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Next Door Nutrition: With last Monday, Aug. 8, having been Sneak Zucchini onto Your Neighbor's Porch Night, many of us know where our greens come from.

Eat Here Now

Connecting with the lettuce next door

By Heather Irwin

How well do you know your zucchini? Sure, it's green and nicely shaped. No blemishes to speak of and it runs with the organic crowd, so in a fit of passion, you throw it into a little olive oil and garlic--just this once--without asking too many questions. But the morning after, you learned it was--gasp!--from South America and had some rather dubious ties to pesticide companies. The shame, the horror, the reality of casual eating these days.

Who knew that produce was so politically charged? Actually, we did. But there's a whole new movement afoot, and this time, it's more about eating locally than eating organically. Leading the charge of the Crop-Next-Door Brigade is a group of Bay Area food enthusiasts known as "locavores" (www.locavores.com). For the entire month of August, in an effort to raise local eating awareness, a group of a hundred or so activists have vowed to let nothing pass their lips that's produced farther than 100 miles from their homes.

Even though Sonoma, Marin and Napa counties are quite literally the land of milk, honey, cheese, lamb, tomatoes, lettuce and wine, what happens when you want a cup of coffee or some salt? Unless you're willing to evaporate seawater and make your own salt (don't laugh, one locavore actually considered this), you're pretty much out of luck. Therefore, members are vowing to make due without such foodstuffs as we often take for granted, such as tofu, rice, bananas and an ever growing list of items that aren't produced nearby. It's pretty shocking to learn what you can and can't consume when you really start paying attention to eating locally.

Why do this? Locavores, along with a growing number of scientists and environmental activists, think that eating locally is healthier for us all the way around. Food produced on a smaller scale for area consumers is picked riper, sold fresher, made with fewer chemicals, not exposed to lengthy transportation and less in need of genetic modification for a long shelf life. While this isn't always true, it's true of the farms we talked to. Furthermore, common sense just tells us that, bottom line, a tomato grown a mile away is better for a North Bay resident than a tomato picked in Ohio.

Aside from local food's benefits to the consumer, there are also its many benefits to the environment--like less waste created and fewer trucks used to haul food long distances--and to local farmers who would much rather sell directly to you than to, say, a big grocer 100 miles away who will take half or more of his profits. Perhaps even more radically, locavore advocates say that local even beats organic.

"If I had a choice between an organically raised apple from Chile or a nonorganic apple from Sebastopol, I'd choose the Sebastopol apple in a minute," says Evie Truxaw, who farms locally at Tierra Vegetables in Windsor. But wait, that can't be right! The term "organic" has been drilled into our consciousness as the only sane and rational way to eat, right? Not necessarily. Because while foods grown with limited or no pesticides are great, many in the movement say the term has started to lose its meaning. Without strong regulation on the organics industry, some farmers abuse the term and grow foods that are anything but healthful, nutrient-rich or grown without damage to the environment or our bodies.

Locavores say that they'd rather support local farmers whose farms they can see, whose produce they can taste and whose practices they trust. After all, even if your banana is labeled organic, do you really know how it was grown? Or how many frequent flyer miles it has? Indeed, most food we eat travels somewhere between 100 and 1,600 miles to get to us. Often picked before it's ripe, treated to prevent spoilage and artificially enhanced, your food may have had quite a journey before it gets to your table--even if it was grown in a field right next door.

Take these examples: Twenty percent of California table grapes are sent to China, even though China is the world's largest producer of table grapes. Half of all processed tomatoes that California exports go to Canada, despite the fact that the United States imports $36 million of processed Canadian tomatoes yearly.

What about tofu? Bay Area locavores bemoan the fact that soybeans are not grown anywhere near our food shed; most are grown in the Midwest. However, locavores based in Ohio, some whom even have fields within a few miles of their home, say they're having the same problems with soy. Beans may be harvested locally, but then they often travel cross-country to California for processing, and then make the journey back to Ohio (or elsewhere) as a final product. They're beans without a real home on an epic journey that can span thousands of miles. And those miles, added with the miles that many other foods travel, have some noticeable environmental effects.

Looking at each stage of food production and its effect on the environment, British researchers recently discovered that the number of miles a food product travels has a huge impact on everything from local pollution levels to road damage to the overall effect of global climate change and erosion. Tabulating a number of variables, the researchers concluded that if people bought all their food from a 20-kilometer radius (about 12.4 miles), the country could save about $3.7 billion in environmental costs

Twelve miles isn't very far. In fact, for most Americans, sourcing food within a 12-miles radius is nearly impossible. But we do have choices. Many natural-food stores offer small placards next to their produce explaining where the food is sourced, with much of it produced locally or at least within the state. But some area farmers insist that the best bet is to know your lettuce up close and personal right from the grower.

"When you see a sign that says '29 cent tomatoes,' you see a 'Screwed Farmer' sign," says Ron Love of Healdsburg's Love Farms. An outspoken advocate of local farming, Love is not alone when he says that the only way for small farmers to survive is to sell directly to consumers. That means farmers markets and, ideally, entrepreneurial farm stands where farmers can keep most of their profits, instead of handing over between 10 and 50 percent to wholesalers, grocery stores or farmers market managers.

Though out-of-the-way trips to the fields can be a hassle, Tierra's Evie Truxaw says the extra benefit of buying direct is that the produce is picked absolutely ripe, when it's most nutritious, rather than days or weeks before. Yummy. But can the average single mom with two small children really go from stand to stand picking out squash and lettuce every day?

My family and I tried our luck at the Santa Rosa farmers market last Wednesday. Punctuated by much whining from the kids, the experiment lasted approximately 10 minutes, during which time I purchased one $4 pint of organic blackberries, one $2 bunch of squash blossoms, one $3 loaf of bread and one $3 pint of strawberries. Hardly a week's groceries. Granted, this was a Wednesday--the weekend markets are more plentiful--but there was no meat, no fish, only one source of cheese, no milk or other dairy, no grains other than the few loaves of bread and certainly no Diet Pepsi (but that's my own issue).

Even the most enthusiastic locavore admits that chain grocery stores aren't going to become obsolete any time soon. Locavores simply want to raise awareness about the fate of the globe-trotting banana and the source of that salt.

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From the August 10-16, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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