How to Source the Best Local Ingredients (and Why it Matters)
Awareness is growing around the ‘shop local’ movement, not just for retail products like clothes and gifts, but for the foods we eat. But why does it really matter if we buy an onion from the farmer down the lane, or from a big box market that imports produce from Guatemala?
Isn’t an onion, still an onion, even if it is called by another name somewhere else (like cebolla)?
Well, Shakespeare might have thought so, but we know better. Buying meat and vegetables from local farms has a far-reaching impact on both the quality of our ingredients and the world we live in.
Supporting local, organic agriculture and small family farms is part of building a healthy local economy. For every ingredient we buy at home, we invest in our own community. We support our neighbors, bolster our local agricultural resources and keep money in circulation at home, instead of sending it to another state or country.
When we buy food locally we reduce strain on our environment by reducing the unnecessary use of fossil fuels to transport food. Of course when we buy food that is not only local but is also grown organically, we vote with our dollars to eliminate harmful pesticides from our environment and from our bodies.
And can we talk about the taste? Just for fun…do a little side-by-side taste test between locally grown organic carrots or tomatoes from your farmers market and the carrots and tomatoes you get from any chain grocery store. It’s no contest! The flavor of local and organic will win hands-down, every time. You’ll taste the soil and the sunshine that went into growing your food.
Of course there are the other health benefits of eating locally that you’ll notice the moment you begin cooking with local foods. When food is purchased locally it is naturally fresher and retains more nutrient content, which can be lost in extended shipping and storage.
In addition to veggies, local farms are also key to procuring meat from animals raised in the most humane and healthy ways possible - outdoors in the sun and fresh air, foraging for their own food straight from the earth. Because there are not yet industry-wide labeling standards for pastured meat and eggs, local farms are the way to go.
I am fortunate to be a chef in Austin, where there are many wonderful options for sourcing high quality, local and organic meats. I often buy meat from A Better Way Beef, Richardson Farms, Smith and Smith, Twin County Dorpers, and Bastrop Cattle Company. My favorite chicken eggs come from Vital Farms, duck eggs from Munkebo Farms, and produce from many small local growers.
My favorite farm for vegetables is Urban Roots, not only for their organic produce but because I fully support their larger mission working with at-risk teens. The teen interns help run every aspect of the farm operation, learning about running a business, finance, public speaking, sales, marketing as well as agriculture, self-sufficiency, and sustainability.
That’s great, Celeste, but where do I get all this stuff? I don’t have time to run all over town looking for the best ingredients.
It’s true, sometimes shopping for the highest quality ingredients feels like a treasure hunt, but you don’t have to spend all your Saturday mornings at a farmers market (although it sounds pretty wonderful to me!). Often local farmers sell through Whole Foods Market, Wheatsville Coop, Central Market, and other health food stores to make buying more convenient. Quality ingredients might be right under your nose, but you didn’t know to look for them...until now!
Over the past several years, companies like Farmhouse Delivery bring organic, locally grown foods right to your doorstep. While you often have less control over what goes into your weekly box than if you shopped the markets yourself, it’s a fun challenge to see what new recipes you can try with okra, kohlrabi and eggplant – which are sure to be in your July and August deliveries.
Community Supported Agriculture memberships (CSA's) are also wonderful ways to eat well and become connected with your local farmers. Folks who become members have specific pick-up locations where they get portions of fresh produce straight from the farm each week.
If you want to get really wild about procuring local foods...you could grow it yourself. Even produce grown in modest planter boxes and pots can nicely supplement what you buy elsewhere. Once you get your hands in the dirt and make a meal from your first harvest, you'll either want to expand your operations or you'll simply have an enormous appreciation for our hard working local farmers.
It goes without mentioning, that the families I cook for not only love coming home to a fridge full of deliciously prepared meals, but are relieved to have the guess work taken out of their food sourcing. I only use the absolute best quality foods I can find. I change my menus weekly because they are informed directly by what I can get that is fresh in season, locally grown and organic whenever possible. I do this because I’m committed to helping people heal their bodies with the best food possible and because I love my farmers, my city and the planet we’re leaving to our children. It’s no small thing.
You may not be able to purchase 100% locally grown foods year round, but the benefits for your body, your local agriculture, your community, and your environment will benefit every time you do.