Use your fork to get good food

On a recent trip to Vermont, I had the opportunity to hear Michael Pollan speak. Pollan is the author of “The Omnivore's Dilemma” and, most recently, “In Defense of Food; An Eater's Manifesto”.

He spoke about the crossroads we find ourselves at today in the United States. On the one hand, there's mass-market, engineered food that can provide any nutrients we want. Think whole-grain, chocolate-flavored cereal “straws” and yogurt with fish-derived Omega 3's. On the other, there's the burgeoning local food movement looking to return meals to a shared cultural experience that supports local economies.

Local food, Pollan argues, tastes better and is better for you. Much of our grocery store produce has been bred to look pretty and keep “fresh” over the long journey from California, Chile, or New Zealand. Quirky varieties that taste good, but travel poorly or grow slowly, are not represented in the grocery store. Vermont is a hot spot for the local food movement. In fact, Pollan told the packed audience they were 30 years ahead of the rest of the country. Here's why.

A fresh network

All over the state, there are small farms and markets. One innkeeper told me, “you can buy a share of anything in Vermont – pigs, cheese, vegetable harvests.” The small producers have customers to keep them in business and a shared base of knowledge from which to draw. In Burlington, just over twenty years ago the town dump began the transformation to farm land. The Intervale, as it is called, is now home to more than a dozen small farms and community gardens. Some provide food and training to low-income families and youth. The Intervale farms aim to provide their county with 10 percent of its produce while recycling 10 percent of its waste as compost.

Vermont also has an innovative farm-to-restaurant partnership called the Vermont Fresh Network. Restaurant members display distinctive green and white signs and source produce, cheese, meat and other products from Vermont producers.

Because of this statewide demand, Vermont boasts several coffee roasters, a gourmet chocolatier, berry farms, orchards, cheese makers, breweries and on and on. This phenomenon has not been reserved for the wealthy few. Local produce has made its way into school lunches and inexpensive shares of weekly farm harvests are available even in small villages. All these working farms not only provide a profitable way of life for farmers and producers, but also serve to protect Vermont's bucolic vistas and green space.

‘Slow' moves fast

So what about Charlotte? We are fortunate to have a small, but enthusiastic, local food scene. Slow Food Charlotte has been an early and vocal proponent. Excellent farmers' markets such as the Tailgate at South End and Matthews Community Farmers' Market offer locally grown and produced items exclusively. Ratcliffe on the Green offers “farm to fork” menus from sustainably produced local sources. They change their menu often to feature foods that are at the peak of seasonal flavor. And if you look, you can find your very own local farmers, working hard to feed you and your family.

A recent visit to Grateful Growers farm reminded me of the barnyard picture books I read to my children when they were young. Their pigs are the worlds' happiest, eating acorns and frolicking in the pastures. Natalie Veres, one of the Grateful Growers farmers, said, “We were tired of food we were afraid to eat, so we decided to do it ourselves.”

Get involved

This year, my family has a CSA farm share from New Town Farms in Waxhaw. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The farmer sells a subscription of vegetables to be delivered weekly throughout the harvest (usually May to October). That way he's guaranteed to be paid for his work and we're guaranteed fresh, delicious produce. The rainbow of vegetables we've received is a long way from iceberg lettuce and pale tomatoes.

Michael Pollan noted that, “There can be no healthy people without a healthy diet and there can be no healthy diet without healthy agriculture.” Visit a farmers' market and ask where the food comes from and how it's grown. Ask your favorite restaurant to feature local food. Find out if the cafeteria at your children's school can purchase local products. And try your hand at growing some of your own food. It could be as small as a tomato plant in a pot. But you'll know exactly where those tomatoes came from and how they were grown.