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Local food movement requires reduced expectations

By Steven H. Foskett Jr. | Telegram & Gazette


During a panel discussion last week at Worcester Academy, Casey Burns of the Regional Environmental Council of Central Massachusetts listens as organic farmer Jack Kittredge talks about Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, where he and his wife, Julie Rawson, have been farming for almost three decades. Images of the farm are projected on a screen in the background as Mr. Kittredge speaks. (T&G Staff Photos / PAUL KAPTEYN)

WORCESTER —  For Armsby Abbey owner Alec Lopez, educating a customer at the Main Street craft brew bar and

PictureJulie Rawson of Barre offers a leaf of organic spinach to a visitor at the conference at Worcester Academy.

restaurant about eating sustainable and locally sourced food can be done by using as an example something as simple as an unassuming tomato.

' “It's nice to tell somebody that they can't have a tomato in December, and they look at you and they don't understand why, and you have the opportunity to explain that tomatoes don't grow in December, and what you're eating from the supermarket never looked like a tomato until it got to the supermarket, and certainly doesn't taste like a tomato, at least not to me, and hopefully not to you as well,” Mr. Lopez said. “But we found that people have really started to wake up.”

That awakening is part of what is driving the push for food sustainability and the slow food movement, an international movement dedicated to preserving traditional ways of growing, producing and preparing food. Mr. Lopez, who along with his staff cooks everything from scratch at the restaurant, joined a food sustainability panel last week at Worcester Academy that included a pair of local farmers, a college dining service director and an urban gardening coordinator.

All of the panelists seemed to agree on a few basic themes that drive the local/sustainable food movement — that with some effort, some planning and the willingness to get one's hands dirty, eating sustainable and locally grown food is healthier, better for the environment and cheaper than going to the supermarket.

The academy has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2020, and recently named Michael Carroll, a teacher at the school, as its sustainability director. The forum was a good fit with the academy's push for sustainability, Mr. Carroll said.

Julie Rawson, who, along with her husband, Jack Kittredge, runs Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, said part of living a sustainable lifestyle is going back to the old way of doing things to keep food over the winter. She said community root cellars are being built across the state to help get more mileage out of foods such as carrots and potatoes, and said the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced a program that will give up to 75 percent reimbursement to farmers who buy hoophouses — small do-it-yourself greenhouses — to raise food in the winter. But in the meantime, there are easy ways to stretch out that harvest.

“One of the things we tell people in our (community-supported agriculture cooperative) is that if you have too much stuff in your share this week, probably half of that you can either dry or can or freeze or in some way put it away for later,” Ms. Rawson said. “I grew up with food preservation. I've been beating cherries and tipping green beans since I was way too small; food preservation is a real option for us. It's about changing your expectations about having to have all these things. For the last 20 or 30 years we've been able to have whatever we want whenever we want it. We have to change that.”

For every big step such as building a root cellar or a hoophouse, there are smaller steps any person or organization can take. Canning is easy and doesn't require carbon footprint-widening refrigeration, said Elizabeth Bowles, who operates a family farm along with her husband, Tim, in Barre.

Marty Dudek, assistant director of dining services at the College of the Holy Cross, said the college has gone trayless in its dining establishments. He said making the move to plates-only reduced water consumption, and also cut down on food costs, because students would typically eat only what they could fit on plates they could carry.

He said students can take home food if they want, but dining services does not provide containers; students must bring their own.

Casey Burns, Urban Food Systems coordinator for the Regional Environmental Council of Central Massachusetts, said her organization, which oversees the network of urban gardens that have cropped up mostly in Main South in the past few years, said being able to grow one's own food can be an empowering experience for inner-city residents. She said the organization plans to start up another farmers market in the Great Brook Valley area this summer.

Mr. Dudek, who serves slow food meals twice monthly at the college, likened the sustainability movement to the push to get people to wear safety belts in cars. He said it is about constant reinforcement.

“We could come up with every excuse in the world on why we didn't need to wear a seat belt, and now there's a whole generation of people out there where a seat belt is just second nature,” Mr. Dudek said.

Ms. Bowles said raising food her family eats has helped them become more in touch with nature.

“We just think it's a lot of fun,” she said. “We feel like our lives are in much greater balance because we sort of live with the seasons, and look forward to the next thing that's going to be ready in the garden; we added turkeys and pigs this year and we really enjoyed Thanksgiving much more.”

She said her house tends to be the gathering place for family events because of the quality of the food they raise.

“There's something different about cooking when you raise your own food,” she said. “It's sort of a celebration of an end of a cycle, and I think our family has come to really appreciate it. One of the negative things is that I'm sort of the holiday host of all the family events. They happen at our house because the food is way better, and that's really what it's all about.”
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