Last week at a conference in Stevens Point I noticed something odd about the luncheon: Each table was set with a plate of chocolate chip cookie halves. What's more, instead of the typical conference fare (pasty rectangles of defrosted, factory-raised chicken with mushy instant rice and melted-polyester sauce), participants were served roast grass-fed beef melts thick with grilled organic veggies, accompanied by a spunky squash soup.
The unusually good meal was support for the belief that "local is better" because, as part of the Wisconsin Local Food Summit, it featured ingredients that came from area farmers and producers. The broken cookies? They demonstrated that the local food movement is growing in our region. Turns out that the day's organizers, faced with a much higher attendance than expected, had split the cookies in half to make sure there'd be enough dessert for everyone.
The event was the first of its kind in Wisconsin, a statewide gathering focused on building the demand for locally produced food. More than 200 growers, farm group leaders, nonprofit advocates, Extension agents and others shared information on current efforts around the state - everything from community gardens and small business incubators to farm atlases and local food councils.
Attendees heard from Rod Nilsestuen, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, who bragged about the growth of specialty cheese plants in the state, a slowing of family farm losses and Wisconsin's position as "the leading specialty meat state in the country."
State Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) followed with an announcement of new legislation for "Buy Fresh, Buy Wisconsin," a program that aims to increase consumer purchases of local crops and products. The project's two-pronged approach would develop "food and culture tourism trails" to create new markets for the state's agriculture products and provide grant money for initiatives to help build a regional food system.
In a keynote speech, Brian Halweil, author of Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket, inventoried the economic, environmental and health benefits of food from close by and cited evidence that "buying local" has moved beyond the culinary fringe in America. Halweil drew applause when he said "Wisconsin is emerging as a hotbed in the nation's local food movement."
What really stuck with me about the day, though, was Halweil's point that in Wisconsin, as elsewhere, "eating local must scale up, it must go beyond farmers' markets and CSA farms in order to secure a viable place in the markets where Americans do 90% of their shopping."
As I was nibbling on my cookie-half on the drive back to Madison, I decided to up the eat-local ante in my own life. So I prepared a mental list. And if you haven't made any New Year's resolutions yet, let me propose the following:
Purchase a food dehydrator to dry tomatoes, apples, and other local produce for winter storage. Donate money to a farm-to-school program like Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch. Give gifts of local food this year. Plant a fruit tree in the backyard. Ask restaurant and grocery store owners to source more foods locally. Tell your legislators to support the Buy Fresh, Buy Wisconsin bill. Volunteer as a breakfast server at the Dane County Winter Farmers' Market. Cut a nonessential purchase from your budget and use the savings to increase the local foods you can afford.