Local Tastes
Eat Local Week highlights Durango-grown food

SideStory: Eat Local Week at a glance

A basket of fresh zuchinis awaits local foodies at the Farmers Market last weekend. Locally produced food, everything from meat to cheese to veggies, will be the focus of next week’s Eat Local Week. Sponsored by Local First, the event is aimed at increasing awareness of the benefits of eating locally./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Missy Votel

Local farms and restaurants are teaming up to make eating local easier to swallow.
Next week, Sept. 5- 12, is Eat Local Week in Durango, a “celebration of local food,” meant to raise awareness of the benefits of eating locally while showing that it really isn’t all that hard to do.
“We are really looking for ways to highlight local producers and build connections between them and local restaurants and consumers,” said LeeAnn Vallejos, managing director of Local First, which is spearheading the event. “Local First works to build the local living economy, and sustainable agriculture really ties into that.”

Nine local restaurants, as well as Durango Natural Foods, will be showcasing local dishes and products all week. Consumers can either buy the items directly, or use special “Local Food” dollars (see sidebar). For each local item bought, 5 percent will go to support Local First, La Plata County’s independent business alliance. Those wishing to take it a step further can take the “Eat Local Pledge” at www.local-first.org. There are three levels of commitment: Die-hard Locavore – all food in all meals must be grown, raised or produced within 200 miles of La Plata County; Locavore Taster – all foods in one meal per day will be grown, raised or produced within 200 miles; or the Locavore Sampler - four meals throughout the week must have ingredients grown, raised or produced within 200 miles.
Vallejos said given the current abundance at the Durango Farmers Market, not to mention backyard gardens, this should be a shoe-in. “We timed it with the fall harvest. The selection is remarkable right now.”

For the last several years, the Locavore movement has touted the virtues of eating food produced as close to one’s home as possible. Vallejos said the benefits of this are far-reaching, including improved personal health as well as that of the environment and local economy. It is the latter that is the main emphasis of Eat Local Week. “The closer to home you spend your money, the greater the return to the community,” she said. “Buying from locally owned, independent businesses, including farms and ranches, keeps dollars circulating longer in our community”.

Vallejos said statistics show La Plata County consumers spend $130 million dollars on food each year. However, on average, only 20 cents for every dollar spent on mass-produced food reaches the farmer. But with locally produced food, 100 percent goes back to the farmer. “That’s huge,” she said. “It’s a big part of our economy.” In fact, at last count, the Mesa Verde Food Guide, a listing of food producers in Southwest Colorado, had more than 50 growers, she said.

Furthermore, Vallejos said corporate food travels an average of 1,500 miles from source to store. Aside from the negative effects on the environment associated with shipping, Vallejos said such food is inferior to that grown closer to home and on a smaller scale. “What people don’t know is that mass-produced food is meant to grow quickly, efficiently and to live in a truck for 10 days,” she said. “Meanwhile, local food is produced for flavor, variety and texture. It just tastes different.”

More importantly, though, small-scale, locally produced food is better insulated from the food-borne illness outbreaks plaguing the corporate food industry. “It’s disgusting, the conditions they find at those farms,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important having that connection and knowing where your food comes from.”

Not only do small-scale farms better safeguard human health, they also take better care of the earth. “Usually, local producers don’t use pesticides or herbicides because they want to preserve the ecosystems,” said Joshua Jackson, manager of Durango Natural Foods. “They have a more vested interest in the land than a corporate entity would. They want to make sure it’s protected for future generations.”

Jackson said DNF has tried to put the spotlight on local food and items for several years and now features 30 local producers on its shelves. During Eat Local Week, DNF will offer two daily local specials in the deli and highlight local products throughout the store. Jackson said the store didits own Eat Local Week last year, in conjunction with national Eat Local Month. He said the store’s efforts to education people on the benefits of buying locally, as well as the Locavore movement, are starting to pay off. “The interest in eating locally is definitely growing,” he said. “Our volume of local products has really increased in recent years. I’ve only been with the co-op for three years but I’ve been in Durango for several, and I’ve seen a lot of new farms coming around or getting their names out there. There are also a lot just getting established that will start producing in a few years.”

Jackson said the supply of local food is better in the summer than winter, but local meats, sprouts and wheatgrass are offered year round at the store. Right now, a main detriment to eating locally year round is supply and storage. The store tries to stockpile durable produce for winter distribution, but many farmers are now also investing in greenhouses to supply fresh produce year round. “A lot of farmers are going that route,” he said. “It’s more costly to build a greenhouse, but with increased growth in business, they are able to do it.”

Eating and buying locally is nothing new for Alison Dance, owner of Cyprus Café. For the last 15 years, she has built a strong reputation on serving local food on her menu year round. “All year long, we have something local on our menu,” she said. “We try to get as close to 100 percent as we can.”

Over the years, she has seen a marked increase in not only the supply but the demand for local food. “In years past, we haven’t had enough produce to take us through the winter season. That’s changing.” Just last week, she said she bought the most local produce she’s ever bought from local suppliers. Although she occasionally still peruses the Farmers Market in search of specialty items, most of the farmers now come to her. “Now, they call, we place our order, and they drop it off and give us a bill,” she said.

Linda Isley, of Cocina Linda, prepares quesadillas from local ingredients on Tuesday./ Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Like many restaurateurs, Dance, struggles with limited storage. “The Cyprus kitchen is about the size of a closet, we can only hold so much,” she said. However, this has led to creative solutions, including a small root storage area and supplementing her winter produce with tomatoes from a greenhouse she recently built. “Last winter, we had local potatoes and onions through January and fresh tomatoes until February.”

Already in this season’s larder are chanterelle mushrooms and a bumper crop of cherries from Hermosa. “They had to pick them all because the bears were eating them,” she said. “So, suddenly we had 130 pounds of cherries. We pitted and froze them and will use them all winter.”

Other creative solutions to local food storage are also in the works, she said, with talk among farmers for a community root cellar. “A root cellar would be great, then I could buy in mass and have someplace to put it all,” Dance said.

It is such cooperative efforts and ingenuity that are perpetuating the local food movement, in Durango and across the country, making the possibility of a sustainable food economy so close that, well, you can practically taste it. “People who are conscious eaters are looking for that more and more,” said Dance. “And more and more, people are becoming conscious eaters.” •