30 days of locally grown eating equals personal and economic health


John Steyer organizes his produce at the Alachua County Farmers Market in 2013.

File photo
Published: Friday, April 25, 2014 at 7:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 25, 2014 at 7:37 p.m.

When Andi Houston first participated in the Alachua County Eat Local Challenge, she was surprised by how easily her family was able to adjust to her new recipes.

Facts

If you go

What: Seventh annual Alachua County Eat Local Challenge kickoff
When: 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturday
Where: Alachua County Farmers Market, 5920 NW 13th St.
Registration: Free. Go to www.hogtownhome
grown.com/eat_local_challenge.html

Houston had always been into eating local, but she decided to step it up a notch with the one-month challenge to eat nothing but locally grown food.

"It changed the way I eat on a regular basis," said Houston, the assistant market manager for the Alachua County Farmers Market. "When I brought my family more on board, we realized as a family that this food tastes better."

For those hoping to participate this year, the seventh annual Alachua County Eat Local Challenge will hold a kickoff event from 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Alachua County Famers Market, 5920 NW 13th St. The event will feature live music and a series of workshops ranging from knitting to growing shiitake mushrooms.

The challenge, which calls for participants to pledge to eat locally grown and produced food every day at home or at locally owned restaurants for the month of May, officially begins Thursday and ends May 31, when organizers will host a celebration at Sweet Dreams Ice Cream.

Stefanie Samara Hamblen, the organizer of the challenge, said she decided to hold the challenge in May because it's the best time of year to get a variety of produce in the local area. Alachua County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson also will be attending the kickoff to declare May as "Eat Local Month" for Alachua County. Registration is free and can be done at www.hogtownhomegrown.com or at the Hogtown HomeGrown Facebook page.

"We in North Central Florida are extremely lucky because we have such wide varieties of food in [the] early weeks of summer," Houston said. "It's not like this is a month of deprivation by any stretch of the imagination."

In recent years, registration for the Alachua County Eat Local Challenge has peaked at about 500 people, said Hamblen, who writes the blog Hogtown HomeGrown and owns The Illegal Jam Company.

But for each person who participates in the event, there are typically three to four others at home eating the same thing, Hamblen said, so the scope of this challenge affects up to 2,500 people.

That's a stark difference from when she first organized the challenge. In 2008, the idea of eating local hadn't really caught on, she said.

"Part of the way I measure the success is how many restaurants feel the need to serve local food," Hamblen said.

In the challenge's first year, only one restaurant in the area was serving local food. This year, that number has increased to more than three dozen. Among the restaurants participating in the challenge are The Jones, The Top, Ivey's Grill, Northwest Grille, Blue Highway Pizza — both the Micanopy and Tioga locations — Harvest Thyme, Café C, Sweet Dreams Homemade Ice Cream, Leonardo's 706 and Amelia's.

Hamblen said she personally speaks to restaurant owners and managers to get them on board for the Eat Local Challenge. If they agree to participate by creating menu items that are made up of all local ingredients, she gives them an Eat Local Challenge sticker they can put on their doors.

A lot of the places that offer local food on their menu year-round started out by using local food as a special during the month of May, she said.

Tempo Bistro To Go, a restaurant that tries to make everything on its menu from local ingredients, has been a partner in the Eat Local Challenge since it first opened.

John Drum, co-owner and manager of Tempo, said there's very little profit in what he's doing, but he does it because it feels right.

"Our food costs are through the roof," Drum said.

But for him, the costs are well worth it, especially when he hears his customers talk about how fresh and real the food tastes.

"If more people would not just participate in the eat local challenge, but really invest in it, they would realize the food tastes better," Houston said. "The environmental stuff is wonderful icing on the cake."

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