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Slow down and enjoy locally grown foods

While at the grocery store recently, I bought food for my household and for a friend, leaving her portion at her home while she was away.

The food was raw for the most part, ­needing to be prepared.

I soon received a phone call from her ­complaining, half-jokingly, that she hadn't cooked from scratch for a long time and it was a lot of work.

I thought about that Thursday as I was talking with Jim Embry, a local activist who has been instrumental in starting community gardens throughout the city.

Embry is among a growing number of people who advocate the slow food concept, which is basically growing and consuming fresh foods, preferably those grown locally.

In other words, not only cooking from scratch, but growing the food, to boot.

”What you do is create what we had before,“ he said, when the food eaten was grown with our own hands or the hands of someone in the community.

”When I was growing up 50 years ago,“ he said, we had oranges and grapefruit around Christmas time. We had it for a couple of weeks and then no more.

”The food tasted better. What we are ­talking about isn't anything new.“

With the recent scares about various fresh produce, more and more people, restaurants and even schools are seeking access to locally grown produce and meats.

Embry and 19 other Kentuckians will be traveling to Turin, Italy, for Terra Madre, the third biannual international conference established to discuss and share innovative concepts in the field of food and globalization.

It is a part of the Slow Food movement, which began in Italy in 1986.

About 6,000 people from 150 countries are expected, bringing together cooks, scientists, university professors, producers and, this year, activists like Embry.

Mark Williams, Slow Food Bluegrass convivium, or chapter, leader and co-founder, said Kentucky will have the fourth-largest contingent from the United States.

The interest is great here because ­Kentucky has 86,000 tax-paying farms, Williams said. And the concept of eating locally grown food has increased dramatically in recent years.

”It is growing in quantum leaps,“ Williams said. ”Look at the increase of sales of organic food in the last decade. It has been a double-digit rise every year.“

Terra Madre runs from Oct. 23 to 27, with workshops throughout the day and chances to eat great food, said Bob Perry, coordinator of the food system initiative at the University of Kentucky Department of Agriculture and a chef.

”It is the greatest networking opportunity there is,“ Perry said. ”I went two years ago. It is the concentration of that many people of the same mind set.“

Perry said conference officials house participants in hotels according to their category: producers, cooks, academics and community activists. Two years ago, he was in a building with cooks and he loved it.

”The bottom line is networking,“ he said. ”It was amazing the connections I made.“

But the purpose of the conference, he said, is to teach people how to start cooking more and eating out less. And it seems to be working.

He said recent reports have shown that this was a banner year for seed companies, unprecedented since the Victory Gardens during World War II. Those were private vegetable, fruit and herb gardens planted in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain to help during the rationing of food during the war. In the United States, the gardens produced about 40 percent of the produce consumed here.

Perry, whose job is to answer a variety of food-related questions involving growing, marketing or working with a food product, keeps track of the many research efforts going on in the agriculture department.

”I may not know the answer, but I can find the answer in a day or two,“ he said.

Interconnected with slow food concept is Kentucky Proud and sustainable agriculture. Sustainable refers to a means of ”raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer and supports and enhances rural communities,“ according to one definition.

And that's Embry's passion, the seed he is planting in the minds of inner-city kids with community gardens.

”This whole globalized food system is playing havoc with the health of human beings, the health of the planet, the health of the atmosphere,“ he said. ”We have to rein in industrialized, globalized food systems and turn it back to the local rhythms of life.

”We have to educate people about the whole food industry, he said. ”That is what we are doing with the community gardens.“

The young people who join in the community gardens haven't used shovels to dig post holes or planted seeds to watch them grow.

He said now, they have discovered worms, bugs and blemished produce along with more self worth.

”Our generation needs to do more to inform our children and grandchildren about how life was when we were growing up,“ Embry said.

He said he would like to see each school maintaining a garden as part of its curriculum to get more young people involved.

Embry applied to be a participant at Terra Madre because he wanted to ensure someone from the United States could represent people like the kids he works with and others who are affected most by the lack of access to fresh food and vegetables.

Before he goes to Italy and especially when he returns, Embry said he will be speaking often to groups in order to spread the word. ”It's not like I'm going, but that the community is going,“ he said.

But the group could use some help.

Although the room and board is courtesy of Terra Madre, transportation to and from is not. Plane tickets can be as much as $2,000.

With the incidents of cancer, diabetes and obesity tied to our eating habits and what we eat, it sounds like we need to try to get back to what we once knew.

That's what I told my friend when she called. It's the same thing I tell myself.