Eating Locally for Beginners
The locavore trend doesn’t mean giving up good food, it just means discovering the good food being produced in your neighborhood, and even in your own backyard. Emily looks at Slow Food Utah, farmers markets, CSAs and home and community gardening.
As a child of a casserole family, where most mealscontained only store-bought canned vegetables and a can of gelatinouscream-of-something soup, my understanding of where food comes from was limited,to say the least.
Over the last few years there seems to have been a shiftin the way many people think about the food they eat. A growing trend, locallyand nationally, encourages people to consider their roles as consumers in thefood market. They’re calling themselves "locavores" and their aim isto buy food that is grown and produced locally whenever possible. The reasonsfor becoming a locavore are as varied as they are for becoming a vegetarian.For some, the environmental impact of buying food that has traveled inrefrigerated vehicles from halfway around the world is reason enough. Forothers, it’s about supporting local farmers and investing in their localeconomies. For me, it’s about getting back to basics.
My first visit to the Downtown Farmers’ Market four yearsago marked the beginning of a revolution for me. As I wandered around thevendors’ booths on that sunny July day looking for fresh fruits, such aspeaches and raspberries, I was baffled. I approached one of the vendors andasked when there might be peaches at the market. He responded with a kind smileand said, "Not until August or September."
It didn’t make any sense. If I wanted peaches orraspberries right now, I could go to any grocery store and find them-even inFebruary. The store always has every fruit and vegetable, so why didn’t theFarmers’ Market?
The answer, which is so simple I’m embarrassed to say it,is that food growers are bound by the seasons of the climate they are growingin. It had not occurred to me until that day at the Farmers’ Market that if Iwas buying peaches in February, they had traveled from some exotic locale,thousands of miles from Utah. When I went home and faced the bananas sitting onmy counter, I felt the disconnect that comes from not knowing what you areeating or how it came to be in your kitchen.
As the locavore trend grows, communities across thecountry are starting "Eat Local" Challenges, which encourageparticipants to commit to eating only locally produced foods for a specifiedlength of time. In Salt Lake City, Andrea and Mike Heidinger completed theirfirst 30-day challenge in October 2007. They said they were amazed at howquickly word spread about the challenge and how many people actually joinedthem. The parameters were flexible and participants committed to eating locallygrown food (within 250 miles) for as short as one day to an entire month. TheHeidingers and other participants detailed their experiences on a blog, oftenoffering advice on where to find hard-to-find items.
In order to complete their challenge, participants reliedon a variety of resources including local farmers’ markets and communitysupported agriculture (CSA) programs. Some actually produced their own fruitsand vegetables. Complete commitment to the challenge required giving up somefoods altogether. Rice, coffee, black pepper and cinnamon were among the foodsthat the Heidingers said they missed most. According to Andrea, however, thechallenge helped them discover honey as a substitute for sugar, and theyhaven’t gone back to using refined sugar since.
For the Heidingers, eating locally is about supportinglocal farmers. As Andrea explained, "Anything we can do to preserve thelocal farms is cool. Some of them have been around for generations and they’reall struggling, always on the edge of going out of business."
Christi Paulson of Slow Food Utah agrees with theHeidingers about supporting local farmers, and said she believes educatingchildren about agriculture is a good start. Slow Food promotes organic,sustainable food growing and buying practices and educates the public about thebenefits of those practices. According to Paulson, there has been an increasein membership in the last threeyears and more significantly, a drastic increase in the number of people whoknow about Slow Food and what it does.
Eating locally is more than a trend, though. Becoming alocavore requires more than just passing up Starbucks for a local coffee shop.It requires a shift in thinking. Perhaps you’re not ready to give up eatingiceberg lettuce in January just yet, and neither am I. For those of us tryingto find a balance between enjoying the foods we love and supporting localbusiness, there are many small steps that can make a big difference to localfood growers.
Meet new people
According to Christi Paulson, Slow Food Utah used to be asmall group of middle-aged food enthusiasts who gathered four times each yearto enjoy a dinner made from local, organic food. In 2004, when Paulson wasasked to lead the group, Slow Food began reaching out to the community throughprograms like the schoolyard garden at Riley Elementary, where Paulson teaches.Among other things, Paulson has transformed Slow Food Utah from what shecharacterized as a "supper club" into a more community-basedorganization that welcomes everyone. Slow Food Utah often maintains a booth atthe Downtown Farmers’ Market, offering flyers and brochures that explain SlowFood’s core beliefs, which Paulson explains as, "good, clean, fairfood."
Paulson says she is particularly proud of the schooloutreach programs that Slow Food is involved with. "Kids generally don’tknow where their food comes from. They just think it comes straight from thegrocery store. And just seeing their faces when they’re digging in the dirt andthey’re seeing what happens when they plant a seed and it grows….," shesaid. "And it’s good for their health. Kids don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, but if theygrow it, they’ll eat it."
In addition to teaching kids where food comes from,Paulson sees the school garden as a recruiting tool. She is cultivating thegardeners, and maybe even farmers, of tomorrow.
Members of Slow Food meet monthly and the group holdsinformal potluck dinners regularly, open to others interested in joining. Visitthe Slow Food Utah Web site (www.slowfoodutah.org) for upcoming events andother helpful information about eating local in Utah.
Farmers’ markets are a great introduction tounderstanding where your food comes from. Each week at the markets, growerssell their farm-fresh produce and answer questions about their growingpractices. During the season (June through October) the variety of produceavailable will change with the weather. In the early months, fresh produce ismostly leafy greens, peas and beans. Each week the offerings expand and change.
There are dozens of farmers’ markets throughout Utah,from Logan to St. George. To find one near you, visit www.utahsown.utah.gov/FarmersMarkets.htm.
Besides the mainly fruit and vegetable options availableat local farmers’ markets, several local dairies and ranches throughout Utahprovide milk, cheese and meat. Beehive Cheese Co. in Uinta makes its cheesefrom milk from a local dairy, Rockhill Creamery in Richmond has its owngrassfed cows, and you can find their products in grocery stores along theWasatch Front. Local meat producers like the G Bar Ranch and Morgan Valley Lamboffer all-natural, chemical-free, Utah-raised beef and lamb and can be foundonline and in stores specializing in local food.
Local First Utah is a helpful resource to find localfood. On the website (www.localfirst.org) you’ll find a business directory oflocal businesses. Local First promotes all kinds of local businesses in aneffort to support small businesses and local economies. In addition to alisting of local food retailers and producers, the site also lists restaurantsthat serve locally grown food.
Help a farmer
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is another way toget some face-to-face interaction with the people who grow your food. Unlikefarmers’ markets, where customers can shop for specific items each week just asthey would at the grocery store, Community Supported Agriculture requires aseason-long commitment. With CSAs, customers buy a share of a grower’s cropbefore the crops have been harvested, and then fresh produce is deliveredweekly to various pick-up points. Several farms along the Wasatch front offerCSA programs. The programs vary in price, as well as the selection of producethey offer.
Christi Paulson said she has been involved with her CSAfor five years. She said she enjoys the variety of produce and the interactionwith the grower that she gets from it. "Usually you have to try thingsyou’ve never had before," she said. "And you know where your foodcame from, you know that farmer. Youcan trust that person."
Buying produce from a CSA can be unpredictable becauseyou don’t know what fruits and vegetables you’ll be getting from week to week,and sometimes you may get vegetables you’ve never eaten and aren’t sure how toprepare. Many of the CSA programs offer recipes and serving suggestions alongwith the weekly boxes of food, but eating produce in season can sometimes get alittle tedious.
As Paulson explains, "In the fall I can’t wait forthe winter squash. By January, I feel like if I have to look at another wintersquash, I’m going to die." During the summer months, many CSA participantsstart to feel the same way about tomatoes, which most CSAs have in abundance.Ranui Farms specializes in leafy greens, so their customers always get greens.But other products change over the course of the season. In the summer,customers are likely to get tomatoes and zucchini, and in the fall deliverieswill include more root vegetables like potatoes and beets.
John Garofalo, owner of the biodynamically run RanuiFarms near Coalville, said their CSA program gets him through the early spring."Typically growers around here spend a fair amount of money in late winterand early spring to get the operations up and running; but a lot of times we don’thave sellable crops until late May to early June," he explains. "CSAsmean we don’t have to borrow money."
Among the five CSAs operating along the Wasatch Front,prices for a two-person weekly allotment over the roughly five-month seasoncareen from $175 for the season to $736. Most of these CSAs are full for 2008;you can put your name on a waiting list for 2009, however.
The Slow Food Web site has a comprehensive list of theCSA programs in Utah that details the cost and variety of produce offered fromeach one: www.slowfoodutah.org.
Grow it yourself
For fresh produce, you can’t beat a backyard garden (orfront yard, for that matter). Of course, growing a garden has a learning curve,and most new gardeners chalk their first season up to experience. Starting agarden requires research, a few resources-and courage, faith and follow-up.
Home gardens are convenient and under complete control ofthe gardener, so there can never be any questions about whether the tomatoesreally are organic. If you grow them from seeds, you know everything yourplants have been exposed to. You also get the convenience of pulling freshherbs from the garden to throw in the spaghetti sauce cooking on the stove.
For those of us who may not have space to plant a gardenin, or who don’t know the first thing about planting squash, there’s stillhope. Thanks in part to the growing focus on eating locally, dozens ofcommunity gardens have sprouted up along the Wasatch Front in the last 10years.
In Salt Lake, Wasatch Community Gardens operates fourgardens in the downtown area. The gardens offer youth programs to educate kidsabout organic gardening, and they also offer rental plots for members of thecommunity to use. In conjunction with the rental plots, Wasatch CommunityGardens teaches related workshops which are usually free and open to thepublic.
According to Susan Finlayson, the Community EducationCoordinator for Wasatch Community Gardens, the gardeners at the downtowngardens come from a wide range of backgrounds. "It’s a really diversecommunity," she said. "There are people who have been gardening foryears who are looking for a space to garden in and who like the idea of meetingpeople, and then there are the newbies, and they all come together here."
The four gardens currently have 62 rental plots, at$40-$48 each. For some gardens, there is a waiting list that may mean waiting afull year before a plot opens up. For information about workshops and rentalapplications, visit www.wasatchgardens.org
Think before you eat
Like vegetarians, every locavore has to live and eataccording to his or her own values. Being a locavore sometimes means simplymaking better choices, even if you aren’t buying local. If you can’t findproducts that are locally produced, Christi Paulson suggests comparing foodlabels. Choosing the product that traveled the lesser distance brings you onestep closer to eating locally.
And as Paulson said, you have to be realistic. "I’mnot a purist," she said. "I can’t ever grow a banana here, so am Inever going to eat a banana again? No. Am I never going to have anything withvanilla in it, or chocolate, or coffee, or olive oil? No. But I try to get asmany local products as I can." Like Paulson, I can’t say I am or will everbe a purist. I do plan, however, to be more conscious about where my food iscoming from. Considering where I started, I would say that’s a pretty bigrevolution. u
Emily Aplin is a recent graduate of the University ofUtah . She is a regular at thedowntown farmers’ market and plans to attempt her own "eat localchallenge" this summer.