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Is it possible to eat local in Tampa Bay?
Maybe. But you have to look beyond big grocery chains to find Florida-grown freshness.
By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published August 1, 2007
When it comes to eating locally, thousands of Americans have embarked on campaigns to minimize their personal carbon footprint.
There's the 100 Mile Diet, a project started by Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon in 2005 to eat foods that come no more than 100 miles away from your home.
Author Barbara Kingsolver has explored the life of a "locavore" in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.
The Center for a New American Dream has launched a Carbon Conscious Consumer campaign urging people to eat local, and organizations like Slow Food a nonprofit, "eco-gastronomic" member-supported organization have taken up the cause.
Not surprisingly, much of this fervor has taken place in urban "foodie" epicenters like San Francisco and New York City. Despite the fact that Florida is a huge agricultural state - in 2005 the state had 42,500 commercial farms using 10-million acres, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services - I speculated that it would be pretty darn hard to minimize my own personal carbon footprint here in the Tampa Bay area.
Florida ranks first in the country for sales of snap beans, fresh tomatoes, fresh and pickling cucumbers, bell peppers, squash, watermelons, oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, and sugarcane for sugar and seed; second for sales of greenhouse and nursery products, sweet corn and strawberries; fourth for honey production.
So where is all this stuff?
I wandered the aisles of my neighborhood grocery store scrutinizing country of origin labeling - which by 2008 will be mandatory for all produce, meat and seafood - and saw precious few "grown in Florida" labels. All right, I said to myself, it is July in Florida, not the peak of the season for growing produce.
But the story doesn't end there, defeated in the produce aisle.
I took a walk through the year-old Wild Oats store on N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa with marketing coordinator Sherell White, who pointed out products from 82 local providers (local, in this case, meaning all of Florida).
Starting in produce, we found roma, red and yellow tomatoes; green cabbage, beans and peppers; valencias and grapefruits, even Florida wheatgrass - all of it marked with a "Local" shelf tag.
Food in North America typically travels 1,500 miles from source to table and generates five to 17 times more carbon emissions than food grown locally, according to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C.
"In our Choose Local program," explains Sonja Tuitele, Wild Oats' senior director of corporate communications in Boulder, Colo., "what we've done is identified all of the local products and put signage in all our stores.
"Not only does it take miles-traveled off those products, but because a large number are organic, it means pesticides are not being used in people's local communities. It also supports diversity of the local economy by keeping the agricultural land from shrinking because of development."
But it doesn't end with produce. We kept walking.
After the recent pet food scare, it's good to know Fido can eat local. Josh's Firehouse Dog Treats hail from Largo, and Pet Guard dog food from Palm Harbor offers dry kibble and canned varieties.
Sami's Bakery in Tampa has fabulous wheat-free millet and flax bread (it makes great breakfast toast) and garlic chips for dipping; in the frozen food aisle, Sami's millet and flax spinach lavash aid in the preparation of a killer wrap. Nature's Healthy Gourmet out of Boca Raton has a line of tasty dips and spreads (hummus, black bean dip, tofu pate), and Aramouni, also from Boca Raton, produces a delicious spinach artichoke dip. There's Mama Mia Italian ice from Fort Lauderdale (orange and coconut) and an array of honeys from Papa Carroll's and Buzzn Bee.
Tropicana may have moved its headquarters to Chicago, but the oranges still hail from Florida. Nature's Orchid Island Juice in Fort Pierce also produces lemonade, OJ and grapefruit juices that are widely distributed. For something a little stronger, try a Piper's Pale Ale from Dunedin Brewery or Orange Blossom Pilsner brewed in Orlando. Keel & Curley bottles blueberry wines, and Florida Estates Wine bottles tastes like Florida orange and key lime.
T.G. Lee from Orlando distributes its three kinds of milk (skim, low-fat and whole) and whipping cream at Wild Oats, but also at most local neighborhood groceries, and at fairly competitive prices (a gallon for around $5.69).
Seafood and meat
Local fish is not nearly as prevalent as it should be, but at Wild Oats and other area grocery stores, you're likely to find black grouper, red snapper, striped bass, Key West pink shrimp and Cedar Key clams.
For local meat, it's slim pickings at area grocery stores, so you have to go that extra mile and contact purveyors directly. Rockin P. Ranch, (352) 588-0196 in Dade City, takes orders each August for October/November for all-natural certified Red Angus grass-fed calves. Also in Dade City, Cypress Creek Ranch, (352) 588-0395, offers homegrown, purebred Black Angus beef. Same with Outpost Ranch, (352) 585-1138 in Brooksville, but you have to buy a quarter, half or full steer. Rabbits, Etc., (352) 796 0459 in Masaryktown, has a big et cetera: It sells chemical-free meat from rabbits, sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, Cornish hens and turkeys. It offers eggs, too. At Heirloom Country Farms, (352) 337-2541 in Archer, you'll find free-range, certified naturally grown, grain- and grass-fed chickens and geese, along with eggs.
My Wild Oats browsing made me hopeful. Still, in an effort to eat local, there are some things consumers would just have to forgo: olives and olive oil (along with sesame oil, peanut oil and others), most dried herbs, spices and teas (largely hailing from China), tofu, vinegars, garlic (again, China) and salt.
San Francisco "locavores" have this credo:
If not locally produced, then organic.
If not organic, then family farmed.
If not family farmed, then a local business.
If not a local business, then fair trade.
If your aim is to minimize your own carbon footprint, shop as locally as you can, patronizing farmers markets whenever possible. Eat whole, unprocessed foods (processed foods use more energy for their fabrication and shipping). Eat as seasonally as possible. And ask questions about food's provenance as often as you can.
Eating local and organic will cost a bit more. But the more consumers push for local foodstuffs, the more available they will become. And prices will certainly go down as demand grows.