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A Locavore's Fourth: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Really Fresh Produce

Locally grown food can be found at such places as Eastern Market, where Maria Calomiris operates one of the longest-running stands.
Locally grown food can be found at such places as Eastern Market, where Maria Calomiris operates one of the longest-running stands. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)

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By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Is eating locally produced food a civic duty?

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The folks at Kitchen Gardeners International might not call it a duty, exactly. But the group -- one of the organizations whose efforts led to the planting of a kitchen garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. this spring -- argues that buying and eating locally bolsters American communities and economies even as it makes for a more healthful diet, all of which might strengthen the nation as a whole.

Flush with that recent White House success, KGI decided to wage a new campaign: The group asked the governors of all 50 states to "declare their food independence" by planning Fourth of July menus featuring foods from local sources. Among those who have agreed, according to KGI founder Roger Doiron, is Maryland's Martin O'Malley, whose holiday meal will include Maryland crab cakes.

Well, it's a start. Doiron admits this campaign got underway late, and he has shifted his emphasis from the headline-seeking invitation to governors to the more pedestrian task of getting regular people to eat local on the Fourth. He's asking people sign on via a form he's circulating on Facebook and on the Food Independence Day Web site (http://www.foodindependenceday.org); by last week, several thousand supporters had come aboard.

Encouraging folks to become locavores, to use the cute current term, is nothing new; tastemakers such as Alice Waters and Michael Pollan have been nudging people in that direction for years. But the newly media-savvy KGI, along with colleagues from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, seized upon the holiday as a good time to promote their agenda. It's not that pick-your-own strawberries have a direct connection to the Founding Fathers or fireworks; it's more that early July, when farm production peaks, is a far better time than, say, Valentine's Day to push local produce. Plus, this year's Fourth happens to fall on a Saturday, when farmers markets are in high gear.

But there is an Independence Day connection. As Doiron writes on his Web site, choosing food grown close to home could help free the United States from its dependence on foreign producers. For example, he says, most of the garlic used in the United States is grown not on American soil but in China. Buying local garlic would encourage more farmers here to grow it and eventually might allow us to wean ourselves from garlic grown abroad. (And, I might add, reduce the risk that our garlic supply could be cut off, from which calamity I fear we would be hard-pressed to recover.)

International implications aside, there's much to be said about the health benefits of eating locally produced foods.

"Foods we grow ourselves or get locally tend to be unprocessed, whole and vibrant," says Doiron, who, with his wife and three sons, maintains chockablock fruit and vegetable gardens on a third-of-an-acre suburban lot. "They haven't gone through a lengthy adulteration process. They haven't made an epic journey from one side of the continent to the other."

Angie Tagtow, a food and society fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a partner in Doiron's campaign, points out that foods grown nearby are more likely to have been picked at the moment of peak nutrient value, whereas those from afar are commonly picked well before they're ripe so they'll withstand shipping.

"Between 70 percent and 80 percent of tomatoes harvested in the U.S. are picked green," she says. "They're bred not necessarily for flavor or nutrient value but for uniform shape or color and ship-ability."

Tagtow, a registered dietitian and environmental nutrition consultant, adds that many local farmers "provide organic matter back to the soil, to build up the humus and increase the nutrients delivered to the plant." She says high nutritional value and great taste go hand in hand. "I've always had the philosophy that if fresh foods taste great, people will eat more of them. And we can all use more fruits and vegetables." (Despite the focus on produce, the Fourth of July campaign encompasses meats, cheeses, fowl and fish -- anything grown or raised nearby.)

Doiron admits that eating more locally grown food poses challenges and requires planning, flexibility and a big freezer. "You have to think differently about how you plan and source meals," he says. "For a number of months, the garden tells us what's for dinner. We're aligning ourselves with the cycles of the seasons."

Right now, for instance, Doiron and family are dealing with an abundance of strawberries. "We're certainly having a lot of strawberry desserts," he says. But incorporating strawberries into other courses "challenges us as home cooks, makes us step out of our comfort zone."

When Maine's short growing season ends, Doiron turns to the freezer, where he stores surplus strawberries and other produce; if frozen when ripe, fruits and vegetables can be just as nutritious as when fresh. You might not want to use those frozen berries in pies, perhaps, but they make for great smoothies.

If an experienced gardener and cook such as Doiron finds himself challenged, the rest of us can be daunted by the prospect of incorporating lots of local food into our diets, particularly when we move from strawberries and lettuce to less-familiar fare. "It's all well and good to tell people to plant chard and kale," Doiron observes. "But if they don't know what to do with it, they won't be motivated to plant again." (His Kitchen Gardeners Web site offers ideas, as do The Post's Food section and blogs.)

As for the governors, Doiron remains optimistic. "We can't always control what our elected officials do, but we can show them the way," he says.

Check out Tuesday's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer whips up a simple vinaigrette dressing for those lovely local salad greens. Subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters." And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at checkup@washpost.com.


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