P&P Note: One of my favorite parts of a Plate & Pitchfork dinner has nothing to do with what is on the plates. After a glass of local wine or three it’s the far-flung conversations and debates that I get in to with my tablemates, who also always seem to end up being some of the most fascinating people I have met all summer (this could be the wine talking). In an effort to keep those conversations going all year round, we’re plucking some of the topics diners often chat—or even argue—about during dinner and will explore them in the Almanac.
Just think about the phrase “eat local” for a second. Those two little words are ubiquitous at this point, uttered by everyone from chefs and marketing executives to the First Lady of the United States, precocious kindergarteners and Occupy Portland demonstrators. But what, exactly, does that phrase mean to you? Only eating organic vegetables grown in the Pacific Northwest? Banning bananas from your kitchen? Pulling a Colin the Chicken at the bistro down the street from your house? And why is it important to make an effort to support the local food chain (aside from the fact that it gives people an excuse to throw fabulous dinners on farms). We asked three Portlanders who–by virtue of their jobs or passions–think about these things a fair bit, to give us their honest assessment of why and how we can eat local…and when we shouldn’t even bother.
As the executive director of Growing Gardens, Debra Lippoldt and her staff help Portland-area low income families to obtain the tools and skills they need to create their own vegetable gardens near their own doorsteps. “I think what’s important to me is how the [food producer] interacts with the local economy. If it’s a local food business that shares my values but that may not get everything locally I would choose to support them,” says Lippoldt, who has a background in health and nutrition. “Like Truitt Brothers, I’m sure not all the beans they sell are Oregon beans. That doesn’t matter so much to me, or that they are organic, but rather that I have the ability to ask questions and know more about the product. Do I have the opportunity to know what I’m eating?”
As might be expected from somebody with her job description, she sees as much social and health value in growing your own food as buying it: “When somebody is trying to grow food it creates a real social system. You’re outside. You’re getting more exercise, eating more fruits and vegetables… Seeing people in your neighborhood,” she explains, excitedly. “And then kids know where foods come from. They’re more willing to try something different if they had a hand in growing it.”
She says that when it comes to eating locally she does what she can on a “small scale.” “What I try to do is stay connected through my CSA membership and pay attention to the origin of food that I buy in the grocery store. When I have the chance to purchase from Washington and Oregon I will. I usually go to Food Front for a lot of fruit and vegetables because they seem to have more local producers for longer in the season,” she says. As for her own garden? Don’t expect her to be harvesting a feast from it right now. “The only thing that’s viable is kale,” she laughs.
In some ways, Ben Johnson considers farmers from Argentina to New Zealand his local team. As the founder of Portland’s Bridges Produce, the Kentucky native imports organic produce from across the globe, working with growers that “value and respect farm workers and are trying to do the right thing,” he says.
“Produce is something that everyone should be eating a lot more of (relative to animals), wherever it is from,” he says. “Each person weighs which factor matters most to them: Is it environmental? Is it health? Economic, social? People get very religious in their adherence to the piece they grasp on to.” He says the “fervor” around the “eat local” topic pretty much baffles him: “Certainly, there’s a lot of great reasons to eat locally. At the same time, I love avocados and I don’t think they are that bad to truck in relative to other things that are trucked in–be it Italian marble for your kitchen or gasoline from Saudi Arabia. I should feel worse getting on an airplane than eating an avocado.”
In some ways, he says the “eat local” movement is as much a triumph of marketing as it is sustainability. “It’s not all great,” he laughs. “I’ve bought apples at the farmers market and I’ve tasted them and been, ‘Ugh, those are terrible!’ But you got to meet the grower and talk about [their products] in an environment where it’s an event. “‘Eat local’ is a way for small producers and growers to have a niche and to open up an avenue for their products,” he says, admiringly. “For example, if you want to be an apple grower it’s very difficult to compete with giant apple packing companies or to try and get your products into Walmart and Safeway. So, they find other avenues like farmers markets and CSAs.”
He sees eating local as a way to preserve culture. “Being local forces seasonality and an appreciation for local color and flavor. That has been lost a bit with the commoditization of everything. The best oyster I ever ate was at a dock up in Samish Bay [in Washington]. It wasn’t because the oyster was so great but because I was part of the environment in a way that you wouldn’t get if you were in a restaurant,” he says. “We need to cherish and remember [our own regional foods] so we’re not all eating at the Olive Garden…which is the regional color of strip malls of America.”
Andrew Grasso, a 28-year old art and social sciences student at Portland State University, sees eating local as a serious experiment. To that end, last summer he created 100 Miles PDX, a food cart parked on Northeast Alberta Street devoted to sourcing 99 percent of its goods from local farmers. “Certain household staples, such as tea, coffee, rice, and sugar travel halfway across the world to make it way to your table. Why go through such a painstaking, environmentally taxing process, when we don’t have to?” he says. “Everything we need is in our own backyards.”
Well, not quite. “Black pepper, mustard, sugar, and vinegar we couldn’t find. We had to use honey for all sweetening and we made our own vinegar from apple cider,” he says. “No local apple cider vinegar! No clue why, cause there’s so much cider up in the Northwest. Oil was really tricky too. We eventually found some, camelina oil, a relative of canola.”
He says that, for the most part, he considers the cart a success even though it may not reopen (it’s closed for the winter while he travels abroad). “Just being able to show that it can be done was a big thing. Most of the food came from within 50 miles, but the grains for the bread traveled the most, coming from Eastern, Washington and Oregon,” he says. “I think we as Americans and Westerners are pretty damn spoiled and many of us self-centered, and would rather live in luxury and have what we want when we want it, than make sacrifices [to eat local] for other reasons, like the environment.”
That said, he’s not sticking to a strict 100 mile limit himself anytime soon. ”It’s surprisingly expensive to do. But I do feel that it would make traveling that much more exciting, if we couldn’t find so many of the same things all around the country or world.”
In the end, even Plate & Pitchfork co-founder Erika Polmar has had to find a balance between homegrown ethics and the hard realities of a grumbling stomach. “For 10 years Plate & Pitchfork been saying, ‘Know your farmer, know your food.’ And that certainly means that we’re asking you to eat products that are grown, caught and raised close to home,” she explains. “But…I won’t give up chocolate or bananas.”
In that case, please pass the kale, my friend. And the mangoes.