Fresh, flavorful, and dense with nutrients, locally grown and harvested foods nourish the body in unexpected ways.
by Leigh Stuart

“Your cells are created by the foods you are eating and the environment you put yourself in—that is truly what you are made of,” says Karley Kochenour, integrative nutritionist and the founder of The Healthy You Wellness LLC. “So, the more nutrition you’re able to pack into your diet through various foods, the better off your cells are going to be. Nutrition really exists on a cellular level.”

Kochenour’s point: The familial wisdom of “You are what you eat” is based in scientific fact. Factors ranging from soil health to farming techniques to pesticides and distance from farm-to-table can influence nutrition in ways many may have never fully understood. For example, how and where food is grown can affect the wellness of one’s DNA, microbiomes (the collection of naturally occurring microbes that live in and on the body), and immune system. These factors also impact food’s flavor.
Chef Kelly Unger uses food as a source of healing. Unger, the founder of The Rooster & The Carrot Cooking Studio, deepened her own exploration into the world of nutrient density when her role as a board member of the Bucks County Foodshed Alliance led to an accompanying post as director of the Doylestown Farmers Market.
“In running the farmer’s market, one of the jobs I took on was writing the newsletter,” she shares. “I started writing articles on the nutrition of the food we’re eating, because if you understand what a food is doing for your body, it will be motivation for you to eat that food.”
Beyond offering scores of antioxidants, nutrient-dense food from plant and animal sources can add great depth of flavor to dishes. Matthew McPhelin, chef/owner of Maize BYOB in Perkasie, selects products from a roster of approximately 100 local vendors for just this reason.
“The best way to say it is, if you start with a mediocre product, the best you’re ever going to get is mediocre taste,” McPhelin shares. “To me, that’s why I try to find the best products and stay out of their way. If you have good products, you don’t need a ton of seasonings or different flavors going on. You can let their flavors stand on their own.”
Those who wish to experience the many benefits of eating more healthful foods may find that nutrition abounds in unlikely sources. Plants traditionally relegated to the ranks of “garnish,” for example, can offer a staggering roster of nutrients. Microgreens and parsley are two examples.
“Like any wild food, parsley, like ramps and wild mushrooms, is an adaptogen, meaning it can grow in varying conditions,” Unger shares. “That ability to adapt, thrive, and survive is in their DNA, so when you eat it, you benefit.”
Beyond its properties as an adaptogen, which are known to encourage homeostasis in the body, parsley is packed with B vitamins, including folic acid (B9) and B12, as well as vitamins A, C, K, and scores of minerals. The polarizing herb cilantro offers a host of benefits as well.
“The reason people either love or hate cilantro is because it is valuable at extracting metals and toxins from your body,” Unger shares. “So, when you put cilantro in your mouth, if you get a soapy taste, it’s just oxidizing heavy metals at a quick rate.”
While many avoid sulfur-heavy foods for scent reasons, alliums (including leeks, chives, ramps, scallions, shallots, and red and white onions) are chock-full of minerals as well as chemicals that balance intestinal bacteria, according to Unger. More classically accepted “good-for-you foods” such as cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage—also contain sulfur, which is “essential for your immune system,” Unger says.
“You want to look for the foods that provide the most vitamins and minerals and that are going to give you the most energy, versus more processed foods that aren’t natural or whole,” Kochenour adds. “Phytonutrients are what you really want to pack onto plates. … The more colors you can get on your plate, the more nutrient-dense that plate is going to be.
“I think nutrient density involves all different aspects of diets, including animal proteins (such as responsibly sourced bone broth) and vegetables,” she continues. “You want a variety in your diet, and that’s what nutrient density means to me—that variety of foods you feel good about eating and that fuel you to feel your best.”
Chef Unger says locally grown products have higher nutritional value because the time between when a product is harvested and when it ends up on a plate is “drastically shortened.” She uses asparagus as an example.
“From the moment you cut asparagus, it starts to degrade, so the quicker you get it to your plate, the more you’ll benefit from the nutrition in that asparagus,” she says. “Shortening that chain is key to retaining nutrition in that vegetable.”
Another reason has to do with diversity of flora and fauna on local farms.
“Our local farmers are more likely to be practicing regenerative agriculture,” Unger adds. “That whole life cycle of animals doing their part to supply manure, leading to healthier soil, and the farm itself growing many types of crops and raising animals, all plays a part in the ecosystem that gives nutrition back to the soil.”
The link between soil health and nutrient density is one currently being examined by Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, a nonprofit based in Harrisburg. At present, Pasa is conducting a Nutrient Density Benchmark Study exploring brix, antioxidants, polyphenol levels, and mineral content in certain crops. Although in its infancy, the project is part of a wider effort to “determine the amount of variation in the nutrition in our food, and to explore the relationship between soil health and nutrient-density results and management practices,” says Sarah Bay Nawa, lead research coordinator with Pasa.
“The best thing one could do is to eat foods that you know are grown using sound sustainable farming practices,” Bay Nawa says. “This could also include sound organic, regenerative, and ecological practices. … This gets back to the ‘know how your food is grown’ idea. And it can be easier to know how your food is grown when you shop for it locally as well. The added bonus for eaters who seek out these foods is that they are promoting practices that benefit and help protect our natural ecosystems.”
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life, February 2023.