April McGreger's "kilt" lettuce salad offers a taste of North Carolina's past and future.
Made with lettuce and red spring onions grown by Joanne and Brian Gallagher, two of the Triangle's newest farmers, and a recipe passed down from her Appalachian great-grandparents, it is a warm salad wilted by spicy vinegar-seasoned dressing.
McGreger paired up with the Gallaghers in May to offer her salad as part of the Triangle's first "Farm to Fork" picnic saluting Piedmont food and farmers. Held in a pasture and hosted by Slow Food Triangle, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) and SEEDS, the event attracted 400 people and kicked off "Eat Local Triangle," a month-long celebration of local food and farms. It also honored Slow Food Founder Carlo Petrini, who traveled here to promote his book, Slow Food Nation.
This visit to the Triangle was not Petrini's first. He was here in 1998 and even then, the local food scene was percolating. Carrboro's farmers' market was thriving, Magnolia Grill's use of fresh ingredients was attracting national attention, and the local Slow Food chapter—one of only three in the country—was sponsoring heirloom apple tastings and bread baking workshops.
Today our region boasts more than 10 farmers' markets and a cadre of talented chefs who feature local ingredients. Speaking through a translator, Petrini said, "It seems people really are mobilizing here, and there is a good relationship between farmers, cooks and the public ... I'm impressed with the number of people interested in local food ... this penetration, it's something I don't yet see in other parts of the country."
Farmers describe the local movement as powerful, but marginal. With three different microclimates and a varied terrain, North Carolina can support a year-round growing season for fresh local produce, but we continue to import most of our food from California and beyond. Growers and consumers alike wonder what it will take to build a locally sustainable food system.
Petrini's response is that we can take control of our food supply, as long as we support our local farmers and learn more about how our food is produced, so we can strengthen the local networks of men and women who bring it to us.
A native of Bra, Italy, Petrini founded the Slow Food movement in 1986 after protesting Rome's first McDonald's. The organization works worldwide through local chapters called convivia to preserve food traditions and promote high quality food, environmentally sustainable farming and related social justice issues. The local chapter—now one of 160 in the United States—focuses on offering events that encourage adults and children to enjoy the taste of food grown locally, seasonally and sustainably.
For chef Andrea Reusing of Chapel Hill's Lantern, taste is her "ace in the hole" when it comes to promoting local food. "When you eat a perfectly ripe peach in all its juicy goodness, you can taste why eating fresh local food is worthwhile," she says.
Reusing began leading Slow Food Triangle in early 2006, and she was instrumental in planning the Farm to Fork picnic. For "Eat Local Triangle," she has convinced more than 70 Triangle restaurants to offer at least one dish made completely from local ingredients for the entire month of June.
"Not all cooks know the local growers. I'm trying to create stronger relationships between chefs and farmers," she says.
When asked how North Carolina should focus its efforts to strengthen our local food system, Petrini encouraged us to make use of North Carolina's resources and bring in young farmers.
"In order to support these farmers, we need to move forward with more education," he says. "We need to reach kids in schools and let them know what fresh, local produce tastes like; we need to support farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture [called CSAs], which will help create a new economy.
"And we also need to grapple with political challenges, such as the loss of small, regional slaughterhouses, bakeries, breweries and other types of food processing, which are ways of adding value to local food. Legislation is often created for large-scale industry, so we must create legislation that is more supportive of this local process."
CEFS Executive Director Nancy Creamer agrees we have challenges ahead. She too calls for more farmers, as well as technical and scientific data to address production problems, an infrastructure to support organic food systems, and consumers who will drive the shift to a sustainable food system.
Her organization will play a key role in helping North Carolina address these issues, and she is optimistic about our success.
Founded in 1994 after local nonprofits called on universities to help the state move toward a more locally sustainable food system, CEFS is the largest, most comprehensive agriculture research station of its kind in the country. The organization is a partnership between N.C. State University, N.C. A&T University and the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
Their 2,000-acre facility in Goldsboro is dedicated to research in six areas of sustainable agriculture, including organics, dairy farming and grass-fed beef. They partner with Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, the Rural Advancement Foundation International and other nonprofits to offer student internships, a farmer apprenticeship program and outreach to consumers. And many of their initiatives, like N.C. Choices, support direct marketing by local, independent farmers.
Chapel Hill Creamery's Portia McKnight calls CEFS a superb resource, one that is often underutilized. She and partner Flo Hawley used the grass-fed dairy operation as a model when they started the creamery, and she still relies on their research, which covers everything from grass variety to organic fly control.
"They've been incredibly helpful," she says, "and we're lucky to have them here."
After 10 years of focusing largely on technical assistance for farmers, CEFS' staff plans to increase its consumer outreach and education. "We realize in our work with farmers that the consumer is a big part of the solution," Creamer says. To mark this new emphasis, they invited Petrini to deliver the Inaugural CEFS Sustainable Agriculture Lecture on May 23. More than 800 farmers, chefs and consumers attended his presentation.
Petrini told the crowd that the choices we make about how we eat will ultimately determine the ecosystem we live in. "We're losing farmers ... and we won't survive [by] eating computers," he added.
His book, Slow Food Nation, asserts that our food should taste good; that it should be produced in a way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health; and that food producers should receive fair compensation for their work.
Part of his plan for creating this system is to educate consumers to become co-producers, people who value high-quality food, purchase food from shorter food chains, and realize that the true problem, in both Europe and the United States, is that food costs too little.
"If you pay too little for food, you won't support new economy, you won't encourage young people to stay in the country and farm, and you won't be able to save the environment," Petrini says.
CEFS' Creamer agrees with this message, but finds it hard to deliver. "You worry about scaring people off," she says. "But the real point is that consumers in North Carolina have the power to influence a lot of things—protect the environment, conserve energy, enhance rural development and improve health—all with their food choices."
So this summer, become a co-producer. Heed Petrini's call to pay more for good ham than fancy underwear. Stroll through a farmers' market, buy some cherry tomatoes and eat them straight out of the bag. Then buy some more. Take the kids on Carolina Farm Stewardship's Mountain Farm & Garden Tour, and visit the restaurants participating in "Eat Local Triangle" (a list is at www.eatlocaltriangle.org).
We have a ways to go toward building a locally sustainable food system, but when it comes to local taste, we've got a lot to celebrate. As Petrini says, "Here, we are on the right path. The road is long—but we are on the right path."