Creating community: The local food movement is changing what and how we eat

The local food movement was at one time dismissed as a marketing tactic for a tiny niche of food sales, one that could never have any significant impact on the food system. But the number of farmers markets, community-supported agriculture programs and food dollars generated in local sales have gone up and up. Perhaps more importantly, in Pittsburgh as in other cities, the local food movement has created a community of farmers, customers, cooks and more, who support each other, build on each others' efforts and make the region a more delicious place to live.

There is no agreed-upon definition for local food. Some hard-core locavores argue for a 100-mile radius, while others aim for a more achievable 400-mile one. But a better definition might be found in the ideas of relationship and connection.

Local food by the numbers

$4.8 billion -- sales of local food to consumers, restaurants, retailers and distribution centers in 2008, the most recent year figures are available.

5,275 -- Number of farmers markets in 2009, up from 2,756 in 1998 and 1,755 in 1994.

1,400 -- Estimated number of community supported agriculture programs, where consumers buy a share in a harvest and receive weekly allotments, in early 2010, up from 1,144 in 2005 and 400 in 2001 (actual numbers could be much larger).

"At Legume, we emphasize relationship over local," said Trevett Hooper, Legume's chef and owner. A factory farm is never local, even if it's 5 miles from your door, he pointed out. "Local to me might mean something completely different to you or Giant Eagle. What that means is that my first priority is to buy food directly from a farm rather than a purveyor acting as a middleman."

He relies on individual farms, particularly the Who Cooks For You Farm in Armstrong Country, as well as growers cooperatives such as Penn's Corner and Clarion River Organics.

Right now, Mr. Hooper estimates that virtually all of the vegetables that are visible on the plate at Legume are sourced locally, which doesn't include the 150 pounds of mirepoix he goes through each week. Some proteins, such as lamb, always are sourced locally, while beef, pork and chicken are sometimes local, sometimes not, depending on the quality of what's available, and what else is on the menu.

Even if he could source every item locally, he wouldn't always want to. "There's the idea of local as the crow flies, and then there's the concept of local in terms of a sense of place, like the [grains] we get from Anson Mills," he explained. "Anson Mills could exist nowhere else in the world than where it exists [in Columbia, S.C.]. I'm trying to find those things in Western Pennsylvania that only exist in Western Pennsylvania, like the lamb; but we also try to really appreciate beautiful food wherever it is [from], as an expression of place."

Legume Bistro's relationships also extend into the community of diners. When the owners moved the restaurant and needed extra funding to improve the kitchen, they created a Kickstarter campaign and asked the community to pledge funds in exchange for rewards.

They asked for $8,000 but at the end of the pledge period found they had raised more than $17,000 from 89 participants.

Chefs can sensibly work directly with many farms and co-ops -- building those relationships is worth the time and effort. But home cooks have little direct access to farms aside from farmers markets and CSA shares. While those programs have expanded, most run only from May to November and focus primarily on fruits and vegetables.

This year, along with the Farmers' Market Co-operative of East Liberty, the Pittsburgh Public Market will be open year-round, offering some access to local meats, eggs, cheeses and storage vegetables such as winter squash and apples. In addition, several new businesses hope to offer a middle ground between the farmers market and the grocery store, providing dependable new sources for top-quality local goods year-round, while allowing consumers to feel directly connected with the sources of their food.

Brothers Tom and Cavan Patterson started supplying chefs with foraged and locally sourced food more than seven years ago. In 2010, they created a business, Wild Purveyors, in Lawrenceville, and expanded offerings, selling items at farmers markets, organizing restaurant dinners and putting together cheese and mushroom packages offered to members of several CSA programs. This year, they decided it was time to open a marketplace, and they turned to the community for help.

They also created a Kickstarter pitch, asking members of the community to pledge money in exchange for rewards -- everything from tickets to their grand opening party to food dollars that can be spent once the store opens. The $10,000 project was funded in just a couple of weeks and as of Tuesday had raised more than $12,000 from more than 60 participants. The brothers hope to open the store by the end of the month.

Along with foraged mushrooms and an unprecedented number of local cheeses -- 40 to 50 at any given time -- they also plan to sell a wide range of proteins, including grass-fed beef from several farms, chicken, duck, quail, lamb, goat and pork. They'll sell local grains and dried beans, as well as an "incredible variety of preserves," said Cavan Patterson. They work with several local farms, including two growers cooperatives in Central Pennsylvania that will be new to the area, but they plan to focus on the more exotic types of produce such as purple cauliflower or mizuna lettuces. "I think people will be absolutely shocked [by how much is available locally]."

They also plan to use the storefront as an event space and school. They'll offer classes in basic skills, like how to cut up a chicken and use all the parts, which makes buying higher- quality (and higher-priced) meat more affordable.

Just a few doors down, Justin Severino is hard at work renovating 5336 Butler St., where he plans to open Cure, a small BYOB restaurant, this February. This past summer, Mr. Severino left his job as executive chef of Elements Cuisine, Downtown, because he believed he had developed the relationships necessary to open his own restaurant, including a long-standing connection to Wild Purveyors.

As Mr. Severino has prepared to open Cure, he's received support and encouragement from many sources, including some of the chefs who are technically his competition. Keith Fuller, chef-owner of Root 174, opened his kitchen and dining room to Mr. Severino for a fundraiser dinner in October, and David Racicot of notion co-hosted a dinner with Mr. Severino less than two weeks later. In October, Mr. Severino co-hosted a barn dinner with Clarion River Organics at Shady Elms farm in Hickory. The elegant, elaborate dinner highlighted meats, vegetables and cheese from the farms in the co-op, as well as Mr. Severino's style of cooking. The menu included butternut squash soup with cilantro-poblano puree, goat cheese and edible flowers; country-style pate with fermented kohlrabi, raw sauerkraut and mustard; and goat and pork merguez sausages.

New food businesses aren't restricted to the East End. Chef Chris Bonfili of Avenue B in Shadyside plans to open B Gourmet, an eatery and market in Sewickley, later this month. He'll serve lunch and prepared foods, but also plans to sell some local meat and dairy, as well as house-made preserves. Next Thanksgiving, he plans to offer brined and stuffed local turkeys, ready for the oven.

In Beechview, Crested Duck Charcuterie has moved into the commercial kitchen at its new storefront and the owners plan to open the deli next year, where they'll sell a wide variety of charcuterie, regional cheeses and complementary products either grown locally or purchased from local providers.

These businesses will provide farmers with new markets for their goods and provide consumers with new access to local products. There is some concern over whether demand might soon outstrip supply.

Greg Boulos, who co-owns Blackberry Meadows Farm in Natrona Heights with his wife, Jennifer Montgomery, is enthusiastic about the growing demand, but also straightforward about the need for more farmers. "There's no way we can keep up," he said, "We need more people who are going to take their land and convert it to vegetable or nutrient production."

Mr. Boulos and Ms. Montgomery are working on projects to help protect and improve the feasibility of sustainable agriculture. This past year, they created a seed savers exchange website, to help promote seed saving and increase biodiversity. In August, they also completed a "three-year grant period for us to write the business plan for a farm kitchen here at Blackberry Meadows," Mr. Boulos wrote in a recent newsletter. They've broken ground on the kitchen, starting with an outdoor wood-burning oven, and they hope that the business plan itself will be useful to other farms. Mr. Boulos estimates that on average 25 percent of the food that farmers grow is donated or composted, because of pest damage, weather damage or over-estimating demand.

Tomatoes, for example, sell for a premium of $3.50 a pound in the Pittsburgh market. But a number of tomatoes usually go unsold, and others are discarded because of minor damage. If growers could turn these tomatoes into a simple puree and can them, they could make and sell hundreds of quarts of that product. "That would really help the farmers out in the whole region," said Mr. Boulos. "I think that's where the next level of innovation in the local food scene is going to come in -- stabilizing the unsold produce that all the farmers are currently growing."

Cavan Patterson of Wild Purveyors, however, believes that some of the necessary expansion already is taking place: "There are so many new farms right now -- existing farms doing new products, farmers getting their commercial kitchen licensing together and starting to produce preserves, farmers [who are] starting to raise new animals," he said. "Next year the food scene is going to be a 1,000 times different and 1,000 times better."

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or . Follow her First Published December 8, 2011 5:00 AM


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