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Beyond Organic 

A growing "eat local' trend favors regional culinary traditions and products over the ubiquitous "organic' label.

On a typical sunny Saturday morning in the CBD, it's easy to find a parking space near the intersection of Magazine and Girod Streets, despite the usual bustling crowd. Most shoppers at the Crescent City Farmers Market are on a mission. Some come and go in five minutes, grabbing some heirloom tomatoes or a pint of organic blueberries. Some ride bikes with baskets or carry recycled grocery bags waiting to be filled with fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables. Still others walk their dogs to market, pausing to chat with friends over coffee and chocolate croissants — or, on a hot midsummer morning, homemade frozen-fruit popsicles.

On this morning, Clarence Mizell, a farmer from Folsom, La., has staked out a post near the entrance, selling a variety of plants and herbs from his 60-year-old family farm. Several other regular vendors have set up shop nearby: the Phelpses, who have been known to sell out an entire load of organic blueberries in less than an hour; the Accardos of Paulina, La., whose baskets of beautifully gnarled, multi-colored heirloom tomatoes and peppers are gone in the blink of an eye; and Justin Pitts, a Mississippi meat vendor specializing in heritage livestock, who today offers his first batch of bacon and lamb for the season.

Kitty and John Elliot are frequent vendors as well, selling homemade jams, preserves and relishes (made without artificial preservatives) from local fruits and veggies. Fourth-generation farmer Jim Core of Taylor's Happy Oaks in Folsom, here with his grandson, offers everything from tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplant to squash and purple heirloom beans that are as long as shoestrings.

These and other local family farmers form the core of a community-based agriculture system that values small, diversified farms, sustainable farming practices, humane animal husbandry and access to fresh, healthy foods while preserving and promoting our region's unique culinary heritage. Part of a national "eat local" trend, some New Orleanians are returning to what we once knew best — cooking with fresh local produce — while preserving the traditions of our local foodshed, which can include food sources from within a 200-mile radius.

Healthy food advocates nationwide are devoting more and more attention to eating produce (USDA organic or not) grown and harvested close to home, particularly as food and fuel prices rise, the potential costs of global warming become more apparent, and the rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease linked to processed foods reach record highs.

Some "eat local" advocates even believe that the organic culture has become flawed and that USDA organic certification no longer means what it once did. As large corporate food companies move to cash in on the trend and apply pressure to produce organic food cheaply, some fear they will squeeze out small farmers and lobby for a loosening of federal standards. Others believe that decreasing their food's carbon footprint — the sum total of energy used to produce, package, transport and obtain food — is more important than buying organic from far-away companies whose growing practices may include the same industrial-scale farming and long-distance shipping methods employed by conventional corporate farmers. Likewise, devotees of locally grown food value their relationships with growers — and the assurance of knowing the source of their food.

'Local is definitely trumping organic in marketing terms," says Darlene Wolnik, deputy director and mentor for the Crescent City Farmers Market. When organic certification became a federally managed guideline in 2001, farmers began to opt out of organic because it no longer meant what it used to — local stewardship, she says.

'When you said "organic,' what that usually meant was you were growing in a way that was dynamic and incorporated lots of smart, ages-old growing techniques that didn't involve pesticides," Wolnik says. "And what's happened in the last decade is organic has really become held by large farming corporations. So they're growing organically out in California, but they're using labor practices that might be less than stellar or they're growing monocrops on huge parcels of land; again, that's not really what organic was about. What organic was about then is what local is about today — small-scale farmer[s] that believe they have a responsibility to be stewards of the land."

Shoppers at farmers markets can go directly to farmers and ask them what they use on their property, Wolnik says. "The farmers say, "Listen, I live on that property, I raise my grandkids on that property. Here's what I use and here's how I use it.'"

The Crescent City Farmers Market and its parent organization, marketumbrella.org, seek to foster such conversations by bringing farmers and consumers together while developing local economies. "We have found that our farmers have evolved into pesticide-free, sustainable farmers because they have listened to their shopping base," Wolnik says. "To use the word "organic,' you have to be certified by the federal government, [but] there are plenty of farmers in this country who are pesticide-free, natural farmers who are not "organic.'"

Despite the competition between organic and local products in the marketplace, most proponents of local food say the terms "organic" and "local" are not mutually exclusive, and shouldn't be. Like a convoluted game of rock/paper/scissors, today's food choices are a complicated amalgamation of options that can trump each other in numerous ways: local may be better than organic when it's grown on a small farm within 150 miles of your home, but organic may be better if your neighboring farm is a large-scale producer who uses herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers made from fossil fuels shipped back and forth across the country.

Consumers are beginning to ponder difficult questions about their food. Among them:

Is it better to eat organic bananas that came from a farm that replaced a rain forest in South America as part of a vegetarian diet (while the profits go to the CEO of Dole rather than to workers), or to eat "free-range" beef or poultry that may actually be squeezed into a tiny pasture for days at a time without adequate water or shade, eating grain and feed that may or may not have been grown via sustainable practices?

Was the food brought to you by truck, plane or rail?

Did you drive to a neighborhood market or across town to get it?

Is it packaged in plastic containers that take decades to biodegrade?

Are you going to eat it all or throw away the leftovers and waste the energy that went into producing it?

'Locavores" agree that many mind-boggling avenues can lead to healthier food, and most say the best way to start is to move from industrial-scale agriculture toward a system that increases transparency between grower and consumer.

In a well-recognized contribution to the "local" dialogue, novelist Barbara Kingsolver chronicled her family's attempt to eat only locally produced food for one year in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. A comprehensive nonfiction narrative that is both anecdotal and scientifically detailed, the book examines how the industrial food system has alienated Americans from the source of their food, creating a cultural void and a loss of culinary heritage and traditions.

'In two generations we've transformed ourselves from a rural to an urban nation," she writes. "[Our] grandparents' generation had an intuitive sense of agricultural basics: when various fruits and vegetables come into season, which ones keep through winter, how to preserve others what animals and vegetables thrive in one's immediate region and how to live well on those with little else." Few Americans possess that knowledge today.

Kingsolver is not alone in this assertion. She and Michael Pollan, author of the seminal Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, have garnered national attention for elucidating industrial agriculture's sins: mass production of corn and soybeans as high-fructose corn syrup and other additives in processed food; using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetic modification; and "concentrated animal feeding operations," or CAFOs. These CAFOs mass-produce cattle and poultry in unnatural conditions, supplying them with antibiotics and hormones, growing the same few breeds year after year, contributing to the industry's production of large quantities of high-calorie, nutrition-less foods. As a result of eating these unhealthy foods, Kingsolver and Pollan assert, Americans have become the fattest people in the history of the world.

Other oft-cited drawbacks to modern agriculture include the use of genetically modified seeds, the loss of genetic diversity in plant and animal life, and a decrease in the nutritional value of these products as the same species are modified and grown in the same fields year after year.

Corporate seed companies such as Monsanto, DuPont, Aventis and Dow often create hybrid varieties of seeds from dissimilar species to foster big, fast-growing plants that can withstand the harsh conditions of early harvesting, packing, shipping and storage, Kingsolver writes. They use genetic modification to manipulate plant genes and create similar desirable attributes, often combining animal or bacterial genes with plant genes to create new "copyrightable" varieties. The public is largely unaware of this practice because genetically modified plants and seeds don't have to be labeled, she adds.

Seed companies also can insert "terminator genes," which cause crops to commit genetic suicide after one season — so farmers must re-purchase the patented seeds each year. Since 1903, more than 81 percent of the varieties of tomatoes once grown in the United States have been lost, and more than 93 percent of all varieties of lettuce, 96 percent of corn, and 86 percent of apples are gone, according to Fatal Harvest, a collection of essays that examines the effects of industrial agriculture in America.

Potential nutritional value, genetic diversity and superior taste derived from now-rare heirloom varieties of plants and animals passed down through generations of family farmers are some of the many advantages supported by locavores. "Genetically modified stuff is in commodity farming more often," and typically in cases where farmers want to produce large quantities of a single crop on more than 20 acres, says Wolnik. Farmers who work with local markets are not going to be growing that big.

'It's as much to farmers' benefit to say, "Yeah, I want to grow that again next year, and I can because it doesn't have a pesticide embedded into it,'" she adds.

'If animals don't have a job, no one's going to keep them," says Justin Pitts, a farmer who raises heritage sheep, cattle and goats on his farm outside of Hattiesburg, Miss. "Heritage breeds are native to an area or have been traditionally raised by indigenous people," he explains, and are uniquely adapted to the climate and nutritional resources of the region in which they live. Though Pitts uses only humane animal husbandry practices for his pasture-fed animals, he's not USDA-certified organic. He can't afford it and dreads the paperwork.

'I'm doing more than what most people who are certified are doing," he says. "If you read the fine print the federal government only requires 70 percent (of ingredients in a given product) to be organic, and I'm doing 95 percent." Pitts believes farming should be based on honesty and integrity, and for those who do business with him, his word is certification enough.

Poppy Tooker, a local culinary activist and leader of the Slow Food New Orleans chapter since 1998, is part of a global movement to help eaters rediscover the flavors of regional cooking and "banish the degrading effects of fast food." Tooker also serves as chairwoman of the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste committee, a virtual Noah's Ark where traditional foods at risk of being lost are nominated for protection because of their regional significance and superior flavor.

'By promoting them, we set out to do what my great-grandmother always told me when I was a little girl," Tooker explains. "A little French lady from "down the bayou,' she would never tell me to clean my plate; she would say, "Poppy, eat it to save it.' We have to eat these heirloom fruits and vegetables, and rare animal breeds, to create a market for them and a taste for them amongst the general populace, or they will become extinct," she says.

The best way to educate people about the value of locally produced foods is through their palates, because it's all about the pleasures of the table. "This isn't a bitter pill; instead, it's a delicious pill," she says.

One of New Orleans' treasures is our food culture and its connection to our agricultural roots. Tooker says that makes our region more immune than others to the onslaught of fast food and industrially processed foods. "[But] despite anybody's chagrin over what happened in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, we're still part of the United States, and that's our greatest handicap," she says. "There's no getting away from it this is a fast-food nation."

Tooker adds that the organic movement is polluted. "It's a way to deceive the public. Period. Some of my best Slow Food friends are the grandfathers of the organic movement these same people are the ones who have left their organic certification behind and become what they refer to as "beyond organic.'"

As Americans slowly become more interested in the Food Network, celebrity chef shows and the like, food producers will be the next rock stars of the food world, she predicts. "It just has to do with how hungry and simultaneously how obese and sick the American public gets. Fully one-quarter of the U.S. population is diabetic or pre-diabetic. Why is that? It's because of the crap they eat, because of the corn syrup and preservatives. Your average American doesn't realize he's putting away pounds of pesticides every year by eating conventional, wasteful, highly traveled food."

Post-Katrina, New Orleans has more green space available for growing local produce, Tooker says. We can ensure that future generations will know what it is to taste a delicious local tomato or peach. Cultivating a relationship with our local foodshed also will bring an awareness of seasonality to our culture, a connection to the land and what it means to eat within a growing cycle — knowing what the earth can give without being damaged, and when.

Local restaurants and grocery stores need to connect with local food producers more, Tooker says. Some already do this well. In general, they don't need to be convinced to carry local, they just need help finding it. To that end, marketumbrella.org recently hired its first forager, whose job will be to find local farmers and help them provide local foods to area groceries, restaurants and other markets. Likewise, Wolnik says, the organization will continue to facilitate opportunities for the public to learn what "local" really means. "If I have local and the big corporation store has local, do you understand that we're making sure that farmers are getting the wealth from the produce that they sell directly to you?"

Perhaps the biggest hurdle that local food proponents must overcome is the perception that eating organic and local is a privilege available only to the rich. In truth, buying directly from a farmer is often cheaper than buying from a grocery store, and it keeps money in the local economy. Processed organic foods are often the most expensive, along with imported food products.

Conventionally produced food carries hidden costs, too. Sustainable agricultural supporters note that if you add to the price of processed foods the additional "hidden" costs of cleaning up an environment damaged by fertilizers and other chemicals, the health costs (private and public) of treating food-related diseases such as diabetes, and the tax dollars spent on government subsidies to industrial farmers, processed food is far more expensive than food from small local farmers who practice humane animal husbandry and sustainable growing.

As interest in local food continues to grow, new markets are opening across the city, providing more direct access to local growers. Some even accept food stamps, credit and debit cards. (For market times and locations, see Gambit's listings section).

The New Orleans Food and Farm Network's (NOFFN) Food Policy Advisory Committee is currently working with the City Council and other community stakeholders to solve the problems of healthy food access in the New Orleans area. Together they created a Community Food Charter and recommendations for policymakers on how to support local and regional food producers, remove barriers to fresh food access, and develop additional infrastructure throughout the city, says Marilyn Yank, director of policy for NOFFN. Recommendations include tax incentives for providing fresh food, and addressing issues such as transportation to fresh-food retailers.

'The bottom line is about creating more avenues of access to fresh, healthy food for people of all incomes," Yank says. "There are many things happening on the local food front, and 99.5 percent of them positive but sometimes when we're talking local and organic there are constituents that get left out of that picture."

Yank suggests that "seasonal" is a better term to use when thinking about healthy food because it includes things that can still be found in a grocery store. "Even when you go to the grocery store, what's going to be cheaper and more abundant [is] what's happening right now," she says, "like blueberries, watermelon, okra." NOFFN had high hopes for seeing changes in New Orleans' food policies included in this recent legislative session, but "legislators just weren't ready to hear this stuff," she says.

Nationally, others are working on the policy implications of eating local. Dr. Alice Ammerman, director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has developed a two-year study to investigate how local food access and consumption might impact nutrition and related attitudes, behaviors and beliefs about eating local on a more "macro" level. She hopes the research will contribute to developing a solution to the environmental degradation as well as economic and health disparities currently plaguing the United States' food system.

'There are strong political forces at work supporting the current system of agriculture, but they are beginning to recognize some of the associated problems as well," Ammerman says.

click to enlarge Tony and Joycelyn Accardo's plethora of brightly colored peppers sell out nearly as fast as their famous heirloom tomatoes, which grace the cover of Gambit. - BRYCE LANKARD
  • Bryce Lankard
  • Tony and Joycelyn Accardo's plethora of brightly colored peppers sell out nearly as fast as their famous heirloom tomatoes, which grace the cover of Gambit.
click to enlarge Local farmers provide a diverse array of fruits and veggies at markets throughout the city. - BRYCE LANKARD
  • Bryce Lankard
  • Local farmers provide a diverse array of fruits and veggies at markets throughout the city.
click to enlarge Whole Foods, known for its steady stream of organically sourced products, is one grocery store that makes local foods a priority. "We always first seek organic local produce," says Kristina Bradford, Whole Foods' local community relations coordinator. "We try to carry as many local growers as possible and have carried local conventional produce. As seasons vary, there are a few times a year that local produce offerings are higher than others." - BRYCE LANKARD
  • Bryce Lankard
  • Whole Foods, known for its steady stream of organically sourced products, is one grocery store that makes local foods a priority. "We always first seek organic local produce," says Kristina Bradford, Whole Foods' local community relations coordinator. "We try to carry as many local growers as possible and have carried local conventional produce. As seasons vary, there are a few times a year that local produce offerings are higher than others."
click to enlarge When it comes to grocery essentials, consumers are faced with a dizzying array of choices. Milk, for example, now comes from a local, family-owned and -operated dairy farm with grass-fed, hormone-free cows like Mt. Hermon's Smith Creamery, $3.69 a half-gallon; and a big, USDA-certified organic company like Horizon (owned by WhtieWave food company, which also produces International Delight, Land O' Lakes and Hershey's products) at $4.09 a half-gallon. Conventional milk from a corporate food chain like Borden (which once made Elmer's glue, wallpaper adhesive, printing ink and fertilizer during its history of mergers and acquisitions) costs $3.29 a half-gallon, and the corporate chain's new USDA-certified organic brand, Borden Organic, rings up at $3.59 a half-gallon. There's not much of a price difference  local brands are slightly less expensive than organic and only slightly higher than conventional. Locavores say it's a nominal difference when you consider that it supports humane animal treatment and that healthy, pesticide-free, grass-fed cows are not forced to eat animal manure or cow blood as part of their diet. - BRYCE LANKARD
  • Bryce Lankard
  • When it comes to grocery essentials, consumers are faced with a dizzying array of choices. Milk, for example, now comes from a local, family-owned and -operated dairy farm with grass-fed, hormone-free cows like Mt. Hermon's Smith Creamery, $3.69 a half-gallon; and a big, USDA-certified organic company like Horizon (owned by WhtieWave food company, which also produces International Delight, Land O' Lakes and Hershey's products) at $4.09 a half-gallon. Conventional milk from a corporate food chain like Borden (which once made Elmer's glue, wallpaper adhesive, printing ink and fertilizer during its history of mergers and acquisitions) costs $3.29 a half-gallon, and the corporate chain's new USDA-certified organic brand, Borden Organic, rings up at $3.59 a half-gallon. There's not much of a price difference local brands are slightly less expensive than organic and only slightly higher than conventional. Locavores say it's a nominal difference when you consider that it supports humane animal treatment and that healthy, pesticide-free, grass-fed cows are not forced to eat animal manure or cow blood as part of their diet.
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