and make sure all the equipment you use is sterilized in boiling water before you begin. For more information on botulism and how to protect yourself, check out the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site.
Organic Apple Preserves
• 6 cups peeled, cored, sliced organic apples
• 1 cup water
• 1 tablespoon organic lemon juice
• 1 package powdered pectin
• ½ organic lemon, thinly sliced (optional)
• 4 cups Fair Trade sugar
• 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
Wash your jars in hot water and detergent. Then sterilize the jars by submerging them in boiling water for ten minutes. Combine apples, water and lemon juice. Simmer in a covered pan for ten minutes. Stir in pectin and bring to a full boil. Add sugar and (optional) lemon slices.
Return to full boil, stirring frequently for one minute. Remove from heat, and add nutmeg. Fill glass jars with the mixture. Leave a ¼ inch of space at the top of every jar. Seal jars with airtight lids, and load them into a boiling water or pressure canner. The water should be 1-2 inches above the jars. Make sure not to tilt your jars.
Put the lid on your canner and bring the water inside to a boil, and continue to process for five minutes (10–15 minutes for high altitudes). Take the canner off the heat source and remove the canner lid, letting the jars sit for five minutes. Remove the jars from the canner with tongs, and set them on a flat cooling rack. Let them cool for 12–24 hours. Store in a cool place, away from direct light and moisture. Next time you want jam (or need an impressive gift), grab a jar and enjoy! (Makes six half-pint jars.)
—courtesy of the National Center for Home Food Preservation
RECIPES, INSTRUCTIONS, AND MORE:
• Blue Ribbon Preserves: Secrets to Award-Winning Jams, Jellies, Marmalades, & More by Linda J. Amendt (HP Trade, 2001)
• Home Canning
• Keeping the Harvest: Preserving Your Fruits, Vegetables, & Herbs by Gretchen Mead (Storey Publishing, 1991)
• National Center for Home Food Preservation
• Penn State University’s Food Safety Site
• Preserve Food
• Preserving Summer’s Bounty: A Quick and Easy Guide to Freezing, Canning, Preserving, and Drying What You Grow by the Rodale Food Center (Rodale Books, 1998)
• “The sweet side of fair trade”