By Judy Walker
Food can present all kinds of challenges: Making a new recipe or mastering a new cooking technique. Staying on a weight-loss diet. Sticking to a grocery budget.
Here’s a new one: Eating only local foods for 30 days during the month of June.
A group called NOLA Locavores is challenging New Orleanians to eat only food grown, caught or raised within a 200-mile radius “to raise awareness of the economic, nutritional, cultural and environmental benefits of eating locally sourced food products, ” its mission statement says.
At a kick-off party on May 31, participants who pay $20 to register will get 2 pounds of kosher salt from the Avery Island salt mine (which retails for $7.95 a pound), a local food products resource guide, a T-shirt, a 10 percent discount at Hollygrove Market, free admission to the Food Justice Film Series at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center and more. Recipes will be offered every week, plus prizes will be awarded to recipe contest winners.
“It’s good to be aware of where your food comes from,” said Lee Stafford, a Central City neighborhood activist. “There’s a very common-sense reason to do this. It’s better for the local economy; it’s better for the local environment; it’s fresher and tastes better if it comes from within the reach of the Mississippi Delta.
“And it’s going to be fun to maneuver through this scavenger hunt. Where can I get this? What can I make from that? I’m going to be asking the questions: ‘Is that local?’ ”
Stafford said he finds most people aren’t aware of where their food comes from. “They don’t know if the produce at the supermarket is coming from local farms or not.”
The event is self-regulated. Organizers are presenting three levels of strictness: The Ultrastrict, The Bienville Rule and The Wild Card. The Ultrastrict restricts participants to ingredients grown or caught within 200 miles: That mean no flour, only locally grown grains, herbs and spices; and wine from locally grown grapes (hello, Pontchartrain Vineyards.)
Followers of the mid-level, The Bienville Rule, could use flour and dried spices, as long as other ingredients are local. (From the website: “Although they are not using Louisiana grown hops, Abita beer would be acceptable.”)
Wild Card eaters will eat local but also include whatever other ingredients they feel they can’t live without.
Alyssa Denny plans to practice the strictest of the three versions. She’s as tapped into local foods as anybody, as she manages the Hollygrove Market and grows some of her own food.
“We’re in a good position to be involved, ” Denny said of her and her partner, but she still thinks it will be a challenge. “I don’t anticipate being able to get that much local flour, which will pretty much cut out bread or pasta or starchier things like that. For me, that will be one of the hardest parts.”
Although, she noted, local corn is just coming in. And there is locally milled cornmeal.
Denny also anticipates difficulty making it through the month “being in such a festive environment, ” with friends or dining out or at festivals. Dr. Leslie Brown, a north shore pediatrician who founded this weekend’s Veggie Fest and is part of the core group for the Locavore Challenge, said she has been working for the past few years to shift her diet to all locally grown products.
The challenge “sounds like an extreme thing to do, but I think it’s worth doing even if you don’t think you can do it completely. Maybe do as much of the challenge as you can. Maybe do 60 percent. I think it’s something people can work up to.
“Once more people are working on it together, it’s easier for the community.”
The effort is about building awareness, Brown said, in that it encourages people to shop at local farmers markets, look for local vegetables at supermarkets and look for local wines.
“Whatever efforts are made, it’s a great awareness-building process for everyone.”
Participants will be urged to share information on local products and sources, too.
“I didn’t realize there were locally grown beans, and then a Hollygrove basket I got had some local pinto beans. Lee found local salt, ” Brown said. “We found a company that makes rice flour. Pecan oil I found in Rouse’s. I thought cooking oil would be hard to find.”
There is also a big healthy-eating component.
“If it comes from somewhere locally, it’s likely to be healthier because it hasn’t traveled a long way. Lots of local farmers use symbiotic growing practices, with not as many pesticides and fertilizers, which makes what we’re eating all the healthier, ” Brown said.
Brown said a small core group started brainstorming about the challenge last year, looking at what’s been done in other cities. One debate was over how far the mileage should extend, because locavores typically eat within a 100-mile limit.
“Some of the meat suppliers were further out than that, ” Brown said. “It would have limited the number of producers we could draw from. We thought about 300 miles, 250 miles. Two hundred is where we thought we needed to be because we could be into Mississippi, central Louisiana and into the Gulf.”
The group has signed up several sponsors including Rouse’s, the Louisiana Seafood and Marketing Board, Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar, La Divinia Gelateria, Ponchatrain Vineyards, Parkway Partners and others.
Chef John Folse, Rouse’s, the Crescent City Farmers Market, Old New Orleans Rum and Hollygrove Market are each sponsoring a recipe contest for participants. Prizes range from a stay at a bed and breakfast on a farm to dinner and a night’s stay in the French Quarter. Folse will make the winning recipe from his contest on his television show.
About 85 people had signed up for the challenge as of early this week, and the group hopes to draw more before the contest starts.
“Five hundred would be great for our first year, ” Brown said. “The purpose is to get people tuned into the fact that it’s great for the economy if you buy locally grown and produced items, and it’s better for your health and better for the land.”