Creating links in a vibrant local food system

Tucson locally produces less than 2% of the food we consume — maybe much less.

For us to produce enough local food to matter, we must increase what we produce 10- to 30-times what we do today – and do it as fast as possible.

Ballard Farmers Market
Ballard Farmers Market

Piece of cake! That is, a cake made with Mesquite and White Sonoran Wheat flours, neighborhood eggs, goat milk, and local honey.

Food, and how we think about it, prepare it, and come together over it, is a central feature of all human cultures. It is also one of our most powerful tools to create a complete local food system that provides us with a secure food supply.

But it is also one of our biggest bottlenecks. We humans are creatures of habit, and when we encounter something unfamiliar (mesquite flour, purple tomatoes, kohlrabi), we tend to say, “What’s that?! And what the %#*&@ do you do with it?” And get no farther.

The same is true for every aspect of the food supply system. Farmers grow what grocery stores buy. Stores sell what customers buy. Customers buy what they are used to, which doesn’t include kohlrabi. (Much less mesquite or Washingtonia filifera (fan palms, with fruit comparable to dates) that grow all over Tucson.)

What will it take to collapse generations of social change into a few years, so we are willing to buy and eat what we grow? Without this demand, we won’t have the supply, and we won’t be able to create a secure local food system.

Linda Chauncey, head of Seattle Culinary Academy, and Zach Lyons, head of the Seattle Chefs Collaborative and manager of three of Seattle’s main farmers markets, are deep into making that change happen in Seattle.

“Chefs are the gate keepers of the food system,” according to Chauncey. SCA students are looking for ways to create a sustainable future, and food is “something real.” At the Seattle Central College, these future food leaders learn to develop recipes and present meals that feature local ingredients – their final project is create a four-course meal for 8 that features local ingredients.

And both the students and working chefs from the Seattle area get real, hands-on experience with all aspects of planting, harvesting and preparing (including slaughtering) the plants and animals they will turn into delicious dishes at a week-long farm emersion course at the Quillisascut Farm in Skagit Valley. With this experience, SCA students start their careers with the expectation that they and their customers should expect and use local, seasonal foods. Wow! What a concept!

With over two decades as a chef and farmers market manager, Zach Lyons is convinced that farmers markets, commercial kitchens, and food trucks are critical hubs of food innovation. Through them, small farmers and entrepreneurs can access more customers, develop new products, and secure the cash flow needed for successful businesses. “Several of our local restaurants got their start in the farmers markets,” according to Lyons.

In addition, farmers markets provide both public education opportunities, including training by professional chefs. Many farmers markets feature local chefs who regularly give cooking demonstrations using what’s fresh in the market that day.

One complaint against local food is cost. Many of the Seattle farmers markets allow people to buy fresh food using food stamps (now called “SNAP”). (The farmers markets run by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona currently allow this, and several other market managers are also working to make this happen soon.) This is a start, but much more needs to be done to ensure affordability for everyone, while also ensuring a good income for farmers and other local food producers.

The impact on the local economy of all this local food is substantial. When the Ballard Farmers Market opened in 1995, there was one place in the neighborhood to buy breakfast. Now Ballard is a thriving hub of high quality, moderately priced restaurants, many of which have direct ties to the Market. In addition, the availability of these attractions may have contributed to the boom in local apartment and condo building that occurred, even during the recent economic downturn. Ballard is a much livelier place, with the 10-15,000 people who shop at the Market each week.

While farmers markets provide ways for the public to connect with and learn about local foods, there is a lot more going on in Seattle to connect and strengthen various parts of the local food system.

For example, the Seattle Chefs Collaborative organizes a number of ways to connect local food producers with the Chefs who can give them visibility, as well as provide a market for their products. The SCC organizes regular meet-and-greet events for local farmers/fishers and local chefs. They also organize an annual conference called “Farmer, Fisher, Chef” where local growers showcase local foods, and featured chefs turn them into delicious meals. This annual event also teaches everyone about critical issues, such as global climate change and ocean acidification.

All in all, the network of training programs, professional events, outlets for small producers, public education, and just delicious food made from local ingredients, is a key element in raising both consciousness and enthusiasm for local foods. Without this demand for fresh, nutritious, local food at every step along the “food chain,” there won’t be sufficient supply or demand for local food to create a secure, local food supply for Tucson.