When Sophie Gardner, now 17, was attending second grade at Hatch Elementary School in Oak Park, her physical education teacher, Sandra Noel, wanted her students to understand that buying and eating locally grown food from farmers was healthy and a more sustainable lifestyle choice.
To further plant that seed at school, one of many things the 2006 Golden Apple Award-winning teacher did was plan a student activity where a local farmer came in to explain how he was growing vegetables on his land.
The wrap-around assignment directed the class to pen a thank-you note to the farmer and have a student deliver it in person.
"Because Ms. Noel knew we would be at the Oak Park Farmers Market anyway, she gave me the note to give to the farmer," said Sophie, recalling, around a dining room table with her sister Hannah, 19, and parents Sheila Essig, 56 and Rob Gardner, 49, that seminal moment when everything changed for her. "So we gave it to Vicki from Genesis Growers, who then introduced us to locally grown vegetables and got us started on our first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription in Oak Park."
But Rob Gardner had a much bigger idea.
"So this was around 2004, and I thought, 'Let's just get all our food from the Farmers Market,'" said Gardner, now the publisher and editor of a foodie blog called The Local Beet: Chicago. "We will live like people did before there were grapes from Chile … and just eat what we can from Farmers Market, and fill it in from there."
Early on, he said, when people checked in with him about how the new "food thing" was going, he'd say, "Ask me in a month … and then we kept going month by month, and that was about 10 years ago."
Essig adds that to augment it all, joining a CSA was a necessary option and initially a solid test drive of sorts, since it was always a challenge to eat everything in the box.
"It will take you a whole step further into doing this," she said. "Some people have never had Kohlrabi, but when it comes in your box, you are compelled to try it. And once you do, you might realize that you like it because it is optimum quality. So we were getting fresh produce, a box a week, from these farmers."
The family concedes that their learning curve has been steep, and actually eating fresh and locally grown food year-round is an ongoing process.
In the early years, Sophie said, her classmates would tease her that the carrots in her lunch were "funny looking," whereas her sister Hannah admitted that she struggled with giving up berries in the winter, since they had been her preferred add-in for yogurt.
"To do this, you have to be willing to eat what the environment has given you in any particular month; be able to play the long game, by looking at things through the course of what you will be able to eat in March and April, which are the hardest months to eat local, and you have to be willing to spend more time in the kitchen. If you can make that change, and start cooking more, everything will flow from there," Gardner said.
Eating out loud
In recent years, scores of followers have been reading all about this "Local Family," and what they are eating now on www.thelocalbeetchicago.com. In addition to several blogs, Gardner's site features a 2013 CSA Guide and a Farmers Market Locater.
On Twitter, Essig also tells all about what's for dinner at their house via
Meanwhile, most Saturdays the former public interest lawyer-turned-sales assistant for Tomato Mountain Farm can be found at the Oak Park Farmers Market sharing food tips with locals, while peddling to them her employer's CSA subscription service and jarred products.
One more thing 10 years of doing this has taught Essig, et al, is that they can choose not to be purists — although most of the vegetables and fruit they choose to eat they purchase from relatively nearby Midwestern farms.
"Tea is not grown here. I choose not to go without tea, or coffee, or salt, or olive oil. For me, those are basics," she said. "But the difference in buying local peaches and strawberries as opposed to buying those that are imported is that they look and taste different than the ones that are locally grown."
Right now their biggest challenge to staying on course, is of course, dining out.
"We are very much coming to this from a point of sustainability, which encompasses the ecological, economic, the other factors that make it so we want to support local farms," Essig said. "To do this, though, we don't think you only have to shop the Farmers Market, or join a CSA. It can also be Caputo's, and recently Rob actually found a Dominick's that sells local berries. The idea is to do as much as you can in supporting small farms by buying local."