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LIVING LA VIDA LOCAVORE

A week of eating local introduces a new way of looking at life.

This story has already appeared in some regional editions of the Times.

California bell peppers. Peruvian asparagus. Snow peas from Guatemala.

Browse the produce section much? Not a lot of what you find comes from close to home. Refrigerated trucks deliver whatever we want from whoever has it so stores can quench our every craving.

But there's a kind of eater whose way of life lets them choose trips to farms over trips to the grocery store. They call themselves locavores.

Locavores mostly eat food grown and picked or raised and slaughtered within a 100-mile radius of their homes. Local food tastes better, locavores say, and eating it is better for the local economy, and for you.

The downside? When there aren't restaurants around to do it for you, you have to prepare food yourself. And you sometimes have to go without.

For a girl who grew up in a generation of convenience lovers, that would be way too hard, I thought. Plus, I don't cook much. Thanks to grocery stores and cafes, I've never had to. But the smorgasbord of out-of-state food I usually purchase left me wondering what life would be like as a locavore. What would I eat? Where would I buy it? Would the effort of cooking be worth it?

Earlier this month, I decided to spend seven days eating only locally produced food. Nothing but water, oil, vinegar or spices would meet my mouth unless it came from within 100 miles of my home in Spring Hill.

My first challenge? Find a local farm.

Part 1: Meat

Dee Blaha took me on a tour of her Masaryktown farm, 11 miles from my house. Blaha owns and runs the farm, Rabbits, Etc., with her husband, Mike.

We walked through her hydroponic garden, where earlier that day, she'd picked vegetables for my future salads. She also showed me where she raises the animals I would eat.

I could handle the chickens. Free-range and chemical-free, they're cooped in a pretty spacious enclosure. Also, they aren't cute, so I had no qualms about eating them. The cows were not all that cute either, thank goodness.

The pigs, who rolled willy-nilly in mud and stuck up their noses to snort in my direction, were adorable. Glad I'm not a big fan of pork.

But when we walked into the barn where the Blahas keep the bunnies, my impending experiment seemed like a mistake.

"Oh, not the rabbits," I said.

We stared at some 3,500 of them, mommies and daddies and babies who will eventually become dinner.

After the tour, we filled my cooler with what I'd chosen. A bagful of romaine lettuce, and bell and banana peppers, all picked that day. The biggest green onions I've ever seen. Two dozen eggs. Two chickens that had gotten the ax the week before. Four pounds of ground beef from a steer slaughtered in September. And one rabbit, dead about a week.

The fuller my cooler became, the worse reality hurt. Not only would I have to eat the animals I'd seen, I'd have to spend time cooking them.

Part 2: Hunger sets in

It turns out rabbit tastes like chicken, with a ginormous side of guilt. But I was hungry enough to ignore that, and still hungry enough after I ate to head to Publix to look for local snacks.

"I have a question," I said to the produce guy. "Can you tell me if anything you sell here was produced within a 100-mile radius?"

We walked the produce section, where he pointed out bell peppers from afar, oranges from out of state and orange juice from the East Coast. Too far. But he stopped in front of the tomatoes.

"These," he said, shaking a small carton of grape tomatoes, "are from Plant City."

Sold! To the really hungry girl who came up with this nutty idea. When I got home, I ate a bowlful with grapeseed oil.

Part 3: The going gets tough

By Day 2, I was left to fend for myself. And I was really hungry. So I consulted the guidelines on locavores.com and decided to apply them.

"If not local," the guidelines said, "then organic."

For the sake of staying as local as possible, I kept it simple. For snacks, I'd eat organic yogurt or apple sauce, local tomatoes, organic sunflower seeds. I picked up a block of organic Swiss cheese and a carton of organic rice milk.

For breakfast, I ate local eggs or leftover meat, sometimes with local peppers and sometimes with organic toast. Lunch for the first few days was rabbit and salad. I made burgers for dinner.

Becoming a locavore, I learned, meant that I'd need to spend more time planning my meals, care more about preparing food and care less about eating whatever I want whenever I want it - a huge change. I'm used to immediate access to ready-to-eat food from restaurants, I'm used to eating whatever my parents cook and I'm used to buying whatever sounds good regardless of where it's in season.

At first, forsaking that felt impossible. But some experts say there are good reasons to try.

Part 4: What's the point?

"If you want the region's economy to build, you have to spend money inside the region," said Bill Weida, president of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, retired regional economist and eater of food that comes mostly from near his home in Idaho. "If you're a locavore, that's a big help." Buying chain grocery store food sends money out, while buying from local farms like the Blahas' keeps it close to home, Weida said. He also said being able to see where your food comes from is better than blindly hoping you'd approve of how it's raised.

Jean-Pierre Emond, co-director of the Center for Food Distribution and Retailing at the University of Florida, confirmed some locavore hype for me, too.

It's simple, he said. Not every fruit or vegetable can be in season here at once. But when we buy food from afar so we can eat what isn't locally available, it may take weeks for the fruit or veggie to make it from the farm to your grocer. That, he said, could pose problems for freshness.

"Once you harvest your product, we cannot improve the quality," Emond said. "We can only try to slow down the loss of quality."

A veggie headed for Florida from California is cooled after it's harvested, and refrigerated in a truck that takes it to a distribution center, where it stops before it gets to your grocery store, Emond said. "Do we really need to have (whatever we want) 365 days a year?" Emond said. "It's a decision you have to make yourself."

Part 5: At week's end

Seven days in and 3 pounds lighter, I'd spent about $30 more on food for myself for a week than usual. But what I bought was enough to share with my family, and enough left over for a dinner party with friends.

I'd planned to cook for the party alone, but Sonia Kumar - whom I've known since high school - came to the rescue. She sliced and seasoned one of my local chickens with black and cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic, onion and salt. Friends Abby Dix, Erin Edwards and I sliced local veggies - picked at the Blahas' farm just a few hours earlier - for salad.

We had the sweetest local corn on the cob and canned mixed veggies, also from Rabbits, Etc. I used organic dressing for my salad and we snacked on organic chips, salsa and cookies. I baked a second chicken and saved it for family. Nobody left the house hungry.

The leftovers lasted a day, and when I ran out, I indulged immediately. I ate cheeses and chips and cold cuts and pretzels. I'd missed out on a family dinner during the week, so I took advantage of the off-limits leftovers. Mostly the pie. I quickly began to miss the simplicity of eating local food, and the grateful feeling that came with it.

I've never thanked God harder for tomatoes than when I scored local ones at Publix. But I also never noticed how much I took food for granted.

By the end of the week, I was happy to eat whatever I had, no longer yearning for things I didn't. Even in a culture of convenience, I found that spending time cooking can be completely worth it. And I also learned a little something about sometimes going without.

It's really not that bad.

Arleen Spenceley can be reached at aspencely@sptimes.com.

LOCAL MARKETS

A food sampler

Finding locally grown produce and protein in the Tampa Bay area is easier than you might think. Here are some top spots for local shopping.

Farms

Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm: 5416 W Linebaugh Ave., Tampa. Locally grown vegetables. (813) 293-3276, urbanoasisfarm.com.

Rabbits, Etc.: 16362 Wilson Blvd., Masaryktown. Dee and Mike Blaha sell rabbit, beef, chicken, pork, lamb, veggies and fruit. (352) 796-0459, rabbitsetc.us.

Markets

Fresh From the Boat Seafood: 55 Papaya St., Clearwater Beach. Fish market features a lot of locally caught fish. (727) 385-5662, freshfromtheboat.com.

Sweetwater Organic Farmer's Market: 6942 W Comanche Ave., Tampa. This market grows its own vegetables and offers a you-pick market. (813) 887-4066, sweetwater-organic.org.

Monday Market in the Park: 5010 81st Ave. N, Pinellas Park. Locally grown vegetables, citrus, avocados and honey. Open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Feb. 23.

Dunedin Green Market:Pioneer Park, Main Street and Douglas Avenue, Dunedin. Locally grown vegetables, citrus, avocados, honey, Florida strawberries and blueberries (coming in November), seafood. Open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays through the end of April.

St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market: First Street and First Avenue S (Progress Energy Park parking lot). Honey, black-eyed peas, cucumbers, mustard greens, mangoes, avocados, citrus and Florida strawberries and blueberries (coming later in the fall and winter). Open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Tuesday Morning Market: 2900 block of Beach Boulevard in Gulfport. Vegetables, citrus, avocados, honey, Florida strawberries in season. Open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Oldsmar Downtown Fresh Market: 100 State St. W, Oldsmar. Vegetables, citrus, honey, Florida strawberries and blueberries (coming in November), seafood. Open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays from November through April.

Ybor City Saturday Market: Centennial Park, Eighth Avenue and 19th Street, Ybor City. Ruskin tomatoes, salsa and local jellies, jams, orange juice, olive oil and herbs. Open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Tampa Downtown Market: Lykes Gaslight Square Park, 400 block of Franklin Street, Tampa. Goat's milk, eggs. tampadowntownmarket.com. Open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays.

Arleen Spenceley and Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Times staff writers

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