Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Where's My Dinner (From)?

What do all these foods have in common?

Oh, come on, you know the answer.

That's right... they're all local (to me) foods. Along with the squash, honey, and walnuts from the farmers' market, you'll find here some of my potted herbs, canned goods (peaches, pickles, jam), and even the occasional jar or can of processed food that was locally produced. Even though it's January and I haven't harvested anything fresh (except those herbs) for a couple of months, I'm still finding ways to enjoy the local bounty.

And after today, I have added inspiration for continuing to support local foods... and to encourage all of you to do the same.

After reading a recent article about the local foods initiatives being promoted through the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and the Ohio State University, I contacted Matt Kleinhenz, Extension Vegetable Crops Physiology and Production Specialist at the OARDC, to find out more and to learn what more we consumers can do to support our neighboring farms and food producers. We finally caught up with each other this afternoon and shared an enthusiastic hour-long discussion that I will try to summarize for you.

Matt indicated that the work he's doing in regard to local foods fits into the broader issue of sustainability (naturally), and he is attempting to draw in partners from many points of view: those who are interested in farmland preservation, those who want to boost local businesses, and those who are active in environmental issues, among others. After all, many people have influence over how our land is used, from City Council and the local Chamber of Commerce to the farmers, business figures, and developers with a direct economic interest, and we consumers need to pay attention to what happens in these areas and be willing to raise our concerns and needs, too.

But above all, Matt stressed the importance of "voting with your wallet." You know how I feel about supporting the local farmers' market (three words: Just do it!), but what else can you do? Here are a few excellent ideas that came up in our conversation:

1. Get to know the farmers. Talk to them at the market, let them know you're keenly interested in local foods, and ask them to consider extending their growing season in order to provide produce into the winter. And encourage everyone you know to do the same. Farming isn't a hugely profitable business, and farmers may be reluctant to invest in a longer growing season unless they hear many people asking for it. If they do make the investment, back them up and continue to support them with your purchases.

2. When you're traveling and come across a local farm or farmers' market that provides goods you'd like to buy again and again (but you may not be in the area often enough to do it), ask the farmers if they would be willing to ship their goods to you. I know, some of my Dear Readers may be thinking, "But doesn't that defeat the point of local foods?" No. Here again you're supporting small local food producers directly and are willing to work with them to provide a market for their goods. (This is why I'm perfectly happy to accept dates, oranges, and pecans from my Wonderful Parents on their travels: I've got them "trained" to support the small local growers!) Some farmers may not be willing to ship: again, it's an investment for them. Smile, be encouraging and polite, and point out the benefits to them. You might be surprised!

3. At the local grocery store, talk to the manager or the staff about your wish to buy local foods. Are locally-grown fruits and vegetables labeled as such? Does the store provide local produce in the "off" season? Ask the store to label foods as local and buy more local goods... then show your support by buying them. Do the same at local restaurants: ask if any of their foods are locally supplied, and support those restaurants that do support local growers while encouraging others to start.

4. While at the grocery store, don't forget to think about processed foods, too. Many of us are accustomed to looking at the labels for nutritional information, but if you look closely, you'll also find out where a product was packaged and perhaps even grown. Many of the smaller name brands are locally based, and we're fortunate in Ohio to have several to choose from. A quick glance at my pantry shelves revealed the following Ohio brands, for example: Mid's (pizza sauce), Gia Russa (chickpeas), Dei Fratelli (canned tomatoes and sauce), and, of course, Smuckers. Given that every food has its season and that we can't truly have everything fresh all the time, we have to remember to look at the labels on processed foods, too.

5. Finally, I myself would add food preservation (home canning and the like) and sharing with friends. There are few sweeter pleasures than having fresh local foods fill your pantry all winter, thanks to your own hard work -- except to share that bounty with your friends and to open their eyes to how good local foods taste as well as how easy they are to support. Truly, this can be the most convincing way to spread the news by "word of mouth"!

Matt suggested a number of sites for further reading and ideas:

--Entrepreneurs for Sustainability
--Farmland Preservation in Northeast Ohio
--Ohio Farm Bureau Federation
--The True Cost of Food from the Sierra Club
--as well as some of the links previously mentioned on this site (see sidebar)

One of the ideas that struck me most in our conversation was that not only do local foods keep us in touch with the land, with the seasons, and with our neighbors, but that local foods also shape our identity as people living in a particular community in a particular region.

Think about that. Really get deep inside that thought for a moment. We can all remember certain foods from our childhoods that exemplified who we are/were and how we were raised. Did you, like me, enjoy fresh corn on the cob for dinner, followed by a watermelon seed-spitting contest with your dad, during one glorious week in August every year? Did you help your mother or grandmother make jam or jelly in the searing summer heat? Do you remember the fragrance of certain ethnic dishes that whispered "holiday" or "family" to you?

We are what we eat. And by extension, we are where we eat. The tomato I grow in my backyard will taste different to me than the tomato that comes from California. The grapes I buy at the farmers' market will make juice that tastes more real to me than anything I can find frozen in a can. Why? I know where these foods originate: I have some sense of the soil and the water and the light in which they have grown, because I share that same soil, water, and light. They taste like home.

So by buying local foods, we can preserve that sense of local identity, that feeling of coming home with every bite.

I am deeply grateful to Matt for his time and his willingness to swap information, and our discussion generated some exciting ideas, some of which I intend to explore further and share with you as they develop. (Stay tuned... I'm going to issue a fun challenge to all my Dear Readers!)

Until then, I'll be enjoying some of those local foods from my larder and my freezer (the pizza I made tonight included local sauce and broccoli; not a bad start), and I'll be looking for more ways to support the local food scene.

Hope you will, too!


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