Locavores track where their food comes from

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A really hungry person eating her way from Raymond and University up to Como and Doswell could get very full, entirely on locally produced food. 

And that’s what St. Anthony Park customers have long been begging for, according to Speedy Market manager Tom Speigl. “In this neighborhood I’ve been hearing about it for years,” he said.

A preference for organic foods has, for some consumers, given way to a preference for local food, whether it’s organic or not. Some do it in the interest of shortening shipping distances and thus reducing the amount of planet-warming carbon dioxide pumped into the air for each calorie consumed.

Many other benefits are cited, though. Food quality, relationships with farmers, and conservation of land and water also motivate people to cut down on exotic imports.

Lois Braun, a University of Minnesota researcher who is developing hazelnuts as a new local crop, said that while she’s concerned about personal health, the sustainability of farms and natural resources takes priority.

“I’m much more motivated by environmental health,” Braun said. She doesn’t just want locally grown food; she’s also concerned about a single crop (corn) taking up too much land, and the mismanagement of land that would be more appropriate for grazing or other uses.

Her studies have led to a particularly nuanced preference: She likes her dairy products not only local but from cattle that are rotationally grazed, spending a short period in one field, then moving to another, allowing land to recover from their impact. She finds them by getting to know her producers.

“I would rather drink milk from rotationally grazed cows than organic, although most of them are organic,” Braun said.

Entomologist Margot Monson said it was field work in rural Minnesota years ago that got her started buying local products. She visited struggling farmers and “became intrigued with how some of them were living.”

Interest turned into respect, then a desire to support a way of life that kept the land healthy. “It’s an evolution,” she said.

Many of the small farms that Monson, Braun and nearby businesses patronize are also using organic methods. Getting certified as an organic operation is expensive, Monson said, so she develops relationships with growers and trusts that they’re doing their best.

“If I have a choice between two items, I’ll buy the one that’s more local,” Braun said.

Both “locavores” (folks who try to get their food from local sources) point to Hampden Park Co-op as an important source. “I just feel so lucky that I’ve got that so close by,” Monson said.

Not only does the market carry many local products but members reinforce each other’s commitment to the movement.

“I read a lot of books for inspiration through the co-op book clubs,” Hampden board member Roseanne Rivers wrote in an e-mail. She said her locavore efforts have included keeping chickens and taking up hunting and fishing.

Jay Randolph, who managed Jay’s Café on Raymond for five years before recently selling the business (but not the property), said it has become much easier during his tenure there to buy local produce at competitive prices.

“The ease of getting food right from the local farmer is unprecedented in my 30 years in the food business,” Randolph said.

He, too, mentioned Hampden Co-op and admitted he scoped their aisles for business reasons. “They’ve become a mirror of what the neighborhood is willing to pay” for produce grown locally, he said.

New owner Tony Panelli said he’ll keep Jay’s Café going through the winter, continuing to feature locally produced foods as he can. In spring, he plans to convert the restaurant to a Caribbean theme, and as much as he admires local sourcing, there aren’t many coconuts or mangoes to be had here, in any season.

Signs that appeared recently above the counters of the Finnish Bistro reflect the twin priorities of local and organic. Owner Soile Anderson said she tries to stick to both in summer, when her soups consist entirely of locally grown products.

Year-round, she said, “we do lots of organic baking. Flaxseed, wheat berries – that’s easy.”

She said customers do ask about local sources, but she uses them mainly to support farmers. “I’m happy to pay a little bit extra,” she said. “It’s nice to do.”

Chef Jason Schellin at Muffuletta Restaurant said local farmers help him out by storing some vegetables well into the winter. He gets greenhouse tomatoes grown in Minnesota, as well as meat, cheese and apples.

“In my mind, the quality is far superior,” he said. Advantages include “visual quality” as well as better taste, and the ability to offer something that no other restaurant has.

“I can say in spring I might want some weird tomato,” Schellin said, “and they’ll grow it for me.”

While winter is the biggest obstacle to eating locally, problems of distribution still limit the availability of local produce.

Tom Speigl said Speedy Market doesn’t buy large enough quantities to make it worth the trip for some farmers, or they can’t take the time to help him unload. “Every year I try to get pumpkins from somebody local,” he said. “They want to dump the pumpkins and run.”

He said restaurants can sell at higher prices, and larger grocery stores can buy larger quantities. So he mainly resorts to distributors, which may or may not use nearby sources. And for a few items he has established specific connections. “The apples have all been pretty local,” he said.

Speigl said a few years ago he tried carrying brown eggs from a farm co-op that distributes Minnesota-grown food in the Twin Cities, but the supply wasn’t steady enough. “I need brown eggs all the time,” he said.

In spite of the frustrations, Speigl remains interested in local sourcing, and he knows that’s something many customers want. “We’re always looking,” he said. “I never turn somebody away, and I’m always glad to talk to people.”

Shopping and choosing restaurants is only part of the locavore playbook. Gardening, preserving and meal planning also figure in their strategies, as do direct relationships with farmers such as CSAs (community-supported agriculture).

Margot Monson, a St. Anthony Park resident, said she maintains three gardens and has become more vegetarian over the years. She buys grain and other foods from Whole Farm Co-op and supplements that with shopping trips to farmers markets and Hampden Park Co-op.

She said she’s been scolded by friends for using a car for those shopping trips, but she can’t carry her food home any other way.

Monson takes her locavore passion beyond her own kitchen. Several years ago, at the suggestion of a farmer, she helped organize a locally sourced meal at Grace University Lutheran Church. It was a hit and has become a monthly habit, with many members sharing the work.

And during the recent apple season, she came up with a creative way of getting locally grown apples into the hands of neighborhood kids. The school district’s lunch distribution network proved too large for her to handle, but she was told St. Anthony Park Elementary’s snack time would be an option.

So one day last fall, children in kindergarten through third grade received apples at snack time, courtesy of Monson and SAPSA, the school’s parent group. She said she and her husband spent about $80, with SAPSA picking up the other half. The Monsons also donated apples to the school’s fall festival to be sold as a fundraiser.

St. Paul Schools do use some local produce. The lunch menus for December noted that some vegetables on the salad bar “will be locally sourced while the season lasts.”

Lois Braun praises the soil quality at the St. Anthony Park Community Gardens. “The place where annual crops belong is where the soil is rich,” she said. And because she’s an apartment dweller, she’s had to get creative about home gardening and storage options.

Braun said she’s established a “guerilla garden” on railroad and school property near her building.

Not having a basement reduces cool-storage options, but she does have a chest freezer. “I do sometimes fret about the energy cost of it,” she said.

Braun said rice used to be a staple in her winter diet, but she has largely replaced it with homegrown winter squash.

Raised in the tropics, she does crave the occasional mango, and life wouldn’t be the same without bananas, she said. “And never give up chocolate,” she added.