Eat local Week showcases SRQ's local economy

The local food movement wants us to change the way we think about our food. Wants us to reconsider the dirt and the farm and the farmer and the cook — the trip our food took to the table — before tucking in to our meal. “I think it gets down to human nature … how we as human beings want to function, and how the way we’ve been functioning [in terms of eating] is wrong,” said local chef Eric Bein of Station 400. “It’s a very passionate thing to eat something … you’re putting something into your body — it’s an intimate thing. But that’s been taken out of it. There’s no identification with the food. It’s just to fill the stomach, fill the gas tank up. People don’t think about the food that they eat and where it comes from … but I think we should and we need to.”

Proponents of local food are realizing this need and emphasizing the roots of not just the food Americans eat food but to the country itself, harking back to the idea of America being an agricultural nation. “People are starting to realize … that this is how it used to be,” explained Bein. “America was built on agriculture, it was built on small farms, it was built on people breaking bread as a family.”

The local food movement is based on this “back to the land” principle, an idea that’s been manifested in a wide variety of campaigns and changes. Bein wants to bring this homeland ethic into his restaurant with tasty local eggs and produce. Others hope to fill their table with the yields of their own gardens and more yet are moving toward simply keeping their dollars in the local economy, shifting their purchases from shipped-in strawberries to the ones picked just 70 miles away.

Included within the broader sustainability movement, this “locavore” ethic aims to nurture local economies, communities and the environment-at-large. In an era of coinciding consumption and economic crisis, the locavore ideology is growing ever more mainstream and ever more feasible. The movement ties the “farm-to-table” trend to broader economic and environmental issues, largely global oil consumption.

“Oil is embedded in every aspect of our society,” began Don Hall, director of Transitions Sarasota and coordinator of Eat Local Week. “It’s at peak right now — that doesn’t mean the oil is gone, but it means that we’re at the maximum point of production … we can’t pump it out of the ground any faster. We need to find a way to get off fossil fuels and one place where it’s deeply involved is in the food system.” With a great percentage of food coming from massive, far-away farms, it takes approximately ten calories of fossil fuel to produce one edible calorie, reported Hall. And when the fossil fuels run out? “We’re not going to be farming thousand acre monocultures with a rake and a hoe,” Hall said. Transitions, an international organization that’s been present in Sarasota for the past year, advocates moving away from fossil fuel dependence.

“We need to get away from that [fossil fuel dependent food system] not just as a matter of public health, environmental sustainability, and economic reasons — which are all true — but out of necessity,” he explained. “We’re going to have to do this, and its not a thing that we can change overnight. Overhauling a food system is a massive undertaking, so we need to start now — we needed to start yesterday.”

Eat Local Week started April 15 and continued through the 23rd. It was an exhibition of Sarasota’s part in this undertaking that showcased local farmers, urban gardeners, locally-sourced restaurant menus and alternative food systems. Participants were asked to pledge to a 10 percent local shift: changing at least 10 percent of their food purchases to products that are as produced as nearby and as sustainably as possible. According to Hall, a 2006 study showed that if all Sarasota County residents made this shift it would introduce $80 million of additional farm income into the community. “Currently we spend a billion dollars every year in Sarasota County on food … and a fraction of 1 percent goes to local farms,” he noted. Not only does locally grown food reduce fuel consumption, it also improves the local economy by keeping more money circulating nearby.

Chef Bein made another economic point, explaining that although local goods are more expensive than conventionally grown items as this movement grows and becomes more mainstream it will also become more affordable. “The more and more we get into this … and the more of a habit it becomes, the more awareness we can build … the more people will spend their dollar in the right places and things will get leveled out,” he said. If the demand for local goods grows, and for trucked-in industrial produce diminishes, the price will stabilize.

“We want to really bring local food to the forefront,” said Transitions volunteer Ximena Griffoen. “We believe that it’s good for everybody, everybody wins.” After the oil spill, Griffoen began to reconsider her food choices and inadvertent oil consumption.

“Our food travels 1,500 miles — and that’s a long ways … When I go shopping I ask the tough questions. Some of them don’t like me, but I want to know!” The locavore ethic encourages people to constantly ask these tough questions — where did this come from? Who grew it? How’d it get here? — in an effort to trace food all the way back to its roots.

“Eat Local week is based around bringing the farms back into the picture … even bringing the farms back into the city,” said Arielle Luke, a Transitions volunteer from Ringling College of Art and Design. “The Eat Local movement focuses on the social aspect of the food, from the dirt to the plate.” There’s a lot of this “getting back to our roots” sentiment in local-loving circles.

Chef Bein is excited about this change in focus from the final plate to the initial ingredients. When he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, the food world was interested in “what chef was doing what, which recipes were hot, going out to restaurants to see new dishes —it was all very much focused on the end product. But I’ve never more inspired by working with these local farmers … with the beginning products. The dirt, you know. It’s so exciting to go work with the farmers and what they’re growing. So exciting to be able to harvest it myself and be a part of this whole beginning process … of these beautiful all-natural products.”

And getting back to farms can be a particularly delicious process, as epitomized by the Slow Food movement, established in Italy in 1986. Ellen Teeter is one of the leaders of the Sarasota Slow Food group — called a “convivium,” in organization terminology — that’s been growing in the community for the past four years. Slow Food has a broad mission, one very much aligned with the locally oriented goals of Transitions.

“We believe food should be good, clean and fair,” Teeter said. “Good means good tasting, clean means organically raised with minimal pesticides — good for the environment — and fair means fair to the workers and the animals … and fair in trying to get good food to people who can’t afford it.”

Teeter explained that there are three sorts of people who participate in Slow Food: the “foodies” who are interesting in the “good” aspect, the farmer’s market attendees (those committed to the “clean” ambitions) and the social justice folks who are committed to achieving a “fair” food system. Though the three constantly overlap, everyone is excited about the prospect of good, clean, fair food for one and for all.

Eat Local week provided for all three groups — locally sourced menus at select restaurants for the foodies, urban garden tours & permaculture lessons for the farm-fresh produce lovers and volunteer opportunities at Jessica’s Organic Farm, and rallying movies and forums for the activists.

On Monday morning, all three kinds met about five miles east of Tamiami Trail at Jessica’s Organic Farm for the weekly gleaning project in which volunteers collect unpicked produce that would other wise be plowed under. This second harvest then goes to All Faiths Food Bank to be distributed to the community.

“Ordinarily the food bank gets donations from people in the community — canned goods and packaged good and processed goods — but even those donations are down,” explained Harriet Roberts, a regular volunteer at Jessica’s. “So what we do, we not only fill in the gaps of what they need to supply food to the poor, but we fill it with fresh produce, which very often people in that situation don’t have access to, so it’s quite exciting.”

Roberts then straightened a stack of the book Food Not Lawns, an apt title for the contrast between the volunteers squatting in the field picking fluffy heads of lettuce and to the smooth golf course next door.

Another regular at the gleaning project, 71 year-old Richard Frary, said he was “grateful to be supporting the community, grateful to be able to give this gift” of the 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of produce every week. A handful of New College students were out in the field as well, some with the Food, Nutrition and Poverty Tutorial and some, like first-year Josie Evans, on their own. “This is my second time,” she said. “I heard about it from other people who’d volunteered, and tried a bit of the produce they brought back.”  Wolunteers are often invited to take home a bit of the fruits of their labors. “I realized that not only was it a good thing to be doing, but it has a good payoff too. Better than Ham food!”

Eat Local Week also demonstrated that it’s possible to get even more local than these nearby farms and farmer’s markets — “You can’t get more local than your own backyard,” as one attendee remarked. Six local urban farmers and gardeners around the community welcomed the curious into their productive backyards and visitors slipped behind houses to admire yards converted into rows of corn, mounds of cucumber plants, clumps of dill and bunches of strawberry plants. At one garden a bowl of these bright red, heavenly sweet strawberries was offered to the guests, the berries still warm from their time growing under the sun.

One stop on the tour was Peter Burkard’s Morning Sun Farm, a sprawling yard encircled by jungle transformed into a prosperous mini-farm complete with bees and chickens. A farmer’s market original, Burkard was the first to provide very local, very organic food to the Sarasota community. He’s written a book called The Real Dirt that details his low-impact lifestyle, explaining how he manages to work so effectively with the land. “You’ve arrived at one branch of the Church of Stop Shopping,” Burkard pronounced to the gathered visitors.

Eat Local week and the locavore movement in general seem to have a mixed attitude toward this “stop shopping” mentality. While urban garden tours proved how feasible growing your very own food is, it’s recognized that living off your very own backyard can be quite challenging.

“It’s not realistic for everyone to grow everything, although that would be ideal,” said second-year and Gardening Tutorial TA Audra Locicero. But for those without a college student’s flexible schedule or the ability to convert to the “Church of Stop Shopping,” farmer’s markets and the few grocery stores that source locally make it possible for those lacking a green thumb to take part in the tasty movement. It is because of this purchasing-prone, gardening-averse majority that the idea of local food can be so fruitfully expanded to local economy.

As oil grows scarce and money tight, the local movement provides an avenue to reconsider consumption. And a more soulful rethinking of food alongside this economic take, with the movement’s emphasis on of a heartfelt and hungry return to the land that supports us. Local locavores advise the ethic of both reduction and reconsideration — use less, grow more, and whatever else you need, buy it from your neighbors — and perhaps above of all, appreciate and love your food.

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