Talk to folks who eat locally grown foods and eventually you’ll hear the Tale of Two Tomatoes. It goes something like this: One tomato grows up in a distant field with thousands of siblings in dirt that’s soaked in chemical fertilizers. He’s bred for uniformity and durability. (He’s bound for a supermarket a thousand miles away.) He’s spritzed with bug sprays and herbicides, and he’s picked when still unripe and boxed up for the truck. Poor guy doesn’t taste that great.
The other tomato is raised on a small family farm. She’s an heirloom variety that produces oddball shapes and sizes. She’s rooted in rich, healthy soil. When she’s ripe, she’s picked and delivered to a nearby farmers’ market and eaten within the week. Her flavor? Unforgettable.
There are plenty of great reasons — from easing environmental strain to supporting local economies — to eat locally grown foods. But the tomato taste test trumps even the most reasoned arguments. It’s hard to think of anything else when you’re enjoying a delicious, vine-ripened tomato.
That sounds good, you say. You want better-tasting food that doesn’t burn a lot of petroleum to get to your table. There’s just one problem: Where do you find it?
Perhaps you live in a metropolitan area where local foods are hard to come by. Or maybe you’re surrounded by sprawling supermarkets that source their food from who knows where. And you’re certain you’ve never seen locally grown foods on the menu at the chain eateries that dominate your neighborhood.
Don’t despair. Here are five progressive steps on the road to eating more local food. The best part of the journey is that there’s no “right way.” There’s no calorie counting, no guilt, no approved brand. Just some tips for following your appetite to a healthier and more enjoyable relationship with food — and the folks who produce it.
1. Look for a restaurant that uses local ingredients.
Next time you’re eating out, look for a restaurant that offers some dishes made with local ingredients. One of the easiest ways to get a first taste of local foods is to dine in a restaurant that makes the effort to find them for you. Chefs at good independent restaurants often talk to farmers and tour their operations in search of the freshest produce, best artisanal dairy and most flavorful meats.
“Quality is No. 1 for a chef,” says Becky Selengut, a private chef, cooking instructor and food writer in Seattle, whose passion for local foods inspired her to create a Web site devoted to her region’s seasonal foods (www.seasonalcornucopia.com). “That’s why a chef is going to use a local product; the flavor is going to be far superior.”
Chefs also realize that many customers are as interested in the quality and flavor of local foods as they are — so they’re labeling local foods on the menu. To find chefs serving local foods in your area, consult Chefs Collaborative (www.chefscollaborative.org). You can also find a wealth of information, including listings of restaurants and other local food resources, at the LocalHarvest Web site (www.localharvest.org), one of the most extensive sites devoted to connecting local producers with customers. If all else fails, says Selengut, then ask the chef at your favorite independent eatery if the menu includes any local items; it’s likely to feature some local offerings, even if they’re not advertised as such.
2. Find one locally made or grown food.
Next time you’re in the grocery store, make an effort to find at least one food that’s locally made or grown. As interest in local food grows, more stores are featuring “eat local” challenges and highlighting the produce and products that are supplied by local farmers and producers. If you can’t find anything labeled local, then ask. Most store managers take customer requests seriously. Plus, many supermarkets buy at least some produce from local growers that they may not actively promote, says Bill Greer, director of communications for the Food Marketing Institute. In an industry with razor-thin profit margins, he explains, buying even a few local foods can save stores big money on transportation costs.
Seasonal produce is probably the most obvious local item, but don’t stop there. If your market has an onsite butcher shop, there’s a good chance the meat is sourced from smaller producers. You may also find that a coffee grown in Mexico is roasted locally. And most stores have some regional specialty products: In dairy states, it might be milk; in Vermont, maple syrup. You might even find goods from a local bakery near the checkout.
3. Try a co-op, farmers’ market or natural foods store.
Next time you shop for groceries, try a co-op, farmers’ market, or a store that specializes in natural, local and organic foods. Natural-foods stores and food cooperatives are the specialists in locally grown and organic foods — and that makes them an excellent destination for the next step in your quest.
Everyone is welcome at food co-ops; you don’t have to be a member to shop there. And because the mission of most co-ops is to educate, employees are usually experts on whole and locally produced foods. Moreover, the person stocking the shelves is likely to be the same person dealing directly with producers — and he or she won’t be surprised when you ask about the farmer who grew those pea tendrils. Many co-ops post information inside the store about the source of their products, including updated lists of seasonal produce.
If you want to get even closer to the source of your food, try a farmers’ market. Dave Foydel, a professional magician in Detroit, found his way to local foods almost by accident — by parking his car every day near one of the city’s farmers’ markets. “I started buying my fruits and vegetables at the market because it was convenient,” he says.
It didn’t take him long to notice a big difference in what he was eating. “It usually tastes much fresher,” he says. He’s also begun to seek out local organic produce at the market, and if he can’t find an organic option, he asks the farmer about his or her growing practices. That’s part of the beauty of the farmers’ market — you’re face to face with the people who grew the food. “I know almost all the people that I buy from,” Foydel says. “It’s more personal. They’ll tell me when a certain crop is coming up. They’ll even save my favorite stuff for me if I don’t get there right away.” No co-ops or farmers’ markets where you live? Try one of the larger natural markets that are springing up in major metros and suburbs everywhere.
4. Become part of a community-supported farming project.
When you join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) project, you pay a membership fee directly to a farmer. Then, during the growing season (which varies by region), the farmer delivers a box of fresh produce — and in some cases, meats, flowers and other products — each week, usually to a central drop site in your town, sometimes to your door. The amount of food you receive depends on the farm and the season. Some people split a membership to manage the volume of seasonal produce. Others head out to the farm for a weekend to pick an extra box of tomatoes or flat of strawberries.
Johanna Solms first joined a CSA when she retired from a career in marketing and moved to rural Black Earth, Wis. She says eating out of a CSA box is radically different from filling up your shopping cart at the grocery store.
“One week we got celeriac, which is celery root. I’m 57 years old and I’d never met it in my life. Kohlrabi, fava beans — all kinds of interesting foods come. It’s expanded my horizons, and I’m learning fun ways to work with the vegetables.”
Most CSAs offer a newsletter with descriptions of the week’s harvest — and recipes. “And really, your palate gets spoiled when you get used to fresh produce,” adds Solms. “You can get pretty cranky about things that aren’t fresh.”
In addition to the weekly delivery, some CSAs offer volunteer opportunities — usually harvesting or delivering vegetables — and many sponsor potlucks that bring all the members out to the farm. Knowing your farmer this well changes the way you think about food, says LocalHarvest’s Director Erin Barnett. “You have an opportunity for a relationship not only with the farmer, but with the farm itself, the animals, and apple trees and fields.”
Most of all, the CSA experience provides an education in seasonality, which is one of the most important aspects of eating locally. Industrialized agriculture has developed in large part to trump the seasons — to get strawberries to Maine in January. The CSA delivery serves as a weekly update on the true rhythm of the season. “It’s a fundamentally different way of relating to the world,” says Barnett. “It’s more like a treasure hunt — let’s see what our farm is offering us this week.”
To find a CSA in your area, visit www.localharvest.org — or inquire at a store that features local foods.
5. Grow some of your own food.
You can’t get more local than a sunny windowbox or corner of your own backyard, and many of the same benefits of shopping for local food apply to growing your own: You know where your food comes from and how it was grown, and you’re even more connected to the seasons.
If you’ve never gardened before, it’s important to start small. “If you till up a huge swath and plant corn and beans and fruit trees, it quickly becomes overwhelming,” says Charlie Nardozzi, a horticulturist with the National Gardening Association. Instead, he recommends experimenting with vegetables or herbs grown in containers. Or if you start a garden outdoors, choose a sunny location that you pass by frequently. “Put it close to the walkway or door, where you can stop for five or 10 minutes a day and weed, water, harvest a little.” Nardozzi says.
Once you get your feet wet, you can try new crops and expand your garden. Shelley Jo Isaak, a community education teacher in Kalispell, Mont., and her husband started gardening after they joined a CSA. “We learned by trial and error,” she says. “It’s just constant experimentation. We started out just growing a few tomatoes and squash and some herbs. Anybody can grow herbs, even if you have a brown thumb.” Now their backyard is supplying the family with vegetables, as well as pears, apples and cherries.
What Now? What Next?
How many steps you take on the path to eating locally, and when you take them, depends largely on your level of interest and commitment. And those commitments depend, in turn, on your investment in food pleasure.
Remember, it’s as much about enjoying your food and the relationships with the people who grow it as it is about upgrading nutrition and food safety, conserving energy, and supporting local economies.
Whether you pick up a few pounds of apples at the local orchard every fall, plant tomatoes in the backyard or just frequent a favorite local-food-friendly restaurant for special occasions, you stand to benefit on a number of fronts.
Any path you follow toward locally, sustainably raised food is likely to help you discover a healthier relationship with your food. And the steps you take this season are almost certain to lead to new, previously unexplored paths over time.
Joe Hart is a freelance writer in Viroqua, Wis.