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Food movement is for real as Ohioans, producers, go local

Cleveland's West Side Market. Photos | Bob Perkoski
Cleveland's West Side Market. Photos | Bob Perkoski

Within three years, Julie Hutchison has transformed a passion for local, farm-fresh food from a couple of pots of organic vegetables lining her driveway to a packed house vegetarian restaurant in Lakewood.

Hutchison and husband Bobby Breitenstein got creative when they ran out of garden room at their Andrews Avenue home. They started a community garden and participated in community-supported agriculture programs before opening Root Café, where fresh veggies such as arugula, romaine lettuce and radishes (grown within just a few-mile radius) stuff the salads and top the pizzas on the Italian-influenced menu.

Initially seeking a healthier lifestyle, Hutchison and Breitenstein are only two examples of the thousands of Ohioans who increasingly want to supporting a local economy, eat foods that are in season, and feel a connection to the source of their food.

All across the state, Ohioans are flocking to the farm, the farmers market and to restaurants to support locally grown produce. "Locavores" have become a bona fide movement.

Scores of websites and blogs dedicated to the local food movement have cropped up all over Ohio. The Food Network has turned chefs into celebrities. With movies like "Food Inc." and books like "Fast Food Nation" bringing food front-and-center, consumers are becoming more concerned with what exactly they are putting in their bodies.

Others want to do their part for the environment. And some just want to support a local farmer rather than big corporate farms that mass-produce and ship boxed and frozen products across the country.

Cincinnati has its institution in the Findlay Market, the oldest continuously operated markets in the state; Columbus has a branch of the international Slow Food movement, an idea to counteract fast food and fast life; Cleveland's got the West Side Market and the North Union Farmers Market, which has a number of fresh markets around Northeast Ohio. Even the state has gotten in on the action: The Ohio Department of Agriculture's Ohio Proud! identifies and promotes locally grown produce.

"I think it's becoming hot everywhere," says Hutchison. "In the media, there has been a lot of talk about reducing the carbon footprint. What is the carbon footprint of eating an apple from South America as opposed to buying an apple from Ohio?"

David Beck, president and CEO of the Center for Innovative Food Technology in Toledo, says there are a number of reasons for the local food trend — but food safety is one of the main catalysts.

"One of the drivers behind the demand for local food is that we want to know where it comes from," Beck says. "I think our national psyche has been shaken up to the point where we really need to know — whether it's the threat of terrorism or whether it's food safety outbreaks that happen, we want to know where our food came from, we want to be sure it's wholesome and safe."

Maurice Small, a northern Ohio urban farmer, is one of the suppliers to the Root Café — in addition to about a dozen other restaurants in the Cleveland area.

Small grows a number of herbs and vegetables including dill, lavender, sage, thyme, coriander, peppermint, garlic and onions. He's excited about food, but even more moved by educating people about food. A farmer for 20 years, Small says he has recently seen a marked increase in demand.

Unfortunately, Small says there is a disparity between the haves and the have-nots. There are fewer opportunities to eat healthy for those living in more urban, poorer areas, he says. Small is one of the co-founders of City Fresh, a progressive food co-op that allows subsidized shares and provides healthy, local food for people who can't afford it.

While this field-to-table system of consuming food is spreading, the impact on the economy is hard to measure. Ohio economist Jack Kleinhenz says attempting to quantify the local food movement's impact on the economy is difficult. With no sales tax or receipts commonly available, the data just isn't available.

But there's a lot of upside, he says.

"We are enhancing the quality of life, and it's very hard to put value on that. You add a sense of community . . . People are supporting their neighbors, keeping the money inside the local economy. Our income isn't going to Indiana or somewhere else."

One farmer who can attest to the economic benefits is Fred Thaxton, a northeast Ohio farmer who says he's seen an explosion in his business. Thaxton and his wife, Chris, grow garlic in a half-acre field behind their Hudson home. They are both high school science teachers — and successful garlic farmers. Their product — which includes a variety of garlic — supplies a handful of farmers markets and restaurants in Northeast Ohio.

"We can't keep up with demand," Thaxton says, adding that he plans to add another acre or two to his garlic patch. "Right now, we have 14,000 plants in the ground," compared to 5,000 a year and a half ago, when the enterprise was just a hobby. "People are concerned about their health. What you eat affects the environment. It also affects the environment inside your body. We're just a big chemistry set. If you put the wrong chemicals inside of your body, it doesn't work so well."

Steve Schimoler, the owner of Crop Bistro & Bar in Cleveland, also sees the importance of cultivating local food sources. Hundreds of the ingredients in his dishes are local — that's about 80 percent grown or raised within a 150-mile radius.

"Local just makes sense," he says. "People are always asking where's the fish from, where's the chicken from. That didn't happen 20 years ago."

Schimoler's been utilizing local food for almost 30 years. He started out in the restaurant business in his native Long Island, N.Y., in 1983. He moved to Vermont in 1993, and served local fare at his Mist Grill restaurant.

While in Vermont, he noticed that the absence of a distribution model for local foods was "painfully obvious." So he started one. Then another. In 1999, Schimoler sold his idea of distribution of local foods to Sysco. It's still used today.

"If food is not traveling thousands of miles, then that's a bonus. The concept of sustainable agriculture is easier to manage at a local level," he says.

The community has responded to Schimoler's brand of restaurant. Crop was named best restaurant by Cleveland Scene in 2009, and best upscale restaurant in 2010.

"This is not a fad," he says. "This is something that is here to stay. The restaurant community is really in a position to legitimize the local business."

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