Food fights

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Food fights

This summer, take a break from the drive-through and get out to the county to see tractors roving the land or a few bent backs—people picking vegetables from the infamously stubborn red soil. Stop by a farm stand for some ears of sweet corn to douse in butter and chomp on the back deck as the fireflies come out in the evening. Try to navigate Water Street on a Saturday and bump into City Market shoppers with bushels of local veggies: beets with long, leafy stems, slender zucchini and bendy, yellow squash.

Yep, summertime in the ‘ville can be a wake-up call to the vegetable-ignorers. Even the most food-oblivious can’t help but notice there’s a cornucopia all around us.

But, lest we get carried away with good taste, remember that food comes with a philosophy. For in this area, where we care so much about everything else, why not care about what goes into our mouths?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what gets put in mine. That tends to happen when one is researching a story about the local food movement.


Kathryn Russell and seven of her children and grandchildren on Majesty Farm in Albemarle County. As small producers, the family finds itself at the forefront of a battle against regulations some say are tailored to big agri-business.

But, from a mere eater’s perspective, I’ll be honest: While my diet is a slight step up from the pizza and ramen noodles of college days, I am still your average grocery store shopper.
Many of the things I eat come in crinkly packaging. The phrase “just add water” can be found in my pantry. I pass over organic yogurt and eggs for the cheaper stuff, and who knows where my produce comes from? Most of it goes bad in the fridge.

There are people who would say this is no way to live.

Since the organic food movement started in the 1970s, it is understood that the produce in the supermarket gets sprayed with all kinds of chemicals and pesticides that are unhealthy and polluting. Organic produce, grown using time-tested methods of crop rotation and old-fashioned bug repellents like plain soap, was found to be more nourishing and ecologically responsible.

But, popularity has ruined organic’s virtue. Organic farms have swelled to thousands of acres and, with United States Department of Agriculture “Certified Organic” seals, now ship their products en masse to grocery stores. Sure, the food is still pesticide-free, but, proponents of the local food movement now argue, they aren’t any less commercial. Today, organic food commonly comes with fancy labels and plastic packaging, and shows up in your average grocery stores and even heretofore nutritional black holes like Wal-Mart and Target.

With the spirit of organic eating thus violated, those seeking a healthy, environmentally friendly way to eat had a new quest: to find a diet that was not only naturally grown, but also had low “food miles,” meaning the ingredients hadn’t traveled very far from field to plate. Positive impacts of a local food diet include reduced use of fossil fuels. Eating locally also bolsters small farms, creates connectivity and sustainability in communities, avoids supporting bureaucratic farm subsidies, averts large-scale agri-business and does all sorts of other things you didn’t know had to do with the apple you just bought.

Seem confusing? Don’t worry—Charlottesville is a great place for beginners to whet their buds in local food. We’ve got nearly a dozen CSAs—which stands for community supported agriculture—in which you can buy a share and even help work a farm to get your weekly vegetables. Piedmont Environmental Council recently published and mass-mailed their Buy Fresh, Buy Local guide, directing you to many nearby producers so you can stop by to get your produce.

If straight from the farm isn’t your thing, we’ve got natural food stores and markets specializing in local goods, not to mention restaurants—though they can be pricey—that feature local ingredients.

Academics at UVA are even working on our local “food shed,” encouraging us to figure out how to get more local food into our kitchens, and even into the diets of public school kids.

Nearby, we’ve got big-name activists like Joel Salatin, seller of organic meats and outspoken author of books on independent farming. The Charlottesville area is even center to VICFA, the Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, a small but vocal lobby that’s bringing farmers’ issues to the table in Washington.

So, with all the local resources, a worthy seeker should have a solution to the “what should I be eating?” dilemma in no time. But, hold on to your fork, because, as I found, once you get into local food, it’s easy to end up with a lot on your plate.

The best darn peas I’ve ever tasted

If you’ve got the cash, eating local can seem deliciously simple. On a gorgeous summer evening, I’m with a dining companion at L’Etoile Restaurant on W. Main Street. The small, upscale restaurant is just one of many Charlottesville eateries where one can find local ingredients, selected mainly because they are fresher and more flavorful than commercial produce. L’Etoile specializes in Virginia cuisine prepared with French techniques.

We ask our waiter to point us to the dishes with the most local ingredients. Though none of the menu’s meats this evening are from local sources, our server informs us that all of the restaurant’s vegetables come from area farms.

Tim Beatley, professor of sustainable communities in UVA’s department of urban and environmental planning, is one of the academics on board with the local food movement. He thinks food systems should be considered “essential infrastructure."

For starters, it’s a salad of arugula with strawberries, chevre and pecans. The arugula tastes so green it’s almost minty, with the distinct taste of earth. The chevre is delicate and snow-white, a smooth balance to the tart, early strawberries.

The soup is made with local heirloom tomatoes, pureed with celery, onions and carrots with a touch of cream. It’s not quite tomato season yet, our waiter tells us, so the tomatoes were ripened in a hothouse. “They’re good,” he says. “Not as good as they will be later.”

For an entrée, the halibut comes highly recommended, but only because it showcases the local English peas. The perfectly cooked slab of fish is served atop shiny globules that are large and flamboyantly green. When I bite down on them, they resist, before their delicate shells burst and release a flavor that tastes buttery and like a garden all at once. They are truly the best darn peas I’ve ever tasted.

By the time we reach dessert—a pie of local strawberries and rhubarb with vanilla gelato from nearby Splendora’s—my dining companion and I are virtually aflutter, not only with the superior flavors and thoughts of “we should eat like this more often!” but also with the distinct feel-good sensation that came with contemplating all those entrepreneurial, dirt-under-the-nails farmers we were helping to support.

Most chefs who cook with local ingredients do so for the taste value, but also for the feel-good factor.

Mark Gresge, chef at L’Etoile, says using local ingredients is about “being neighborly.”

It’s more expensive to use local produce, Gresge acknowledges, “but we’re willing to pay that.” For a dollar or two more per pound, the cost, he says, is “minimal for what you get.”

(The fact that buying produce from a farmer down the road is actually more expensive than vegetables that have been shipped from foreign countries is a strange paradox, and one of the objections local food advocates have with the industrial food system.)

Though my evening at L’Etoile was local food paradise, there are other outlets to be explored. When you step away from the linen tablecloth, however, the local food movement can be less like a polite dinner party, and more like a food fight.

The antidote to industrial everything

Round, plastic tables with metal, fold-out legs crowd the slick tile floor of Western Albemarle High School’s cafeteria. Children run in circles around the tables, dodging molded plastic chairs and distracted parents. Two long tables are set up with rows upon rows of casserole dishes, pots and bowls full of salads, stews and other homemade-looking dishes.

A line of people—moms with babies curled in swaths of fabric tied around their torsos, men in clogs, some suburban types, a few traditional Amish folk, many in plaid shirts and more than a few 20-somethings with dreadlocks—make their way from the registration table through the food line and on to the dining area.

I am attending the third annual Farm Food Voices food tasting and seminar, sponsored by VICFA, the Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association. Many of the people here are farmers themselves, or consumers who have made buying local food a priority.

The spread is more down-home than the offerings at L’Etoile. Hearty stews feature free-range, grass-fed ground lamb; there’s smoked, farm-raised turkey separated from the bone in irregular chunks, boiled zucchini and onion in seasoning and leafy lettuce that’s deep green, covered in homemade garlic vinaigrette.

The eggs could be the most marvelous item on the table. Small, bottom-heavy and cream-colored, they are split perfectly in half to accommodate a generous heaping of bright yellow yolk mixed with a little onion, mayo and paprika. One taste of their milky flesh and I am convinced I’ll never eat another white, tasteless, uniformly sized egg from the grocery store. Local food advocates say eggs from farm-raised chickens are higher in protein, too.

In the smorgasbord, one can also sample raw, unpasteurized goat’s milk—illegal to sell in Virginia—or raw chevre or cheddar cheese made on the farm. I gladly take a few chunks of the rugged-looking yellow cheddar, but forgo sampling the unpasteurized milk that’s in carafes on a drink table.

A glance around at the displays set up by VICFA and other organizations reveals some of the issues behind the food.

“MAD SHEEP: The true story behind the USDA’s war on a family farm,” reads one flier. “Spying, Search and Seizure coming to a family farm near you!” reads another.

Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface, Inc., “The Farm of Many Faces,” stands at a podium at the front of the room. Polyface, which sells to more than 1,000 families and dozens of restaurants, is famous for its “beyond organic” concepts. All the animals slaughtered for meat were not only raised organically, but were allowed to live good lives, running around on the farm.

Salatin, tall, with broad shoulders, a square jaw and blue eyes, could easily pass in a more corporate crowd if it weren’t for his simple haircut, large, plastic glasses and rough brown jacket.

At $3,000 per speaking engagement, Salatin is effectively the spokesperson for small farmers amid the local food movement.

Salatin’s voice bobs and pitches, sometimes becoming shrill as he speaks. He welcomes the crowd, “as we celebrate contraband food, as we celebrate heritage-based food.”

The gathering applauds a charismatic Salatin as he calls the USDA (the United States Department of Agriculture) the U-S-Duh and champions the right to resist the industrial food system. When Salatin tells the audience, “They say raw milk is as dangerous as moonshine,” he has to pause for the laughter to die down.

“The microfarm,” Salatin tells the group, “represents everything that is the antidote to industrial everything.”

The statement sounds kind of like the title of Salatin’s new book, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal.

In it he writes, “Our whole culture suffers from an industrial food system that has made every part disconnected from the rest.”

An especially hot topic for Salatin and VICFA is the NAIS—National Animal Identification System—a federal program that has sought to register every farm and tag every animal so, the USDA says, it could more easily track diseases like mad cow in case of an outbreak. Vehement opposition to the costliness and invasiveness of the program recently led the USDA to back off on making NAIS mandatory. The government is now pressing it as a voluntary program at the state level.

It’s not surprising that VICFA is small but fiery. Though Virginia is better than most states for small farms, it’s still losing family-owned land at a rate of more than 20,000 acres per year. With only about 300 members across the state, VICFA is up against companies like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland who, through their immense lobbying power, have the upper hand on issues like NAIS and the Farm Bill.

Yet VICFA and its national counterpart, NICFA, are gaining some ground with legislators. VICFA recently took a trip to Washington, D.C., joining with the Maryland Independent Consumers and Farmers Association to bring a lunch of local food to members of Congress. Members chatted up legislators over goat cheese and Representative Virgil Goode reportedly sipped on raw milk.

Yet all the fliers and anti-government cheers seem out of place amid the smiling families and friendly little eggs. It’s hard to imagine this plaid-and-overalls crowd getting much play in Washington. And, can the entire food system really be as corrupt as the activists say?

Guarding the hen house

The next morning is calm, a little chilly and overcast as I take a ride out to Kathryn Russell’s Majesty Farm in North Garden, where things start to make a little more sense.

A boy hardly higher than my waist races down a rough road on his bike and apologizes courteously as he moves aside a gate that’s blocking my way.

“Cows are out in the yard this morning,” he explains before disappearing again into a far field.

Closer to the house—a big, blue, ranging farm property—I see a fence, some equipment, the aforementioned grazing cows, chickens doing as they please and several more of Russell’s children.

By way of greeting, the family’s dog, a lumbering, sand-colored beast with mud up to her haunches, lands a squishy paw on my pants leg.

“Sorry. We’ve been teaching her to shake,” offers one of Russell’s brood.

Russell and her large family run the Albemarle County farm, which sells eggs, poultry, beef, sheep, lamb and vegetables as well as goat and cow shares—stockholders buy shares in an animal to get a supply of raw milk.

Russell serves on VICFA’s board and regularly posts messages to EAT Local, a listserv that gets mailed to members of the Charlottesville Everyone At the Table group and others. Russell also recently started a coalition called Virginia Dairy Agisters Coalition and Shareholder Association to support micro-dairy operations and their shareholders.

Leaving the kids to their idyllic play, Russell and I go inside to talk shop.

Russell’s history with farming skipped a generation. Her grandparents farmed in the area, but her parents were suburban. Russell’s family returned to farming; they purchased their land in the county about 10 years ago. Russell says her business is “thriving,” but still “capitalizing” in that the family doesn’t yet make a living off their toil. Her husband has a full-time job off the farm.

When I ask her about VICFA’s goals, Russell says it comes back to sustainability—not just ecological, but economic.

“Sustainability is kind of a fancy word now. People like to use it. It’s a feel-good word. But when you get down to the root of it, what it means depends on what you’re trying to find sustainable.

“VICFA would like to support community-based farming that creates a vibrant community economy.

“Right now, unfortunately, a lot of farmers do have to depend and have become addicted to grants and subsidies and loans. …Even different organic groups pushed the theory of sustainability in terms of asking for grants and loans in order to keep farmers on the farm. We at VICFA think that’s treating the symptom rather than the cause. And the cause gets down to a schism between farms that are supported by the community, and just the total global economy.”

The global economy to which she refers includes the agri-business that’s taken over the Midwest and other regions, where mono-cropping, or growing mass quantities of one product, such as corn, dominates the agriculture industry.

The U.S. secretary of agriculture recently released proposals for the 2007 Farm Bill that are supposed to lessen overproduction and reliance on subsidies, saving $10 billion over five years. But, the Farm Bill is still a whopping package, including $5.5 billion in direct payments to farmers and $1.6 billion for renewable energy research in ethanol, so the mono-cropping of corn is unlikely to halt.

“The farmers are subsidizing the people,” Russell says, “because they’re working and working and working for people to buy cheap grain and put cheap grain into animals that don’t need grain. …They take money out of your taxes to support the subsidies and to support [corporations] so the whole system won’t crash.”

The alternative is growing many products in a diversified farm operation like Russell’s. But, she says, “In the recent decades, the regulations have become so overburdensome on small farmers.”

What are those overburdensome regulations?

“Predominantly in Virginia we’re looking at milk and meat regulations and regulations on home-produced goods.”

Virginia laws align with federal regulations that say most meat must be killed off the farm at certified slaughterhouses, dairy must be pasteurized if it’s to be sold, and home products like bakery items must come from inspected kitchens.

“The regulations are not meant to punish. The regulations are meant to ensure a safe and wholesome food supply,” says Elaine Lidholm, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the agency that oversees and enforces the regulations.

“Admittedly there are some people who think that we are too hygienic in this country. …But I think there are some basic principles of hygiene and sanitation that any reasonable person would say: This is the way I want my food handled.”

But Russell says the regulations create a “bureaucratic and nonsensical situation” that inhibits local commerce.

Lidholm says, “For the  most part, I simply don’t buy that. …I am a huge supporter of that kind of commerce, and I think in many ways it’s the backbone of Virginia agriculture. I do not believe there’s a single regulation on the books in Virginia that prohibits that. I know you think I have to say that because I’m the PR person, but I honestly believe that.

“In the farming community, I think there is a lot of mistrust,” Lidholm continues. “But frankly it’s not the only segment of society that mistrusts government. …I think it’s healthy. I think it’s part of what being an American is about.”

“Sometimes people say we only support corporate agriculture, and while we do have programs, almost all of our promotional programs are geared at helping the small farmers and producers,” says Lidholm.

Russell and other dissenters aren’t exactly feeling the love.

Russell describes a meeting she had with Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Robert S. Bloxom. Russell presented her idea that regulations on dairy sales should be tiered. Direct farmer-to-consumer sales would be unregulated, and regulations would get ramped up as more middlemen were brought in.

Bloxom listened to her concerns, she says, and said he’d run the idea by VDACS.

“Well, that’s kind of like asking the fox how to set up your protection for the hen house,” Russell says.

To Russell, the disconnect between small farmers and regulatory commissioners, whom Russell calls “suit guys,” is vast. VICFA and like organizations feel they’ve been forced into a corner and have to shout loudly to be heard.

Liberals meet libertarians

VICFA members aren’t the only ones speaking up about local food issues.

Two professors in the department of urban and environmental planning have twice taught a course in “community food systems.”

“Food system planning has become a very new, cutting edge part of the planning field,” says Tanya Denckla Cobb, a professor with UVA’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation who teaches the course with sustainable communities professor Tim Beatley. A few graduate students have even enrolled in the department specifically to study food issues.

Mark Gresge, chef/owner of L’Etoile Restaurant, with a bowl full of tomatoes from The Farm at Red Hill in North Garden. Gresge says cooking with local food is about “being neighborly."

And EAT Local brings groups of activists, retailers, farmers and academics together regularly for potlucks and discussions at venues like Feast! market in the city.

That the educated liberal elite take an interest in food issues isn’t surprising. But, when the liberals meet the libertarians, an “everyone at the table” philosophy means sometimes there isn’t enough elbow room.

For starters, there’s the question of whether government will help or hurt the local food movement.

The academics, no surprise, are more inclined to speak the language of the establishment. In fact, one of the bullet points of the class-produced Charlottesville Region Food System preliminary assessment reads: “Provide governmental incentives to transition to sustainable methods.”

Beatley brings up the example of Woodbury County, Iowa, which, in 2006, became the first county in the U.S. to mandate that all food purchased for government departments and schools be local and organic, shifting an estimated $281,000 of annual food purchases to the local economy.

Earlier, in 2005, Woodbury County became the first in the country to provide incentives to farmers who switched to organic growing methods. The action gives tax breaks of $50,000 a year for five years.

But, the website for the rural economic development department of Woodbury County reveals where all the support is coming from: USDA Rural Development, which provides grants, Iowa Department of Economic Development, the Iowa Farm Bureau and the U.S. Department of Commerce, which gives export assistance to Woodbury County.

It’s hard to imagine our local farmers accepting such handouts while resisting regulations handed down by the same agencies.

Even smaller, localized solutions can be met with opposition.

A popular idea among members of the EAT Local group is that of a community kitchen, where farmers could bring bruised or extra tomatoes, for example, to make into tomato sauce to up profit margins on sales. Local users would split the costs of kitchen inspections and regulation compliance.

But Russell says she’s not interested in hauling her produce into town to use a kitchen that’s not her own. She’d rather spend her time chipping away at the rules that say she can’t make and sell tomato sauce in the first place.

Russell also points out that a recently held Food Security Summit at UVA, sponsored by the department of urban and environmental planning, cost $45 and took place on a workday during harvest season, which suggests to her that academics are out of touch with the basic requirements of a farmer’s life.

Even the Buy Fresh, Buy Local guide distributed by Piedmont Environmental Council is, in the eyes of some, too selective and focused on pricey restaurants and markets. VICFA has long published a plainer-looking producers’ guide that lists member farms in Albemarle and surrounding counties.

Beatley thinks these differences aren’t prohibitive: “I’m a teacher, and an important part of this is an educational mission. So we want our students to understand all sides, all points of view, and we do have to be a bit more balanced. …But this local foods movement, sustainable foods movement, is a large tent, and it can accommodate lots of different positions.”

Kate Collier, owner of Feast!, is a true middleman: She sells local produce in her retail store, and she’s also pretty middle-of-the-road on food issues.

Collier, too, thinks institutional support is necessary. “It’s going to take big corporations, it’s going to take our government being supportive of things like this, things like schools and government purchasing, to really be able to make growing food a viable alternative to a normal service job.”

But VICFA members are deeply suspicious of government intervention.

“The only thing created by bureaucrats is more bureaucracy,” Russell says. “It’s the nature of the beast.”

When asked what role government policy and institutional change might have in the local food movement, Salatin, the farmer-activist of Polyface who’s gaining national renown, remains smoothly staunch. “I think all truly innovative and long-term cultural changes start from the ground up.”

The activists and the academics may be fighting the same industrial-agricultural chimera, but they’re not likely to merge camps anytime soon.

Starving for solutions

Yet, the food system, some say, is one of the most important national problems to be solved in our own communities.

“The root of the problem is that Americans don’t want to spend very much money on food,” Collier, owner of Feast!, says. “I think that they totally understand why software is expensive or why electronics are expensive, but they think food should be cheap.”

Beatley says he wants to teach planners that food, just like sidewalks or sewers, “ought to be considered in that group of essential infrastructure as well. Where food comes from, where it’s grown, including producing as much of it locally as possible. We’re beginning to think about what’s necessary in a community to bring that about.”

Others are worried about “peak oil”—the idea that we’ve already reached the pinnacle of world oil production and supplies are declining—and the effect of the conventional food distribution system on the global fossil fuel supply.

Salatin and his clan say the movement is about the right to “opt out of the conventional food paradigm.”

As a retailer, Collier prefers to focus on the types of change she can manage. “One of the ways you can make a change is by how you choose to spend the money that you have,” Collier says.

As for me, I am in my kitchen, focusing on the type of change I can manage while simultaneously feeding my grumbly tummy.

I am cooking up some local zucchini and onions I bought at the City Market while ripping fluffy pieces from a loaf of locally baked challah bread.

The zucchini blanches to a bright green in the boiling water. The onions soften to a milky silver. When they’re just cooked but still firm, I drain them into a colander and top them off with a little fresh ground pepper and a sprinkle of sea salt.

The zucchini are green and meaty. The onions are delicate and perfectly sweet.

But, being no herbivore, I soon cast around for something else to sustain me. My system cries out for protein, but no fresh eggs, no locally raised meats are to be found.

Then I recall a fellow eater I met at the Farm Food Voices seminar.

Bob Miller could have passed for a farmer with his plaid shirt and frank demeanor. But the Madison County supervisor said he’s simply interested in “land use issues” and he and his wife eat a diet of local food whenever possible.

But, I asked him, “What do you do when you can’t find what you need locally?”

“We go to the grocery store,” he shrugged. “We’re not going to starve to death.”

With that thought, local foodies forgive me, I pull a frozen Perdue chicken breast out of my freezer to defrost for dinner. I have no idea where it came from, what it was fed, which truck it came in on, or if it ever lived to express its chickenness.

But change is hard, the system is flawed and a girl’s gotta eat.

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