You Are Where You Eat

We may never know which came first: the chicken or the egg. But one thing is certain: "Buy local" is here to stay.

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Snail crepinette with green garlic scapes and lettuce puree from Talula's TableOriginally built around environmental concerns—and a hot culinary trend—"locavorism" is gaining allies throughout the area, within all sectors of the community. Booming farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) are clear signs that consumers are jumping on the bandwagon, spurred on by the increasing number of menus touting locally produced ingredients. Meanwhile, economists, nutritionists, transportation planners and healthcare providers are pushing to make "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" public policy.

One of the leading trends in the healthcare sector is "Health Care Without Harm," a nationwide initiative by hospitals to purchase local, sustainable food—higher in nutritional value and healthier ecologically—for its patients and staff.  "Menu for Change" is another program finding its way into mainstream settings. Created to improve the food offered at schools, it was started by yogurt producer Stonyfield Farms in 2003. The initial intent was to tackle childhood obesity by replacing junk food with student-approved natural and organic snacks in vending machines. The overall goal: to make it easy to eat healthy at school.

"Economics, politics, obesity and other health concerns have put food sourcing front and center," says Marilyn Anthony, Exton-based southeastern regional director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). "Two of our members operate 'Cooking for Real,' a local foods and nutrition program that conducts school programs, as well as corporate training, and I believe Westtown School has a teaching garden on the property. I've also heard that Radnor School District is looking to do something."

The bulk of U.S.-grown produce is shipped from California, Florida and Washington, or from other countries. The average food item travels 1,300-1,500 miles before it ends up on our plates. In between, it's been confined to a truck, subject to temperature variations, transferred numerous times, probably seen some bugs, absorbed gasoline fumes, passed through a few pairs of germy hands, and stored for up to three weeks.

Not surprisingly, most produce sold in supermarkets is laced with pesticides and other preservatives—chosen more for its ability to withstand industrial harvesting and extended travel than its taste. That's why consumers wind up with waxy cucumbers, hothouse tomatoes, peaches that never quite ripen, and less variety overall.

If it weren't for the good fortune of committed restaurateurs and chefs—who essentially serve as PR and marketing consultants for the artisan producers they purchase from—we wouldn't have a clue as to the origins of our food. Nor would we have access to such a wide range of organically grown, fresh, palate-pleasing ingredients.

If it seems you're hearing "buy local" as often as you're hearing "buy organic," you can thank socially and environmentally conscious chefs Sean Weinberg (Alba), Andrew Deery (Majolica), Bryan Sikora (Talula's Table), Andrew Masciangelo (Savona), David Clouser (Sola), Patrick Feury (Nectar, Maia), Francis Trzeciak (Birchrunville Store Café, The Inn at Saint Peter's Village), and plenty of others in Center City. They continue to offer customers a growing variety of unique local and artisanal foods from small-scale producers—stuff like humanely raised meats, organic and specialty fruits and vegetables, and raw milk cheeses.

"Everyone wants to go back 100 years," says Talula's Table chef/owner Bryan Sikora. "There's an artistry that's missing. Farming, cooking—they're both a craft, and they deserve equal appreciation."

And what happens to our food along the way also matters. "One of our farmers took a calf to be butchered and was devastated by the result," says Sikora. "Every stage of an ingredient's life should be respected."

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