By Elizabeth Joseph, garden and education coordinator at Heifer Farm

Imagine a vine-ripened tomato in the summertime — bright red, juicy and bursting with sweet flavor. Compare that with a bland, mealy tomato that comes off the grocery shelf in the winter. There’s a big difference between the two, and it extends beyond color, flavor profile and texture; it correlates directly to nutrition.

Data from the USDA shows that the amounts of nutrients in our fruits and vegetables have been decreasing since the 1950s. Broccoli, for example, contained 130 milligrams of calcium per serving in 1950. By 2010, though, the same amount of broccoli provided only 48 milligrams of calcium.

Food scientists attribute some of the nutrient loss to industrialized farming, with its push to grow more and bigger produce faster. Selective breeding and chemical fertilizers speed growth, but they also inhibit a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients.

Luckily, one solution to put the nutrients back in our food is right under our feet: the soil! Whether you ate cereal, eggs and toast, or last night’s takeout for breakfast this morning, they all share one thing in common: they all came from the soil.

If those foods grew in soils that lacked fertility, then they lacked nutrition as well — vegetables, fruits, herbs, meat, dairy, you name it. And a lack of nutrition correlates to a lack of flavor (and color and texture, like the difference between those two tomatoes) since flavor comes from the sugars, essential oils, vitamins and minerals that make a plant healthy.

The food you eat is only as good as the soil in which it grew. The good news is that sustainable agriculture practices that focus on building soil fertility yield plants that are healthier for us, not to mention more delicious. Follow the flavor, and eat up!

Recipe: Heifer Farm Veggie Chili

If you’re lucky enough to have nutrient-rich, garden-fresh vegetables on hand, here’s a recipe that capitalizes on their good flavor. The recipe is courtesy of the excellent chefs at Heifer Farm in Rutland, Massachusetts, who have a special knack for making the very most of their harvests.

  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 1/2 cups bell peppers, chopped
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons cumin
  • 2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons oregano
  • 1 tablespoon coriander
  • 2 cups tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups of cooked black beans*
  • 1 1/2 cups of cooked pinto beans*
  • 4 cups corn
  • 2 cups water
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 pound of cooked ground beef (optional)
  • 4 cups winter squash, cut into half-inch cubes (optional)
  • 1-2 zucchini or summer squash, diced (optional)
  • Hot peppers, to taste
Photo by Emily Rose
Photo by Emily Rose

*Beans can be canned or dried. If using canned, use one can of each kind. If using dried, soak ½ cup of each kind overnight. Drain the soaking water, cover with fresh water and cook approximately 90 minutes. Drain beans and add to chili.

Heat oil in the bottom of a large pot and sauté onions until translucent, about five minutes. Add bell peppers and garlic, and sauté a few minutes more. Add spices, tomatoes, corn and any other vegetables, if using. Add beans and beef. Add water and bring to a simmer. Cook gently for 45 minutes to an hour. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with fresh chives, shredded cheese and sour cream.