The temperature dip this past week was enough to make me stop and reflect back on what a memorable and food-filled summer this was. Between snacking on the first local apples of the season and combing through recipes for ways to use up my backyard basil, I thought of how far I’ve come in my personal education and exploration of local eating.
Five years ago, I had yet to visit my first farmer’s market. Fast-forward to this time last year – I was living in Brooklyn and mere blocks from the wonderful year-round Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. As long as I could get to it before closing time, I also lucked out having the Union Square Greenmarket (open 4 days a week!) as a daily stop on my ride home from work. The culture of awareness and energetic support of local food in New York was what inspired me to really commit to local eating.
The other seed for my love-of-local had to do with an ever-expanding bookmarks tab. After engrossing myself in food and cooking blogs (two favorites are this and this) in the past few years, I’ve come to learn about the greater issue of local food and why it’s a bigger deal than at first glance. As my appreciation grew for high quality ingredients, I came to understand the complex reasons behind choosing local vs. organic.
“Organic” has been popping up more with each supermarket visit I make, and along with that has come a few head-scratching moments (such as the time I stumbled upon organic vanilla wafers). It felt a little strange when I spoke to some friends and acquaintances to find out that they began to go along with the organic option simply because it is so marketed and hyped. Many of them didn’t really understand what the point of it all was.
When I learned that the majority of organic produce in the U.S. is grown in California, I made a conscious decision to go with local as much as possible. For environmental reasons alone, small scale local food production uses less resources, increases biodiversity and conserves soil, water and other natural resources. Food production farmers also tend to be mindful about pesticide use, even if they haven’t been “Certified Organic.”
Beyond health and the environment, the more dollars that we put into local food, the stronger and more vibrant our community becomes. While creating a fair marketplace for farmers and producers, it also encourages new ones to enter. The people who grow food for humans are an endangered group, and when they receive the support and marketshare, our local food infrastructure is able to thrive. We need our butchers, beekeepers and cheesemakers around!
There has been recent buzz surrounding what’s known as “food deserts,” and I myself have experienced the void of fresh, real food. During junior high, I had a great couple of years living on a farm with a family garden and several chickens (and also housed an emu and two llamas). From there, my family moved to a tiny town with one big-box grocery on the outskirts, and more recently, I lived for a stint in a Brooklyn neighborhood where the most common fare were fried chicken carry-outs and corner stores.
This brings to me to why I have such deep respect for the efforts of Local Matters’ Veggie Van program. The van brings fresh, affordable and local produce to several areas of Columbus that lack access to healthy food. It has found a way to address the question of “who is local food for?” I had been thinking for a while about this debate of “food elitism” raised by critics of locavorism/foodies/organic movement, and which was defended in this op-ed by Joel Salatin.
I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that while I had the means and resources to spend a little more for quality, those who have the greatest need for nourishment are left with the cheapest option. Veggie Van works by connecting local farmers to the community, in turn providing a mutual benefit within our local food system. As long as we continue to patronize local food and close the divide in accessibility and affordability, prices will go down.
There is a definite handful of restaurants and eateries that have led the way for local (thanks, Skillet, Black Creek and Jeni’s!) but I’d really like to talk up some new kids on the block. A couple of months ago, while paying a visit to Dinin’ Hall, I chatted with the chef-owner of the Foodfetti truck, who had brought along some zucchini and cucumbers from his mother’s garden to sell. He also mentioned using those same beet greens in a grilled cheese on the menu. I loved that! Sophie’s Gourmet Pierogies and That Food Truck are two others that consistently feature local ingredients while they’re in season.
Dinin’ Hall co-owner Eliza Ho became familiar with the struggle of sourcing locally when she approached her vendors about coming up with menu items for Local Street Foods Week. While some bulk staple ingredients are more reliable and lower-priced coming from conventional stores, the chefs and operators of participating food trucks made the extra effort to buy what was fresh and beautiful from farmer’s markets. If you made it out to Dinin’ Hall last month during Local Foods Week, then you probably got to sample their creative chops using what’s available.
Three years ago, I could scarcely name a Columbus brewery other than CBC, but thanks to events like the North Market Microbrew Festival, I’m able to vouch for the cranberry cider from Neil Hhouse Brewery or Four String Brewing Co.’s Backstage Blonde. I’ve gotten to taste “Robert Mitchum” peppermint whipped cream straight out of Jeni’s mixing bowl, and make jammy, bubbling crumbles using “foraged” apricots from an overbearing tree two blocks away. This past summer, I got so many glimpses into the chain that is formed when growers, processors and makers work together to put out fantastic jams, fried risotto balls and grilled cheese.
Eat Local Challenge was created to inspire eaters to seek out the best food to be found – which happens to be come close from home, wherever that may be for you. Whether food-related activities are circulated by Twitter or word-of-mouth, just doing so can be a great way to inspire action for good. Food is our common denominator and when we rally around local, we have everything to gain. I consider myself very fortunate to have returned to my home state to land in the middle of a food revolution. As we enter fall, I hope that you will all continue to eat local where you’re able, whether that involves growing microgreens on a windowsill or a schmear of Lucky Penny Creamery over toast.