Getting fresh

This Oak Park family is trying to live on locally-grown food. Can they do it?

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By JONATHAN SCHULER

The Oak Park Farmers' Market came to a close a little less than three weeks ago. Lucky for Rob Gardner and his family, they have two freezers and a chilly room in the basement to store all the local food that will get them through the winter and into the start of next year's growing season.

Gardner and his wife and two daughters are trying to buy and eat local food throughout the entire year. "It's easy to do during the height of the market season in July or August," Gardner said. "But let's see if we can keep it up for the whole year, especially come January or February."

The Oak Park family froze vegetables and fruits, including corn on the cob, bell peppers, grapes and berries. They oven dried tomatoes and made batches of fresh tomato sauce to store. A couple weeks ago, Gardner's wife, Sheila Essig, spent several hours cleaning and trimming the tips off green beans. They ate some of the beans that night; the rest they froze. Additionally, they've placed items like potatoes, onions and apples in a chilly room in their basement.

The family hasn't started to dip into the frozen supply yet, though, primarily because they belong to a program that connects area farmers with local consumers. The Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, provides participants with a box of locally grown crops once a week. Some farmers are able to extend their growing season into November and even December by using greenhouses or by planting certain crops that grow easier in the cooler weather, said Gary Cuneen, executive director of Seven Generations Ahead, the Oak Park-based group that organizes the program.

The non-profit organization, which helps communities promote environmental and human health, said a typical box of crops, depending on what's seasonal, contains a combination of more traditional fare, like carrots, peppers, onions and potatoes, as well as less common items you can't find in a grocery store, including organic heirloom tomatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, radishes and beets. One full box costs $25-$30; a 20-week season costs about $500-$600. "It's more than enough food for a family of four; some folks even find it challenging to eat all the food that's given," Cuneen said.

There are about 13 CSA hubs in Oak Park, and this year about 15 farmers and 650 families are participating, he said. "It gives people the chance to support a local family farmer, to know where their food is coming from and how it's being raised, and given that it's being raised locally, it's providing Oak Park and Chicago-area consumers with the freshest and most nutritious and most delicious food available," Cuneen said.

While the Gardners enjoy their CSAs, which recently included some squash, potatoes, onions, turnips, lettuce and other greens, the downside, he noted, is that you're at the mercy of what's in the box every week. "A couple zucchinis and eggplants and all of a sudden you're going to be making a lot of omelets and pastas," Cuneen said.

A hobby, a challenge

The idea to stay as local as possible intrigued Gardner as his awareness of the organic and local sustainable food movement increased during the past five years. He said when his family lived in Chicago several years ago, they visited farmers' markets intermittently. But when they moved to Oak Park in 2001, they started going to the market here almost from Day One.

"I look at it like a hobby. It takes work. Others will go skiing or buy video games or whatever," Gardner said. "I spend money at the farmers' market."

That money is well spent, said Bob Young, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, the industry's trade association.

"What it does for the farmer is to get them further up the marketing chain. If you've entered into a direct-sale relation through a farmers' market or fresh-product club, it does allow that produce to get more of a direct connection to the consumer dollar," Young said. "There's no middle man, basically. You'll get a higher return for your crop."

He said there have been a number of efforts across the country, mainly in major metropolitan areas, which try to get residents to focus more on locally produced products.

That's one of the reasons Oak Park created its own market, said David Powers, a spokesman for the village.

"It was originally started to provide an opportunity to get really fresh vegetables that were perhaps just picked a day or so before they ended up at the market. You don't get a lot of those opportunities," he said. "It is a major activity that goes beyond just what is being sold. It's a good opportunity to talk to the farmer who grew the produce or who raised the chickens that laid the eggs."

Gardner tries to purchase local eggs when he can, and he buys milk that comes from an Amish farm in Iowa at Whole Foods. With meat, it's more difficult to stay local, especially from a financial standpoint.

"I'm a little less strident with meat than with fruits and vegetables. It's a little more money than it is at the supermarket," Gardner said. "A whole chicken can be up to $8, which is not the type of prices you find at the stores."

While affordable local meat and poultry may be more difficult to find, it doesn't mean his family doesn't buy it from time to time. In fact, Oak Park passed an ordinance this year that was proposed by Seven Generations Ahead, allowing the Farmers' Market to permit two vendors to sell meat, poultry and fish. Gardner has bought from both farms. And along with the sweet potatoes and squash at his Thanksgiving table last year, his turkey came from a farm in Indiana.

Which begs the question: How do you define what's "local?"

Oranges yes, mangos no

Cuneen comments that local "is as close as we can get it."

"Some of the farms are 50 minutes away and some are four hours away," he explained. "We try and source food that is as close as possible."

Gardner views local boundaries as roughly mirroring the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Big Ten Conference: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. "It's regions where you've got a similar climate and where, if you ship the produce in some reasonable fashion, not FedEx-ed or something, it will be at its prime and in an ideal state when you get it."

This means he gives the all-clear to certain items like bananas, one of the few products that can be picked very green and left to ripen for weeks. Or citrus fruit from California and Florida, which travel well and diminish in quality very little when shipped.

"Part of the fun of this, other than the challenge, is to try and think about what our parents and our grandparents ate. It's like setting a time machine," he said. "We're not going back to get a sense of what it was like to ride around in a horse and buggy. We're going back to see if you could get oranges 50 years ago in a Chicago market. And you could. But you couldn't get a mango. That's how I try and set some of the parameters."

The whole family has become involved in the process, too. Daughters Hannah, 11, and Sophia, 9, have helped their mother search out local food labels in grocery stores, and shopping at the markets is a family event.

"I think the kids think it's fun. They're doing fine with it so far and they like the food that we're serving. Come winter it'll be interesting, though, and I'm hoping they don't get impatient with it," Essig said. "They enjoy the adventure and they enjoy the food."

She said if their diets become unhealthy, they'll be quick to make a change. But she and her husband believe in the health benefits of consuming local products. Fresher foods often retain more of their nutritional value. There's also a sense of inherent accountability established when making a connection with a farmer, Gardner said, which allows the family to know they're getting a good, healthy product.

In the end, though, eating local comes down to taste, Gardner said. He believes the quality of the food he purchases is comparable to the ingredients used in some of the best restaurants in the Chicago area. "They're sourcing from the same people we're sourcing from," he said.

Locally, the evidence of Gardner's claim is clear: Cuneen's group has connected several eateries with sources of local food, including Buzz Cafe, Marion Street Cheese Market and S3 Kitchen in Oak Park, and La Piazza in Forest Park.

Hit and miss

While eating local has been fun and rewarding for the Gardners, they've had their mishaps and learning experiences. They admit the biggest mistake was not to commit fully to staying local year round until the middle of the market season. In doing so, the family lost the opportunity to buy large quantities of things like cherries, strawberries and peasâ€"items that freeze and preserve relatively well.

At one point they bought a large amount of plums with the intention of drying them, only to see them get moldy and rot. "We're learning and trying as we go along," Gardner said. "We do know that no matter what, we're not going to starve. I can always run to the Jewel or to White Hen."

Essig said she wished they had done a better job labeling items. "We've got to get a wax pencil so I can write exactly where and when we bought what," she said. "Right now there's no way to distinguish where I got the Concord grapes from."

They're also thinking about investing in a vacuum-type machine to seal freezer bags, and Gardner said he hopes to convince members of LTHForum.com, a Chicago-area online food forum to which he is a frequent contributor, to hold sessions on canning techniques.

Gardner also chronicles his quest to eat locally on his blog at http://vitalinformation.blogspot.com. You can find reports there about Oak Park's and Chicago's Green City farmers' markets, as well as other adventures in gastronomy.

While everyone in the Gardner family is up for the challenge of eating locally, the level of commitment varies among family members.

"She harbors between humoring me and commitment," Gardner said of his wife. "'This is a cool thing to do; I support you doing it; I'm going to help you,' she says. But she'd be just as happy to get a box of raspberries at Whole Foods in December that I'm trying to keep her from buying," he said.

Essig said she supports the concept in theory, but said there are exceptions. "I have things for me that trump the local season," she said. "So one of the compromises that we're kind of at right now is we'll go to the frozen stuff initially and when the reserves run out, I'm going to go to the store and get berries."

Seven Generations Ahead will hold its third annual benefit dinner and celebration from 6:30-10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19 at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago. The dinner will feature local food prepared by chefs from various area restaurants. To purchase tickets, which are $100 each, or for more information, visit the group's website at www.sevengenerationsahead.org, or call 660-9909.

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