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Taste of the Town

by Christa Wagner

December 3,2004

On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I went to dinner with my family at Monk’s, a quaint little tavern that claims to serve the largest selection of Belgian brews in the Western Hemisphere. This was exciting news for all of the college aged in my family: great potential for t-shirts, matchboxes, coasters and other brag-worthy collectables.

But I was thrilled for another reason: Monk’s menu included locally grown produce and locally raised animal products. So enraptured was I that the waitress brought me a copy of the “Philadelphia Local Food Guide,” a directory of restaurants, stores and farmers’ markets that specialize in foods that support family farms and local economies in southeastern Pennsylvania. Monk’s was listed along with about 30 other restaurants and cafes. This was a revelation. And it gave me a delicious idea. If Philadelphia, a city that shares its name with a cream cheese, could support the locally grown food market, Charlotte can too.

I mean, most of what we need is already here. The great restaurants are here. A premier culinary school, Johnson and Wales, just opened its doors here last year. And the Center City Green Market is a big success. North Carolina may not be known for agriculture, but this state is first in the production of sweet potatoes and turkeys in the country!

What would be the advantage of seeing more locally grown foods, or organic, heirloom or artisan varieties of foods on local menus? It doesn’t get much more complicated than better taste. On average, the food most Americans eat has already traveled more than 1,000 miles before it gets to the kitchen table.

I’ve known this statistic for a long time but it didn’t really start to bother me until I attended the North Carolina Apple Festival in Hendersonville this fall. I got into a
conversation with a grower as I picked out a bag of galas, pink ladies and honey crisps from his stall. I told the farmer that my favorites were galas, which you can buy year round at the grocery store because they come in from New Zealand. “That’s nice,” he said, “except that those apples you like so much were probably grown nine months ago.”

Appetizing. So, I can buy New Zealand apples year round for about two dollars a pound. But for my farmer friend to try to sell his juicing apples, he can barely get three cents a pound because he’s competing with large industrial farms that can match the prices on apples imported from China.

To me, this is very discouraging. Some might say that’s the price of doing business.  They might say that organic foods are elitist. But, like my New Zealand example shows, the consumer is not paying the real cost for food. How does two dollars a pound cover the transportation costs to ship the apples from New Zealand and still make the apples cheaper that the ones from Hendersonville?

There is a better way. The better food revolution in Philadelphia started with just one restaurant, the White Dog Café. Now the Fair Food Foundation, which the same café administers, helps regional farmers sell their products to area restaurants and specialty stores.

Here in Charlotte, you can already buy a Frasier fir grown just a hundred miles to the west on Cold Mountain or shop the Metrolina farmers market for (mostly) locally grown food. But wouldn’t it be nice to see more heritage turkeys on the menu or squash that was picked yesterday on the grocery store shelves?

Maybe a good place to start would be for Johnson and Wales to host a panel discussion with Judy Wicks, the founder of White Dog Café or Alice Waters, a Governor of Slow Food International. Charlotte is already a great place to live. Let’s make it a great place to eat.

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