Lessons on eating local

The Twins Cities Eat Local Challenge kicks off this month

Terms like localvore and sustainable agriculture may be new to our vocabulary, but the concepts are not only viable, they are based on age-old, basic farming principles. Today, people around the Twin Cities are supporting modern-day farmers through participation in the Eat Local Challenge — an event created by the area co-ops and defined as participants eating at least 80 percent of foods in their diet from sources in Minnesota and the states that border it.

This challenge is not only beneficial for the local agriculture businesses; it also has benefits for the health of the participants and the environment. And even if you aren’t part of the challenge, it’s easy to be part of the movement.

“It’s not for an elitist group of people,” said Scott Pampuch, owner of the Corner Table, 4257 Nicollet Ave. S. “It’s not a way of eating you need money to do, you just need to think about where food comes from and, with a little bit of time, it will become part of your habit, the way you eat.”

Interested in creating a healthful eating habit the benefits from which outlast the swimsuit season? 

With minimal planning or time you can eat local foods and do so affordably. Below are some of the options.

Farmers’ markets

The Kingfield Farmers’ Market at West 43rd Street & Nicollet Avenue, like others around the Twin Cities, is a guaranteed one-stop shop for local food. All vendors must meet the criteria of growing/raising the food they sell within 100 miles of the market said Debra Bourne, the market coordinator.

On a recent trip to the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market, Pampuch checked out all the vendors’ produce before choosing the best-looking yellow beans.

“In my opinion, local trumps organic,” Pampuch explains, noting that local foods don’t require as much energy for transportation and storage. He pointed out how you can tell the booths that are local by the distinctive boxes — and if local is a goal, don’t buy from the vendors with grapes and Dole banana boxes.

Produce isn’t the only local fare at the markets. Chase Brook Natural, a farm out of Milaca, Minn., brings its pork, chicken, beef and lamb products to 15 markets throughout the week (look for them at St. Louis Park and the Kingfield markets). “Our animals are vegetarian, so you don’t have to be,” is the motto for the owners Jeff and Jill Marckel, who raise their animals on natural grain- and grass-based feeds that are free of antibiotics and/or growth hormones.

Even after the market closes shop for the season, you can still stay connected to some of your favorite vendors. The White Earth reservation has soups, wild rice and corn that can be kept as dry goods. Meats can be frozen, and don’t forget canning — think pickles and pasta sauce.

Restaurants

Don’t compromise your efforts to eat local just because you are dining out. From Crema Café to Corner Table, there are local chefs committed to bring quality local food to the table.

To choose a restaurant that serves local fare, start by checking the Slow Food Minnesota website (slowfoodmn.org). And when in doubt, ask the chef.

When you dine on local foods, savor every bite. Chef Patrick Weber, a local restaurant consultant and caterer, said that a chef may spend three hours a day going to the markets for food, and there is still a 12-hour work day ahead.

“To be conscientious takes time and effort. There are a lot more hurdles when
trying to do the right thing,” explained Weber. “From a logistics standpoint, it is easier to pick up the phone and order from large distributors.”

Restaurants that buy local products help feed the economy as well as their patrons. At Corner Table, about 80 percent of the meals are prepared from local ingredients — all year-round. For Pampuch, it is hard to comprehend that some people base their food choices on cost, yet complain about healthcare and prescription drug costs. “The problem is if you eat cheaply all your life, the effects on your health are going to show,” he said.

Along with the benefits to the economy and the reduced fossil fuel commitments of buying local, Weber points out when he started choosing local foods for his restaurants, the choice wasn’t about right or wrong — the food simply tastes better when it is fresher.

Groceries

The Twin Cities Natural Food Co-op’s Eat Local Challenge, which runs from Aug. 15 to Sept.15, encourages people to pledge to eat 80 percent of their foods from local sources, which they’ve defined as food grown or raised in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota or South Dakota. Jeanne Lasko, marketing and member services manager at Linden Hills Co-op, encourages shoppers to ask co-op staffers if they have any questions about the origin of the food.

“The real value [of the challenge] is getting people to think about what they choose to eat — and this benefits local companies.” said Lasko, who also mentioned that eating local is a way to reduce your carbon footprint. The co-ops have a long-standing commitment to providing shoppers with local foods. The produce is not only listed by price, but by where it was grown and what method (organic or conventional).

Locally owned Lunds stores offer the convenience of 24-hour shopping at many of its locations, and they also make an effort to stock local foods when in season. They typically work with larger vendors, however, since they want consistency throughout the 21 stores.

Community Supported Agriculture

Although it may be too late in the season to find a crop share to help fulfill your needs for the challenge, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is an option for winter. In fact, some Minnesota farms, like Rock Spring Farms, are equipped to produce tasty greens all year-round.

A crop share consists of fresh food delivered to a predetermined location each week — you prepay (usually the cost is equal to $20–$30 a week per share). Often, the box has produce and varietals that you may not find in the stores since the farmers can plant based on taste, not just shelf-life and transportability.

Chris Blanchard, who owns and operates Rock Spring Farm with his wife, Kim, said that in addition to increased variety, CSA customers generally get fresher produce than the stores can carry, and they don’t have to make time to go to a farmers’ market.

“CSAs are likened to farmers’ markets or grocers in that each grower has something specific they offer,” said Blanchard. He encourages buyers to look into what a farm’s strengths are before choosing their share.

Things to look for include: the cleanliness of the produce, the pounds of food you’ll receive and the variety of vegetables grown. Also, if you are apprehensive about what to do with the vegetables, it may be important to choose a farm that gives suggestions for preparation with each box. 

Another option for buying direct is visiting a farm. Check out The Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s guide to local producers called Minnesota Grown for ideas. It is available at www.mda.state.mn.us.

Home gardens

The advice Blanchard has for someone contemplating a home garden is: Go for it. There are only two things money can’t buy — true love and homegrown tomatoes. 

There are a couple of qualifiers for a successful garden, the first being sun and the second is knowledge of growing seasons, according to Clarence Falk, a retired Linden Hills resident and successful gardener (Falk’s harvest in 2006 was so abundant that he sent more than 100 pounds of cucumbers to the food shelf). 

“You have to understand that you can garden in early April right through fall,” he said. “You just need a little know-how.”

From home-grown vegetables, to locally focused menus, a little planning and know-how makes eating local a viable — and flavorful — option.

Contributing writer
Bridgett Erickson lives in Linden Hills.