Eating local isn’t a challenge for me anymore. It wasn’t always that way though! Like all good things, it was a journey. My parents gardened and my Mom was a farmers market vendor before I came along, but I didn’t really take ownership of my food choices until I was a young adult in college at Arizona. I was studying anthropology at the time, and being naturally drawn to farming, I sought out an internship at an organic vegetable farm where I helped harvest and staff a weekday market in Phoenix. I thought perhaps tying food and agriculture back to anthropology was a bit of a stretch, and I was grateful that my on-farm internship passed as acceptable credit that I needed to graduate, but I soon realized it wasn’t a stretch at all. I was immediately seduced, not only by the edible flowers, sweet chioggia beets and heirloom varieties that reflected the uniqueness of the region and culture, but by the way the farmers market tied the community together.
As a young college student, away from home for the first time, that connection between the land, the food, and the people gave me a sense of place. Since that time, my commitment to buying local has only grown and become more steadfast. It didn’t happen overnight, and it took time to discover the many sources of local food here in central Illinois, but getting to know the farmers at my local farmers markets helped me to find convenient online ordering options, CSAs, and retailers that carry local products. Each year it became easier and easier to buy locally. I know that I benefit greatly from eating local so there is a lot of incentive for me. To me, the food tastes way better than something that came off a truck and traveled long distances to get to my plate. And the varieties! And the color! Purple potatoes, yellow carrots, juicy heirloom tomatoes, sweet peppers in every shape and size...
I started off bringing home a salad mix and some beets but I’ve grown to incorporate locally grown food into each meal. It’s taken time and of course, honing on my cooking skills, but eventually, it became second nature. The Saturday morning ritual of stocking up at the farmers market, and the Tuesday afternoon ritual of picking up my CSA box (CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, to learn about CSA’s, read more here) overflowing with my mid-week veggies have become part of my weekly schedule. I enjoy eggs and veggies for breakfast (yes, veggies for breakfast...Americans tend to have a sweet tooth for breakfast but that’s not common in other parts of the world), ripe local fruit and last night’s dinner leftovers or a handful of almonds (when I’m crunched for time) for lunch, and a dinner filled with a variety of in-season veggies and local meat. To make it more cost effective, I often buy in bulk, like buying half of a hog which I can get custom-processed so that I get the cuts I want while also saving money. When I need to save time, I try to get something in the crockpot so dinner is ready when I get home. (I LOVE to “set it and forget it”. Did you know you can cook a whole chicken in there? I still remember learning that eye-opening tip. It takes about 5-10 minutes to prep in the morning and voila! Dinner is ready when I get home from work).
Let’s be real though, it’s not always easy and cooking a lot creates a lot of dishes, which I for one, do not love doing. And it does take time but I’m not doing it on my own. I am extremely fortunate to have a partner who values eating local and feeding our family healthy food too. While I do most of the food shopping, my husband does more of the cooking. As an acupuncturist who practices integrative wellness, he knows that a healthy diet is one of the most important things that we can do to maintain our overall health, so in the end, we both think it’s worth it.
In recent years, I have realized more and more that I need to buy local not just for me and my family but to support local farmers and keep them on the land. Almost every year, we lose a farmers market vendor who just couldn’t keep the farm going due to the financial strains of competing in a global marketplace. Much of our food is produced outside the U.S. or right here at home by immigrant labor working in poor conditions with low wages which keeps costs down. Farming is hard work that is very risky and subject to the whims of weather with freezes, droughts, and flooding regularly impacting harvest and the narrow margin of profits. It’s important to me to do what I can both personally and professionally to support local farmers so that they can continue to grow fresh, healthy food in a sustainable manner for generations to come. One of the ways I do that is to put my money where my mouth is, which is why I am participating in this year’s Central Illinois Eat Local Challenge. For my family of four, $20 a week is spent in the blink of an eye, but I did want to track what I actually spend to see where I can improve.
Halfway through the challenge, here’s what I’ve spent:
9/3 - Old Capitol Farmers Market: $49 (mostly produce plus honey included apples, green beans, okra, butternut squash, cherry tomatoes, basil, potatoes and more)
9/6 - Weekly CSA Share from Small Axe Market Gardens: $22* (mustard greens, peppers, green onions, winter squash, sweet peppers and more)
9/15 - Local Flavors Dinner at Engrained: $44 (They had a fried chicken dinner featuring Ropp Farms chicken with local veggie sides. And okay, my Dad treated my family of 4, thanks Dad!, but the money still went into the pocket of local farmers and a local business).
*The best part of being a member of a CSA is that I paid my $22 upfront and now get to reap the benefits of my investment when I pick up my weekly share.
And here are just a few things we've made with our local food purchases:
Pink radishes, purple potatoes, red potatoes, red peppers, carrots, and green onion for roasting.
Sweet potatoes, white potatoes, blue potatoes, and squash for roasting.
Wild-caught salmon from Sitka Salmon, green beans, roasted vegetables, and roasted squash.
Grilled summer squash, zucchini, roasted tomatoes, and fresh basil
Pork with chimichurri, green beans, and mashed squash
Dutch baby pancake made with farm-fresh eggs, and later topped with fresh fruit!
If I’ve learned anything from the Challenge so far, it’s how easy it is to eat locally in September. The farmers market is overflowing with nearly every variety of vegetable I could want this type of year. While the early spring and late fall months sometimes have limited selections, September has the best of both warm and cool season crops. It’s not hard to choose fruit and veggies that the whole family loves.