At Hollygrove Market & Farm's first Saturday market in June, hundreds of shoppers flowed in, changing the pace of the usual steady traffic with a nearly overwhelming crowd.
It was the first market day for "locavore" shoppers participating in the inaugural Eat Local Challenge, which asks participants to eat foods sourced from no more than a 200-mile radius of New Orleans. More than 200 people are participating in the challenge, which lasts through June. Registration included a discount on Hollygrove's weekly boxes, filled with locally grown produce and other local goods.
Hollygrove director Paul Baricos says about one of every five shoppers this month are Eat Local challengers — not counting the dozens of restaurants the market supplies. Linda Michurski, Hollygrove's restaurant sales manager and Eat Local Challenge co-organizer, says the market and farm supplies 30 to 40 restaurants on a weekly basis. Iris chef Ian Schnoebelen bases the menu at his restaurant around Hollygrove's offerings. (Michurski says she makes deliveries to the restaurant twice a week.) Restaurants' No. 1 most requested item? Arugula. The farm grows a quarter-acre of the leafy green. Kale and strawberries are also in high demand.
At La Provence, John Besh's French-inspired restaurant in Lacombe, chef Erick Loos hosts a dinner with a menu using all local ingredients (with wine from the Northshore's Ponchartrain Vineyards) Wednesday, June 22, in conjunction with the challenge. Also on board, Riverbend restaurant Matt & Naddie's is serving dishes using all local ingredients, down to the salt.
"Restaurants investing in the local economy are getting their money back — plus," says Eat Local organizer Lee Stafford.
Stafford says the concept for the challenge came from a simple idea: "You should know where the food on your plate comes from." Taking that advice is Mike Strain, Louisiana commissioner of agriculture and forestry. Since 2008, Strain has issued the challenge to other state officials, asking to support local farms and get kids interested in healthy, fresh foods. This year he joins the New Orleans movement.
To inspire fellow challengers, participants in the blogosphere are sharing recipes, or in the case of Tumblr blogger Caroline Heylman (nolavore.tumblr.com), uploading a photo of every meal for every day of the challenge. Aryanna Gamble (www.aryannagamble.blogspot.com) also is sharing recipes, including baked goods like caramel pecan macaroons and canillas de leche. Other participants have shared recipes like chilled berry or vegetable soups, along with where to find the local ingredients. Veronica Del Bianco (www.veronicadelbianco.com) signed up for the challenge despite traveling to Texas for a week in June. On her blog, she offers tips to stay local while away from your home base.
The challenge provides some leeway, however, with three levels of "strictness" challengers can choose to follow. For the Ultrastrict, participants must stick to the 200-mile rule. The Bienville level allows nonlocal spices (like ginger and saffron) and coffee, so long as it's locally roasted, and locally brewed beer (like Abita or NOLA Brewing) despite imported hops and other nonlocal ingredients. The Wild Card level allows all of the above, plus chocolate and sugar. (Challenge organizers advise participants to stick as closely to the rules as possible.) Stafford notes that he not only founded the Eat Local group, he's also participating in the challenge. "I started off on Day One with everyone else," he says.
But participants haven't missed out on much. They can find popular proteins throughout the challenge including Gulf seafood, crawfish, chicken and eggs. Dairy farms also provide goat cheese and milk.
Perhaps challengers' most helpful resource — despite local experts in partners like Hollygrove, Rouses and Crescent City Farmers Market — is the Eat Local Challenge forum (at www.nolalocavore.org), where participants — all doing their best to stick to the rules of the challenge — trade recipes, tips and suggestions for where to find local goods. Not only participants get access to the forums, so do retailers. The website opens a dialogue for people who previously hadn't had a place to address local availability issues. "They'll ask questions, 'Why aren't you carrying these products that are Louisiana made?' And (retailers) respond, 'We'll see what we can do,'" Stafford says. "There are 300 marketers out there looking for Louisiana products, and then they have the blog to discuss with the retailer, 'I found this, why not make this available?'"
Stafford says the next challenge is scheduled for June 2012 — though he knows participants now accustomed to June's late-spring and summer seasonal goods may be tired of them for next year. Many participants, he says, were bored with rice — a widely available local grain — by the end of the challenge's first week. For 2012, however, Stafford says the Eat Local organizers found local wheat (and someone to grind it), which opens the culinary door to starches that currently are off-limits.