Monday, February 11, 2013
Earthy eating trend sprouts in North Texas
Where does your food come from?
When Liz Hankollari became pregnant with her first child a year ago, she and her husband Lulian started making more conscious decisions about where they purchase food. Seeking out clean, fresh produce moved to top priority for the couple, who wanted to maintain a healthy lifestyle for their daughter, beginning with her first bite.
For the better part of a decade, Dallas has been experiencing a shift in attitude toward natural, organic and locally grown food. This trend has brought about a plethora of new business openings in the area.
Many urban dwellers are new to the trend of Earthy eating, which is in part fueled by education about health risks posed by mass-production and the danger of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Others grow up with this innate understanding but often sacrifice nutrition because of market price.
“The conventional food model has failed us, in a way,” said Brandon Perez, marketing director of Urban Acres, a co-op located in Oak Cliff. There are several different avenues by which people are coming to that conclusion, he said, but what is certain is demand for healthy and “trustworthy” food is on the rise.
Urban Acres operates in part as a community supported agriculture program, meaning it has members who pay dues once a year in exchange for produce, meat and dairy, all notably farmed in Texas.
Interest in community gardening is also increasing, with more than 50 established gardens in North Texas, according to the non-profit Gardeners in Community Development. When the Lake Highlands Community Garden started five years ago, it only had 30 plots, said Nancy Wilson, a board member of the garden. There are now 89 plots and a waiting list to rent a spot.
When Kelly Clemons, project leader of the Deep Ellum Urban Garden, first suggested this idea to neighbors, about 60 people showed up to her meeting in support of the initiative. About 75 percent of the 120 plots are filled with soil and readying for their first spring planting.
“When you don’t have any green space around you, it’s easy to distrust where your food is coming from,” Clemons said. “People want to know what they’re putting in their mouth.”
Spreading the natural know-how
Some experts attribute this change in mentality to a shrinking barrier of knowledge. Role models such as Alice Waters, an internationally renowned activist and owner of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkley, Calif., has brought to light the economic benefits of eating local and the health benefits of avoiding herbicides and pesticides. First Lady Michelle Obama has also grabbed consumer attention through her Let’s Move! campaign, which specifies food choices and habits as the source of many adolescent diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
Books by Joel Salatin (Folks, This Ain’t Right; You Can Farm) and Michael Pollan (Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual; The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals), as well as documentaries like Food, Inc. and Super Size Me have been instrumental in revealing secrets of the food industry to the general public.
Sources interviewed for this story described the benefits of eating natural, organic and local as far reaching. Localized economies experience growth when money is handed to independent business owners instead of corporations. Less toxic chemicals make it into produce, meat and dairy when they are farmed on a small scale. And the environmental impact of transportation is minimized when food comes from 100 miles away rather than 1,000, Wilson said.
Owners at new stores such as Green Grocer and Origin Natural Food, as well as 3-year-old Urban Acres, have made it their mission to be a “trustworthy” liaison between producer and consumer. But this perfect scenario is not always black and white.
Tom Spicer, a veteran farmer of 30 years and owner of Spiceman’s F.M. 1410, believes most are buying into the image of eating natural and organic without the proper knowledge to receive any actual benefit. He called it symbolism over substance. Marketing techniques are convincing consumers to buy healthy but not educating them how to cook healthy, he said.
Plus, the market is tailored to those who can afford it, thereby eliminating the portion of the population that needs nutritious food the most.
“Poor families need to be eating better, so you have a place like Wal-Mart,” Spicer said. “To make everyone full is not the same as being healthy.”
Other issues arise below the surface level on the business side. For instance, the vernacular used across the industry can be misleading, said Mark Wootton, manager of Garden Café, which grows much of its own produce in East Dallas. Terms such as “cage-free,” “farm fresh,” and “certified organic” are open to farmer interpretation. To claim chickens as free-range, farmers are required by law to give them continuous and frequent time outside, Wootton said; however "outside" could mean 50 chickens sharing a 4x4 piece of grass.
The term “certified organic” has come under scrutiny lately because the cost and paperwork are more than many independent farmers can afford. Spicer takes issue with the evaluation to become certified organic because it is based strictly on farming techniques rather than soil samples.
Wootton said his biggest concern is the increasing number of patents, which diminishes the number of diverse foods grown around the globe. Even Whole Foods, which laid the groundwork for smaller retailers of this type, is being criticized recently for supplying genetically modified products.
“It’s easy to think you’re doing well,” Wootton said in reference to eating healthy. “But it’s tricky and time consuming to really do well.”
Behind the curve
While Dallas is making progressive steps in natural food arena, the movement here is less than a decade old. Perez at Urban Acres said his family switched gears in 2005 and noticed more people questioning whether there was a better way of eating. By 2009, natural and organic were becoming household terms, he said.
The irony is that in the early 1900s, meeting your farmer was like meeting your neighbor, according to Wilson of the Lake Highlands garden. Most households had a personal garden, as did schools, which taught gardening as part of the standard curriculum. When America faced the crises of World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II, the government both funded and promoted the idea of community gardening. After that, however, Americans tried to abandon ideas reminiscent of the past and embrace a new, industrial era. Gardens were even banned by some homeowners associations.
In essence, Dallas has taken nearly a century to return to its roots.
Don Lambert, an anthropology professor at University of Texas at Dallas and a diplomatic leader in community gardening, moved to Dallas from near Berkley, California in the ‘80s. An avid gardener his whole life, Lambert expected the south would have plentiful community gardens like his previous residence, but was shocked by how few existed.
Lambert began organizing groups within churches and low-income communities to build and maintain gardens on private property. In 1990, he helped establish one on what is now the Texas Discovery Gardens. However, that project only succeeded for a couple years before it ran out of funding. Unfortunately, many gardens in this area succumb to that fate, he said.
As a founding member of Gardeners in Community Development and a member of the American Community Garden Association for more than 20 years, Lambert has traveled cross-country to research the subject. He noted a common thread between the cities with successful experiences: “Most great community gardens have support from their cities and local botanical gardens,” Lambert said.
Cities such as Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago and Cincinnati have access to land and resources from a large support network that begins with the local government, he said.
City officials enlisted the help of Lambert when Dallas jumpstarted its own community gardening initiative around 2007. Prior to that, there were no laws governing the subject, much less the use of city property to do so. In what was a time-consuming and painstaking process, according to Lambert, the city established one community garden with a grant from Miracle Grow – the Lake Highlands Community Garden – before letting the issue fall off the docket. All other community gardens in the city have been independently established, he said.
"Many community gardens across the nation spawn out of necessity," said Wilson, board member at the Lake Highlands garden where some have hired help to tend the plot. "Gardening in Dallas is a hobby."
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