A Fresh Approach

If you really knew where the food you ate today came from — accompanied by which pesticides, fillers, salt, sugar, color, fat and mysterious additives — you might wonder if your own personal future is threatened just by the simple act of eating.

That pale, cardboard-tasting tomato probably traveled more miles to get to your mouth than you might travel in five years. And who knows what chemicals it brings to your disappointed taste buds.

From television personalities Dr. Oz to Gillian McKeith, Americans now “get” that processed foods (almost anything in a box or a can that doesn’t appear close to its original state) hangs around your body and most certainly will cause you ill. Eating less-scary foods with more nutrition could lead you to not only a better today, but a tastier and healthier tomorrow. New food choices — local, fresh foods that are in season — are good for your health and good for your local economy.

This makes sense, right? But, just try for one day to eat only local food. Of course, you can be sold food labeled “local” that comes from as far away as Nebraska, Texas, or the other side of Illinois. But that’s cheating. A good rule of practice is to think of “local” as less than two hours away. For Columbia, that definition means “grown in Missouri.”

Even in the country’s heartland with its acres and acres of crops, it is hard to purchase yummy local food harvested the previous day. Why? Most of Missouri’s crops are corn, soybeans and wheat, usually shipped out to be processed. Most of our crops do not return to our grocery shelves as nutritious offerings.

But there is a revolution under way all over the country as consumers recognize the inherent problems with their food and that food revolution is under way in Columbia. As soon as local vegetables can be harvested, a number of Columbia’s institutions will be serving local foods — food picked a day or two before it is served and primarily from less than 100 miles away.

Beginning this spring “Buy Missouri First, Then Fill In” is a major initiative at these Columbia’s three Hy-Vee stores, the University of Missouri’s Campus Dining Services, the Columbia School District and University Health Care, which encompasses University and Columbia Regional Hospitals, Ellis Fischel Cancer Center and the QuarterDeck building.

Such a strong play toward local food is unusual. Many food purveyors approach local food as “boutique,” something with which to dress up the menu, rather than wholeheartedly embrace. As far as local food goes, when all is said and done, more is usually said than done.

The Birth Of A Food Revolution

A real effort to serve local food in Columbia began with a June conversation.

Eric Cartwright, executive chef of MU’s Campus Dining Services and a regular customer of the Columbia Farmer’s Market, contacted farmer’s market president Rex Roberts last year to ask if he could secure local foods on a regular basis without having to make deals with legions of individual farmers.

Roberts, a retired Saline County high school principal, specializes in growing greens with a wide offering of other vegetables. Last July, he was farming pesticide-free on an acreage near Marshall.

Cartwright was interested in doubling the percentage of local foods to students, bringing the percentage up to 15 percent. The food had to be tasty and affordable. After several open meetings with vendors at the Columbia Farmers Market, agriculture experts and sustainability professionals, it was clear that retail farmers who sell to the public are not comfortable with changing to a wholesale operation.

After a few weeks, a plan emerged: Campus Dining would order local foods twice weekly and a new organization that I helped establish, Missouri Food 4 Missouri People, would deliver. Organic grower and landscape professional Rick Boudreau, a Boston transplant to the Village of Arrow Rock, joined Roberts and me in our fledgling group.

The Missouri Food 4 Missouri People credo advocates for:

  • Fresh, quality food
  • Missouri people and Missouri’s economy
  • Sustainable farming (where farmers can make a living growing fresh produce for a local geography)
  • Enriching the land

From Aug. 18 to mid-November, Missouri Foods delivered to the university freshly picked tomatoes, apples, watermelons, cantaloupes, peppers, onions, acorn squash, alfalfa sprouts, butternut squash, cucumbers, eggplant, cabbage, honey, pumpkins, Napa cabbage, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, turnips, yellow squash, zucchini, as well as decorative gourds and fall mums.

“For CDS, the primary driver for local produce is the flavor of fresher ingredients, which translates into better tasting, and ultimately, more satisfying meals for our customers,” Cartwright says. “We also find the fresh, local produce to have a longer shelf life than product which may be a week or more out of the field before we get it.”

Because the local produce is fresher, it also “results in a higher-yielding product,” Cartwright says. At the end of the experimental season, Cartwright’s analysis of the Missouri Food 4 Missouri People foods found that the local produce had better flavor, satisfied the customer better and, by the way, was usually less costly because there was less waste.

No matter the nutritional value, though, “for us, it’s all about taste and flavor,” Cartwright says as he oversees nine food outlets that serve primarily 18- to 22-year-olds. “Many of our customers tell us they want to eat healthier,” he says. “Often though, people are discouraged by earlier experiences where healthy choices didn’t taste very good.”

Why didn’t those “healthy” choices seem tasty before using fresh, local produce?

“Generally, we have found that the quality of the raw ingredients wasn’t very good,” Cartwright says. “Using fully ripened, picked-that-morning, fresh local produce enables people to create really tasty and healthy food. Even the most expert hands in the kitchen cannot deliver superior flavor with lesser quality ingredients.”

The move to local foods is also about leadership. The CDS purchasing coordinator Sandy Perley says, “It is very exciting that we in Columbia and Missouri are making progress in setting up systems where organizations can more easily purchase local foods. I hope the momentum will bring more players to the party!”

A Growing Demand

When CDS and Missouri Foods 4 Missouri People linked together to provide daily access to local foods, five of the CDS units were served. This spring, all units will be ordering.

After the fall experiment, Cartwright and Perley were quick to recommend Missouri Foods 4 Missouri People to other institutions, bringing momentum to the quest for local, fresh produce. One of those recommendations was to the manager of food services at University and Columbia Regional Hospitals, Ellis Fischel Cancer Center and the QuarterDeck building.

“This will be our first year to commit to purchasing local produce,” says Becky Hassinger, manager of Dining and Nutrition Services at University Health Care. “We have shared our anticipated purchasing of fresh produce with Missouri Food 4 Missouri People, and we will be marketing the local produce in our retail food outlets.”

For Hassinger and Chef Bill Provencher, “Promoting the health benefits of fresh, local foods supports our core mission, which is to advance the health of all people, especially Missourians.”

So linking up with a stable source of local, fresh produce is a mission. U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines recommend adults eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

“Additionally, fruits and vegetables contain essential vitamins, minerals and fiber that may help protect you from chronic diseases,” Hassinger says as she oversees more than 703,000 retail food transactions and 300,000 patient meals a year.

“Fresh vegetables and fruit simply taste better and can encourage adequate daily servings,” she says. “Local produce is picked and sold at its peak. With other produce, vitamin and nutrient content can deteriorate over time as it is packed, shipped and held.”

Immediately after Missouri Foods 4 Missouri People was featured on a December panel with Cartwright at a Farm-to-School summit, the Columbia Public Schools explored what it would mean for students to have fresh, local produce.

Director of Nutrition Services Laina Fullum teamed up with Mary Hendrickson of MU Extension Service, to help bring the Farm-to-School summit to reality. The Columbia Public Schools serve 1.9 million lunches and more than 600,000 breakfasts yearly; 36 percent of the 17,416 students receive free and reduced-price lunches. About 145 Nutrition Services employees at 31 sites are involved in producing, on average, more than 10,000 meals daily.

“Our philosophy on eating is to encourage more intake of whole-grain foods, a diet high in fruits and vegetables, with portion control on necessary but higher fat foods,” she says. “We encourage eating low-fat foods (fruits and vegetables), eating balanced meals and eating well the majority of the time.”

“In sum, our focus is try to get children and staff eating more fruits and vegetables which then helps them cut down on higher fat items in their diet,” Fullum says. “We are giving priority in our kitchens to local produce first, then fill in with other products not available locally.

But local food doesn’t happen without planning.

“When the local food season begins, our Central Office will guide our managers by providing them with information about what they need to be ordering in a given week for their cafeterias,” Fullum says. “We are no strangers to this technique because we are heavily regulated already, and we are a self-supporting department in the district.

“We must watch our dollars closely in order to operate independently of all school finances. We are much like mini-restaurants across the district in that we must financially balance our expenses with our revenue.”

For the Columbia Public School system, helping children, teachers and staff eat better foods is a mission. Fullum charts three ways the system is moving to take advantage of a local foods service.

Staff. “Our staff is a part of our community and is excited and driven to accomplish this goal of providing more local foods to our community. The nutrition staffers are unsung heroes really. Who do your remember most from your school days? Many children remember the service and kindness provided by the staff in food services.”

Principals and teachers. “We hope to involve these key leaders with the evolutionary process of changing child nutrition and how we purchase food. They are so key in encouraging children to learn more about their food and why certain foods are more important to incorporate into your diet over other foods. I have learned that our educational staff is always enthusiastic about doing what is good for children.”

Patience. “This will be a learning process for all of us. You can put all the healthy foods in front of your customers all the livelong day, but if you don’t help educate them, it will be all for naught. Continuing our nutrition education effort will be key to the success of something exciting: local, fresh food!”

Jean Gaddy Wilson is a communications consultant, retired executive director of the media think tank New Directions for News, and associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Where You Can Get Local Foods This Growing Season

Both existing Hy-Vee stores__ and the new Hy-Vee store set to open in April: Dan Elston, produce manager of the original Hy-Vee store on West Broadway, says, “Missouri Food 4 Missouri People represents an aggregate of farmers and are able to provide us with a larger selection of locally grown produce than any one farmer could.

“We think this is going to be a great relationship, and we are really looking forward to providing this service to residents. Hy-Vee as a company is making a big push for locally grown produce in all their stores. (There are 228 Hy-Vee stores in eight states in the Midwest.) We want the Columbia stores to be leaders in locally grown produce within the company, both in items carried and quantity sold. We know that our relationship with Missouri Food 4 Missouri People is a great opportunity.”

Columbia Farmer’s Market (corner of Clinkscales Road and Ash Street, behind the ARC): Saturday markets from 8 a.m. to noon, March 20 through Nov. 20; Monday and Wednesday markets from 4 to 6 p.m., May through October. At the peak of the season, there are more than 80 vendors with Saturday markets serving 3,000 to 5,000 customers.

Specialty shops are expected to advertise more and more local foods, so Summer 2010 could open new possibilities for shoppers.

And the tried and true method: Grow your own vegetables! From Burpee’s to Baker Creek Heirloom Seed in Mansfield, Mo., to Garden in a Bucket, a season’s worth of seeds are being bundled for the home gardener and cost from $10 to $55.