For years — ever since farmers’ markets became more popular in the Chippewa Valley and prior — consumers wanted to know if produce purchased in the grocery store was nutritionally inferior to that grown locally and purchased at the local market.

There are many factors and many studies that contradict one another, but in my opinion, when it’s all boiled down — a tomato is a tomato.

Your skepticism is deafening. Stick with me for a minute and you may come to the same conclusion.

The basic nutritional make-up of produce doesn’t change based on where it’s grown, but the freshness factor of produce grown elsewhere may take a hit.

Your locally-grown produce, harvested today and sold this week, is going to taste better. As a result, your brain will encourage you to eat more because a tomato will actually taste like a tomato.

It should come as no surprise that our demand for tomatoes year-round and our Midwestern growing season makes it difficult to partake in fresh tomatoes throughout the year. That’s why we end up seeing tomatoes or other fruits and vegetables in the store that are not ripe and fall short in flavor. The quality of locally-grown produce is vastly different from something that has been gassed and stored in a warehouse or picked before its ready.

When we eat produce that is in season, it tastes better and we get excited about it. We yearn for that quality, so we eat more and coincidentally, feel better too.

Then there are debates about pesticides and organic produce. Truth be told, I can’t say if locally-grown foods are pesticide free. I’m still learning about that process. However, it’s worth noting that consumers generally do not like worms, bugs and other critters as part of dinner. As for organic, well, I have much to learn there too. Our demand for Grade A perfection drives the market, sending blemished food elsewhere.

Produce may have the same nutritional properties regardless of birthplace, but there are other advantages to buying local, including the economic and social benefit. We’re supporting our neighbors. The last couple weeks in September were prime time to harvest apples in the Chippewa Valley. I took my family to Bushel and a Peck apple orchard. We enjoyed a beautiful fall day picking apples together. I ate about four apples a day for the next week — likely more than I will until the next apple season.

When we went to the orchard, my children were engaged in the process. They picked the apples. They saw where the apples came from. They tasted apples that could not be any fresher and were amazed at the quality and abundance in the orchard.

Going to the grocery store is a different experience. It’s not bad, just different. The family isn’t able to participate the way it might at the farmers’ market or orchard — outside, with family and friends in a more social atmosphere.

My son, Tyler, and I went for a bike ride recently. Surprising to us, it turned out to be 21 miles. We started from home, ventured onto the Chippewa River Trail and made our way to Phoenix Park. We ate at the farmers’ market for breakfast and biked home.

That’s not something you do when you go to the grocery store. That’s part of that health and wellness circle of participating in your local community, of which the Chippewa Valley should be proud.

In the nutritional sense, a tomato is a tomato. But how you get to that tomato, pick the tomato and enjoy the tomato is an important part of the journey.

Thomas Sahr is the nutrition and environmental services director at HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls.

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