The way food is grown and delivered to your table isn’t just a concern of farmers. It’s also important to restaurant owners and professional chefs assembling menus for diners.
Today we speak with a Springfield chef and culinary arts instructor pushing her students to cook using more food than is in season and grown in their area.
As Peter Gray reports from the WUIS Harvest Desk, she’s also challenging students to consider whether the goals of trendy, “buy local” food movements are attainable for everyone in the community or just the select few who can afford it.
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As students prep for a big test, this classroom at Lincoln Land Community College looks a bit like a high-stakes television cooking competition. Instructor Denise Perry shows me a line of metal tables where students in white chef hats are busy chopping, stirring or frying:
Challenging students to use what is in season prepares them for work with restaurant owners who may have a “buy local” philosophy. Perry shows her students films which champion local food movements and highlight negative aspects of “factory” farming techniques. But Perry also wants students thinking critically about who may be left behind when local food trends get started.
PERRY: “I wanted them to write a response on the documentary. I posed the question, ‘Is local food elitist or is it attainable?’ Because in bigger cities it’s much easier to shop locally because you have larger green markets and you have more restaurants that are doing farm to table food.”
Perry says the goal of buying organic or only from area producers may appear elitist to those living in inner city neighborhoods where access to any fresh fruits and vegetables is limited.
But she tells her students that even those living in places with limited access to local growers can afford to grow some food themselves.
Student Stephanie Warren has taken that lesson home with her:
WARREN: “I’ve started my own garden since I’ve started school.
GRAY: So it’s changed the way you lead your life?
WARREN: Yeah, and it’s a lot healthier also. You don’t have to worry about fertilizers and products you don’t want in your food. You know where it comes from, you know that, you picked it out of the ground yourself. It’s a good habit to get into.”
That “good habit” is also a challenge for the chefs at Springfield’s American Harvest Eatery, where Warren works part-time. Warren says local, in-season food may include wild game – something the 21st century American palate may be less attracted to.
Chef Perry teaches her students that getting a locally-sourced menu to sell to pickier diners is about harnessing “peak flavors” – achieved when fresh food is allowed to ripen on the vine. Today produce that is shipped to where it’s not in season is sprayed with ripening agents which accommodate travel time but can impact taste.
PERRY: “So instead of getting a tomato in the winter months that’s bland and flavorless because they ethylene gassed it on the way over, a tomato in the summer – you know if you did a comparison study – the home-grown tomato or one grown out in the sunshine will have a much richer, concentrated flavor from those sugars developing.”
Stepping out the back door of her classroom, Chef Perry shows me a thawing field where she hopes to soon have some very local produce. Her students are already collecting food waste that will be broken down and used as fertilizer for future ingredients grown right here:
PERRY: “We have two composting methods that we’re using; a tumbler and hot composters in the food lab so we’re even able to compost meat scraps, to hopefully provide some good soil for veggies and herbs to be planted in.”
GRAY: We’re looking out at eight raised, wooden beds. What do you hope that students take from this on campus garden being here?
PERRY: We have an Epicurean Club, which I hope will get involved in planting the garden. And my main hope for the summer months, because we’re out of session as far as credit classes go, we have College for Kids happening…
GRAY: That’s a kindergarten through middle school program, right? What do you want those younger learners, those future cooks and diners, to get from the garden then?
PERRY: “To become inspired to tell their parents to grow a garden because they liked playing in the dirt. It creates a little bit more excitement sometimes for veggies that they haven’t tried before. Just becoming adventurous eaters, I think by having them see the produce and taking an active role in it I think it makes them more inclined to try new things.”
For the WUIS Harvest Desk, I’m Peter Gray.