Trendy’s not usually my thing. For more than 30 years, I’ve worn the same outfit of thrift store overalls colored with Rit Dye. My hairstyle has been pretty much the same since eighth grade; when it gets so long it hangs in the toilet, I whack off a few inches. So to find myself part of the hottest new food trend is unsettling. I’m a locavore, the New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 word of the year. Furthermore, since I was chomping local long before it was cool, you might say I’m a trendsetter. This is heady stuff for a person who has marched out of step and in the wrong direction most of her life.
For example, there was a year in the ’80s when we lived on a tiny hammock in the Everglades. Hunters stopped by our primitive camp site where we weighed carcasses, pulled jawbones from deer and measured antlers for wildlife biologists. The nearest supermarkets were a world away on the outskirts of Miami, but that doesn’t mean we went hungry. We feasted on local tomatoes, green beans, avocados, citrus fruit, game and fish.
The fish were hand-sized sun perch caught by our son Brint. Several times a week we’d roast a batch of them in a long-handled basket over the campfire. No plates required, we just nibbled them off the tiny skeletons. One night we were late starting supper and had to roast them after dark. Not only did they get too brown — charcoal comes to mind — but by the time we finished eating we were smeared with essence of fish from slapping at mosquitoes with our greasy hands. It seemed like a good night for a bath.
Most evenings we washed quickly at the artesian well that bubbled up in our yard. To take a real bath with hot water involved hauling a battery to the park ranger’s cabin for charging. While waiting for the battery, we carried buckets of water from the well to a propane water heater. By the time the 12-volt pump chugged the heated water to our bath tub, we were giddy with anticipation.
Bath night also meant we could use the freshly charged battery to watch our little black and white 12-volt television. By 10 o’clock all three of us were scrubbed, dressed in clean t-shirts and perched on the end of the fold-out bed, waiting to connect with the outside world. The screen flickered on, and the first thing we saw was a pitch for paint-on goo that would make microwaved meat turn brown.
There was total silence as we looked at each other, puzzled at first, then gradually realizing we were not watching a comedy sketch but a real commercial. We had tapped into a parallel universe at just the right moment to make an uproarious memory. The story would be told at family gatherings for the rest of our lives.
That night the joke was on us for being so out of touch. Not wanting to spoil the gaiety of the moment, I didn’t mention the sadness I felt that there could be a market for such a product.
Two decades since that night, the pendulum has slowly swung back toward more Americans demanding real food grown close to home. The grassroots movement has been helped along recently by books like Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore's Dilemma.
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE), where I work in the Southern Region, has funded more than 700 projects supporting local food systems. To read about them, type “local food systems” into the project database. Here are a few ways researchers, farmers and community activists are using those funds:
* The Save Our Seed project used a SARE grant to educate farmers in producing organically grown seed suited to their microclimates. They use the seeds on their own farms or to sell to other organic farmers. The website has seed production guides and other hard-to-find information.
* Another SARE project helped establish the web resource Florida Farmlink to help farmers and consumers find each other. The site also has listings of land and equipment for sale, educational events and jobs related to food and farming.
* Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project used SARE funds to track the availability and demand for local food in western North Carolina and then went on to promote ways to get farmers and consumers together. Their farm-to-school project Growing Minds creates relationships between kids and food by taking them to farms and into kitchens to help prepare their own healthy meals. (See photos in the Image Gallery.)
I don’t know what the word of the year will be for 2008, but for those of us who know the satisfaction of eating food grown within hollering distance of our kitchens, locavore is good enough to live by for another year.
As part of the Growing Minds farm-to-school program near Asheville, N.C., 3rd grade students from Brush Creek Elementary help prune celariac at R-Farm in Madison County.
Third grade students from Brush Creek Elementary shell corn for grinding at Palmer Ford Organics.