PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- We're told that buying fresh is best. But most fruits and vegetables have to travel at least some distance. Fresh produce glistens at the grocery store suggesting it was just picked, but in reality, most produce is actually harvested days, weeks even month earlier!
Rick VanVranken is an agricultural agent with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County. He took us to Landisville Produce Cooperative to explain what happens to the product once it leaves the farm.
"When you pick fresh produce you've got a living, breathing organism that you want to maintain as a healthy living product," VanVranken explained.
Picked fruits and vegetables continue to respire which means they are taking in oxygen and giving off heat. That process needs to be slowed to ensure freshness.
"They have several different types of cooling facilities that will help bring the heat out of the product as fast as possible," he said.
While waiting to be shipped, items are packed with ice and held in rooms at temperatures just above freezing. Each type of fruit or vegetable respires at different rates. A higher respiration rate means a shorter shelf life. Raspberries are the weakest, only lasing about a week and likely this time of year are coming from South America, whereas apples can be stored for up to nearly a year!
"You can keep a fresh apple just like it was picked off a tree yesterday until next December," he said.
In fact, take a look at what apples will be available in the spring.
"In March and June of 2019 you are eating 2018 apples," he said.
Root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and beets also have a long shelf life and can last months in cold storage. Berries and leafy greens are more delicate, going bad after two-to-three weeks.
VanVranken said there are things you can do to extend the life of your produce once you get it home. Cold and humidity are key, so get items right into your refrigerator, but not the tomatoes.
"That stops any ripening of your tomatoes and they will sit there and turn mushy and they'll never ripen up at that point," he said.
Fresh basil also hates the cold turning the leaves black.
"If you are buying cut salad greens that are already prepackaged keep that package closed."
The package creates a similar controlled storage atmosphere.
A tip for bananas, leave them on the counter until they get as ripe as you like it then pop it in the fridge.
"The banana on the inside will stay at the stage you want it while the peel starts turning black. It may look pretty ugly on the outside but on the inside it's still good," he said.
The freshest produce you'll get is buying as close to the farm where they are growing it as possible. Also knowing the seasonality of produce will ensure you are getting the freshest product available.
Be aware of what's happening in the world that may affect certain crops. For example, last year the FDA's warning against romaine lettuce due to salmonella contamination forced people to stop buying it that in turn frightened many farmers into not planting it this year. That said you may see romaine for higher prices due to limited availability.
VanVranken also said that sweet potatoes may be a little sparse this Thanksgiving. He said the hurricane in North Carolina hit the state at the peak of its sweet potato production damaging some of the crops.
For more information click on the following links:
Rutgers Cooperative Extension - Atlantic County
Rutgers NJAES Vegetable Crops Online Resources
New Jersey Farm Bureau, Local Farms - Local Food
Jersey Fresh Seasonality Chart
Jersey Fresh - What's Available
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Ultimate Produce Check: How fresh is it?