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Movement to Eat Locally Grown Food Gains Traction Among Mainstream Consumers

July 14, 2008

CHICAGO _ Last month, Lenae Weichel embarked on an ambitious dietary experiment: to feed her family for a year with food produced within 100 miles of her Rockford, Ill., home.

Inspired by a Vancouver couple who wrote a book on their “100-mile diet,” she joined a community-supported agriculture program, visited her local farmers market and started growing fruits and vegetables in her backyard.

Weichel, 33, is an extreme example of a vibrant movement of “locavores,” or consumers who try to shorten the distance between their food and its origin, largely from a desire to eat fresher produce, support their local farmers and reduce the carbon pollution associated with transporting goods.

Only a few set 100 miles as a strict limit; others might just seek produce from the Midwest. But eating locally grown food, an idea once limited to hard-core environmentalists, is gaining traction among mainstream consumers. Already the movement has inspired a slew of books, prompted restaurants to use local food as a selling point and established “locavore” as the Word of the Year for 2007, according to the Oxford American Dictionary.

Now Illinois is trying to turn that idea into a statewide phenomenon. Since January, a state-appointed task force has been meeting to make policy and funding recommendations to lawmakers to help the state feed itself.

But the local foods movement faces an uphill battle, and not just for locavores struggling to find certain foods, such as bananas and chocolate. For Illinois, the biggest obstacle may be meeting the growing demand on farmers from supermarkets, restaurants and people who want to buy locally grown food, task force members say.

Although Illinois boasts an abundance of rich farmland, the state imports more than 90 percent of its food, with most farmers growing corn and soybeans for export. The steady flow of agriculture out of Illinois frustrates local-food advocates who say the state is missing a significant economic opportunity.

“Here we are sitting in the heartland with the best prairie soils in the world,” Debbie Hillman, co-founder of the Evanston Food Policy Council and a member of the task force. “Why are we sending our food dollars outside the state?”

Jim Slama, a task force member and president of FamilyFarmed.org, a nonprofit organization that supports local food systems, said: “We must prove to farmers that this market is here, that it’s growing and that they can make money on it.”

Nationwide, the local foods market was valued at $5 billion last year and is projected to grow to $7 billion by 2011, according to Packaged Facts, a publisher of food market research. By comparison, U.S. organic food sales were nearly $17 billion in 2006, up from $1 billion in 1990, according to the Organic Trade Association.

In some states, officials have taken measures to encourage local food consumption. Woodbury County in Iowa adopted legislation in 2006 mandating that county-run departments buy only food grown and processed within 100 miles. Michigan is helping shoppers identify locally produced food by labeling produce as either “Select Michigan Fresh” or “Select Michigan Organic.”

For its part, Illinois has more than doubled the number of farmers markets in the state during the last decade, from 97 in 1999 to about 250 this season, according to state figures.

Although many have strict rules requiring sellers to offer only goods they produced, most farmers markets in the Chicago area feature out-of-state farmers, Slama said.

“Illinois does not have a lot of local vegetable producers, so when you go to farmers markets you see folks from Wisconsin and Michigan,” Slama said. “It’s a regional approach if you still consider yourself someone who eats primarily local food.”

Given the challenges, many locavores around Chicago have joined forces to forage for locally grown food and relaxed their dietary boundaries.

“I don’t claim to eat exclusively local,” said Nina Interlandi Bell, 30, of Rogers Park, who founded Chicago Locavores, which has grown to about 50 members since forming in January. “It’s not realistic, and there’s no point in making yourself crazy.”

Most fruits and vegetables sold in the Chicago area come from much farther away than Michigan. Produce arriving in Chicago by truck has traveled an average distance of 1,518 miles, according to a study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Growing concern about such “food miles” has inspired many consumers to become locavores.

Betsy Zinser, 44, of Batavia, Ill., began her pursuit of locally grown food two years ago after finding that a bag of broccoli in her freezer was produced in China.

“It couldn’t have come farther if it was grown on the moon,” she said.

Deri Gray, 47, a dedicated locavore in Geneva, Ill., said the ability to trace her food to its origin has given her peace of mind, particularly while health officials have been focused on tomatoes as they probe a nationwide salmonella outbreak.

“I knew right away the tomatoes I got here wouldn’t be tainted,” Gray said outside the Heritage Prairie Market in Elburn, Ill. “It hasn’t been touched commercially, so there’s nobody in between contaminating it with any disease.”

Some challenge the notion that locally produced food is safer and better for the environment.

A study by researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand found that four times more carbon dioxide is used to raise lamb in Britain than to import lamb from New Zealand to Britain, largely because ranchers in warmer climates use less feed.

Food contamination typically depends on a farmer’s practices, such as whether food is temperature-controlled and whether it is grown near feed lots with animal feces.

“It could happen on large or small farms,” said Scott MacIntire, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s field office in Chicago.

Many locavores cite a different reason for their dietary decision: Locally grown food is fresher, more nutritious and tastes better. That may explain why many chefs in the Chicago area’s trendiest restaurants feature locally grown ingredients.

“We’re finally getting back to craving the flavor and textures of produce that’s extremely fresh,” said Jeremy Lycan, chef at Niche Restaurant in Geneva.

Lycan gets his rib-eye from Dietzler Farms, a 750-acre farm in Walworth County, Wis., about 65 miles from his restaurant. And he gets garlic and beets from Heritage Prairie Market, a 6-acre farm about 10 miles away.

But Lycan can’t sustain his restaurant on locally grown ingredients alone. Because Heritage Prairie can’t meet his demand, Lycan relies on out-of-state commercial growers for some ingredients, such as the 6 pounds of picked spinach he needs every week.

For locavores, the pursuit of food from close to home can be a mix of surprises and sacrifices.

Weichel said she feels healthier now that her diet relies largely on salads, but she’s worried that she can’t find a reliable source of milk for the winter, when high demand forces her local dairy plant to import milk from farther away.

Still, Weichel said her diet has been a “fun challenge” that has provided numerous culinary delights.

“Fresher food just tastes better,” she said. “Having something that’s just picked and hasn’t been on a refrigerated truck for a week makes a big difference.”

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