May 23, 2007

Summer Fun Guide: Miles to go before we eat Food miles, that is

How many miles did your dinner travel from the field to your plate? This seemingly innocuous query may seem like a silly question. But the idea of “food miles” has become a hot topic — and a serious one — among the growing cadre of environmentally sensitive food lovers who spend time thinking about where our food comes from and its impact on the world.Food miles are an international concern — no surprise in a globalizing world where it’s no longer unusual to see beef from Australia, lamb from New Zealand, asparagus from Peru, and, of course, flavorless pink winter tomatoes from California in Louisville-area supermarkets.Simply put, food miles measure the distance that foodstuffs travel from field to plate. In Britain, where the issue first seemed to gain traction, the initial concern was environmental. As the British Broadcasting Company explains it, “travel adds substantially to the carbon dioxide emissions that are contributing to climate change — which is why food miles matter.”That may be. For the record, many of the same people who don’t believe global warming is an issue remain skeptical about food miles (and the buzz term, “carbon footprint,” for a product’s cost in fossil fuels). Moreover, the New Zealand sheep industry recently issued a study asserting that Kiwi lamb sold in England is (surprise!) more energy-efficient than British product, even after its 12,000-mile voyage is taken into account.But with recent increases in fuel prices dramatically hiking the toll to fill up your car — or your airliner — food miles make a difference in the price we pay for the privilege of enjoying strawberries in December. Once food miles start hitting us in the pocketbook, it’s likely that more people will begin paying attention.The concept of thinking globally, eating locally is hardly new, of course. Many of the world’s finest restaurants have long taken advantage of the freshness and quality of locally produced vegetables, meats, cheeses and other good things. The notion caught fire a generation ago, when Alice Waters of California’s Chez Panisse and other trendy Bay Area eateries gained national attention for the creative use of local and seasonal produce. A few leading Louisville restaurants, most notably Kathy Cary’s Lilly’s and, before long, the Seelbach Hotel’s Oakroom, earned early street cred with Ohio River Valley interpretations of the theme.(Speaking of Chez Panisse, “food miles” have put this culinary landmark back in the news again, with its recent decision to shed the food miles needed to import trendy Santa Lucia water from Tuscany, in favor of good old Berkeley tap water.)Nor need the socially conscious “foodie” dine at expensive restaurants to get in on the food miles excitement. Not with splendid local produce as close at hand as your neighborhood farmers’ market.These seasonal outdoor markets bring local farmers and consumers face to face. From the first salad greens of spring to the last pumpkin in autumn, this transaction eliminates the commercial middleman, making it possible for the farmer to sell at retail and enjoy full value for their crop, while the consumer enjoys a level of quality and value that’s not necessarily going to happen at Kroger.Wherever you live in the region, chances are you are no more than a few food miles from your nearest farmers’ market. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture lists nearly 120 registered markets statewide, including more than a dozen neighborhood markets in Metro Louisville. (You’ll find another eight or 10 in Southern Indiana). Markets range in size from the large, popular and always crowded Bardstown Road/Highlands Saturday farmers’ market to a brand-new market at Crescent Hill United Methodist Church, which attracted a single optimistic vendor, Michelle Ward, a handful of customers and a few curious dog-walkers and joggers on a sunny Saturday morning in late spring.One of Ward’s customers got right to the point: “Got some beets?” “Eventually, but today we’re just starting out,” said Ward, who provides some of the market’s organic produce and heirloom tomato plants from her garden in Clifton. “It’s going to grow.” Vegetable gardeners in Crescent Hill and Clifton are welcome to join in with their own excess zucchini and tomatoes as the season ripens, Ward said. Stop by and see her there any Saturday from 8-11 a.m. if you’d like to learn more.Her associate Axel Cooper carefully unpacked lettuce greens, asparagus and scallions from his family farm in Ramsey, Ind. “It’s all organic,” he said proudly. And, conscious of food miles, he added, “We’re just 35 miles away.”It’s not hard to get these farmers talking about food miles and related issues. Just ask a question and sit back. “If you shop at a grocery store, your food came 1,500 miles on average,” said Abby Miller, a St. Francis High School senior who’s enthusiastically embraced sustainable farming and dropped by the new market to see what was up.The scene was considerably more bustling at the Highlands farmers’ market, which sets up every Saturday from early spring to late autumn in the parking lot at Bardstown Road Presbyterian Church, 1722 Bardstown Road. A festival of fresh, locally produced vegetables, cheese, poultry, eggs and meat (much of it organic) along with garden plants, flowers, good things to eat and even strolling musicians, it’s as much a social event as a place to shop for food.Owing to Louisville’s location near the state line, this market features as many farmers from Southern Indiana as from Kentucky, although the Bluegrass is well represented, with several booths displaying the oval “Kentucky Proud” logo. The Kentucky Proud program, administered by the state Department of Agriculture, isn’t particularly complicated, flower seller Esmee McKee, with Hazelfield Farm of Wheatley, Ky., said with a laugh. “Every spring the county extension agent calls and reminds us to sign up” for permission to use the logo, which identifies Kentucky-grown agricultural products. “It’s all about buying locally and producing locally.”So, how about the Hoosier farmers in the next booth, who don’t enjoy a similar program to identify “Indiana Proud”? McKee didn’t have to think about that for long. “That’s OK,” she said. “It’s still local. As long as the produce isn’t coming from South America or someplace like that, it’s OK.”Indeed, Tammy Ford, a farmer from tiny Leopold, Ind. — a rural town with a Belgian heritage so enduring that villagers still take pride in memorializing the 19th century king of Belgium who colonized the Congo — has been selling at the Bardstown Road farmers market for 13 years and is now a member of its board of directors.Farmers’ markets benefit both the farmer and the consumer in multiple ways, Ford said. Farmers gain by having an eager market for their produce and being able to sell at retail without having to cough up a share for middleman, wholesaler or distributor; and this healthy market provides an economic incentive to wean farmers from the dying tobacco business. Rural communities — often lacking a commercial base other than farming — benefit from the cash that successful farmers put back into circulation and the employment that farms provide. Consumers benefit from access to high-quality seasonal produce that’s likely more fresh than anything they’ll see at the supermarket. And when we can cut down on “food miles” and the exhaust-belching trucks, trains and planes that are needed to transport food across the country and around the world, everybody wins. Contact the writer at rgarr@louisvillehotbytes.com