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'Slow food' perks interest in locally sourced ingredients

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 12, 2012 - Shaded by a straw hat and sunglasses against the post-drought vagaries of a bright, clear August day in St. Louis, Tali Light, 36, enjoys a particularly juicy watermelon among the tent stands in the parking lot of Schlafly Bottleworks.

“It’s really nice,” she said, savoring a spoonful of fruity red flesh straight from the rind. “It’s beautiful – better than what you’d find in the store.”

It’s also closer. Locally grown produce is the lifeblood of any farmers' market, including this one in Maplewood, and it draws a crowd. This recent Wednesday evening gathering is packed with enough buyers to force an enterprising journalist to park two blocks away.

Light may simply be on hand to enjoy a good watermelon but the popularity of such events is driven in part by an ongoing interest in so-called “slow food,” a movement dedicated to fairly traded, ecologically friendly, locally sourced products that stand in contrast to the processed, shipped foods, which presently define the agriculture industry.

Whatever one might call it, Light sees a trend toward a different style of cookery taking hold in her circle of friends. They like buying fresh and they like buying local.

“I think health and nutrition are becoming part of our cultural language,” Light said. “People think about it more and I think people are getting hip to cooking with vegetables and understanding all the stuff we got away from over the years because of all the fast food and convenience.”

Good, clean and fair

Someone can wander the booths at Schlafly without being a slow food devotee. But farmers' market patrons such as Light often share the same resistance to a fast food culture that gave life – and a name – to the movement in the first place. Founded in Italy in the 1980s, the culinary philosophy has grown to include 100,000 members in 1,300 local chapters, according to the Slow Food international website. The philosophy behind the organization is defined by the catchphrase “good, clean and fair,” which emphasizes that food should be fresh, ecologically sensitive and accessible at a reasonable price for both buyers and sellers. Those criteria point heavily to a keystone of the concept – locally grown produce.

St. Louis’ branch of the group has been in operation for more than a decade and now boasts about 150 paying members with hundreds of others indicating interest by following on Facebook or via email.

Kelly Childs, the group’s co-leader, set up for a film screening at an organizational get-together a few days before the Maplewood market.

“What we have focused most acutely on here in St. Louis has been consumer food education,” she said, “showing films, having farmer presentations, just creating low-cost or free events for people to connect with food production and learn more about these stories on how food is being produced.”

They’ve also gone further than that by giving out about $30,000 in microgrants to local sustainable farming operations. The group, which will hold its major Art of Food fundraising event Sept. 22, also lists various restaurants and groceries, the latter being mostly farmers' markets, where slow food practices are found. Those processes focus particularly on an avoidance of pesticides and chemical fertilizers as well as on preserving a wide array of different species. Childs said that with much of agriculture centered on a few high-producing, easy-to-transport varieties, the food system is put at risk of disease and drought.

“Biodiversity is a real protection for us,” she said. “The more diverse plants and animals we have, the more we can address climate challenges and drought challenges because we can rely on species that do well under those conditions. If we keep losing that biodiversity then we are going to lose that ability to do those things.”

But there are also less scientific reasons for people to be interested in the idea. Bob Henkel, 46, of West County, was looking forward to the evening’s presentation. He said he wants to take back ownership of food production.

“It’s also just the personal enjoyment of being a part of the process of creating the food,” said Henkel.

Clifton Heights resident Mary Jo Martin said she was attending the screening because she was concerned that children aren’t eating the right things in modern America.

Malnutrition isn’t just because you are starving,” she said. “Malnutrition is when you are not eating proper nutrition.”

Childs has another reason for favoring slow food however.

“It tastes really good and isn’t just on the grocery shelf because it can travel a really long distance and still be shiny,” she said.

Promise and problems of staying local

Localism is among the most well-known traits of slow food. And it brings its own set of unique logistical hurdles.

“It’s a small store,” said Patrick Horine, owner of Local Harvest, “but we probably process as many invoices as a large supermarket because we work with so many small vendors. Bookkeeping has always been a challenge.”

Climate is an even bigger one. Horine’s 1,800 square-foot grocery store on Morganford stays with seasonal produce since it attempts to keep things local. and Missouri has anything but a year-round growing season. Tomatoes aren’t even available in the winter.

“Since we try not to source any produce from outside the country … we are kind of at the mercy of the weather,” said Horine. “There have been droughts like this summer. Past years have included hail storms in the spring that have decimated tree fruit crops, and we’ve seen extensive rainfall take out tomato crops.”

Local crop failures can also swing prices rather quickly. For that matter, so can the month of the year. One may pay more than the big box grocery store some days and perhaps less on others.

“You can come in during the heart of the season in August, then the prices are going to be substantially lower than they are in May when the first greenhouse tomatoes are available,” he said. “At the supermarket, they are sourcing it from all over the world; they are getting it from wherever it is in season at the time.”

Still, Local Harvest has thrived. After opening on Morganford in 2007, the shop was expanded and opened a restaurant down the block. It has also given birth to a second café downtown; and in a few weeks it will open a new grocery in Kirkwood.

Horine, who said that at least half of his ingredients and products come from within 150 miles of St. Louis, said it’s all about the quality of the food. He said many people have become accustomed to foods bred more for transport than taste.

“Everybody thinks celery is a flavorless vegetable,” he said. “But it’s really not. It has a lot of flavor when it’s grown locally.”

There’s also a financial component.

“I think people like that not only are we sourcing things locally but it’s also a benefit for the local economy,” he said. “One of the statistics we have on our website is that about 85 cents of every dollar spent in our business stays within 150 miles of St. Louis.”

No ‘Lucille Ball machines’

Despite the challenges of buying close to home, establishments such as Local Harvest can still offer many products. Certain things, however, do have to come from out of town. Bananas and olive oil are two key examples. Some crops simply don’t grow in Missouri.

That's a fact Brian Pelletier, owner of Kakao Chocolate, a chocolate maker with locations in Maplewood and south St. Louis, knows very well. Neither cocoa nor sugar plantations are going concerns in the Midwest.

“Obviously, chocolate isn’t local,” he said.

But a lot of the other items he puts in his chocolates are produced here, from lavender to honey to beer. He also sticks to all-natural ingredients and attempts to purchase from distributors in the area when possible. Kakao is listed on Slow Food’s “Where to eat slow” page.

“One of the things that is important to us is that they have sustainable practices, that they are paying a fair price for the chocolate, for the beans they are buying from the farmers,” Pelletier said of suppliers. And he wants to know “that they are working with the farmers to see that they are using sustainable practices in growing those.”

Sometimes the ingredients cost more but Pelletier said the quality is worth it.

“One of the main things for me is just enjoying your food and taking the time to do it. That’s not something you can do when you are on the run. It’s not something you can do when you are buying something that’s been pre-processed and thrown in a microwave. It’s taking the time to make it yourself, taking the time to source the ingredients.”

Plus, there is the bonding with the food itself. Pelletier jokes that there are no “Lucille Ball machines” at his shop, a reference to the comedienne’s famous run in with an out-of-control chocolate processor.

“Our customers can come into the shop and see us making it,” he said. “We do everything by hand, and they can talk to the people that are making it … while they are dipping the truffles or mixing the caramel and find out more about how it’s made. You can connect with the food more than you can when you are going through a drive-thru.”

Grocers and growers

Marcia Whelan, marketing and community relations specialist at Whole Foods, said her store doesn’t have a specific percentage of local produce but does its best to offer a selection of items from the area.

“We’ve got a process in place that is pretty well standardized so when we are approached by interested small companies that want to source their products at our store, we have the ability to walk them through it,” she said.

That’s important for both parties since small growers don’t always immediately understand the demands involved in dealing with a chain store. Otherwise, customers may not know from week to week what’s going to be on the shelves.

“We want to make sure they are producing enough so once we offer something, we don’t have periods when they are in-stock or out-of-stock,” she said. “We have to make sure they are at a point in their business where they are going to consistently support us with product.”

But smaller retailers or niche chains aren’t the only ones in the game. Sometimes even the bigger outlets play a role. Steve Duello, manager of produce operations at Dierbergs said his company has been working with smaller growers since the 1970s and has developed long-term relationships with them to stock local products.

“That really is the key to having locally grown produce, especially when you are a larger retailer,” he said. “It sounds so easy to do yet it is so difficult because with the local growers in Missouri and Illinois, you can run into some obstacles.”

For one thing, producers used to roadside stands may not appreciate the needs of a large retail chain that needs fruits and vegetables boxed, sorted and graded. Still, Duello said Dierbergs stocks as many as 35 local products a season. And during the peak picking period, which runs from early July through August, as much as a fifth to a quarter of produce in the store’s 24 locations is locally grown. Often, it’s given a special part of the lobby area near the front.

He said customers seem to appreciate the gesture.

“Locally grown produce is one thing that’s on their mind,” he said. “They ask when it’s going to be there.”