A couple of great new cookbooks arrived on my front porch awhile ago, and I wanted to try out a few recipes so I could share them with you. So, without thinking about it, I pulled out my phone and started a list of ingredients I’d need: basmati rice, fresh peas, tahini, mint, fennel, lemons, poblano peppers, smoked paprika, kimchi, fava beans, maybe some seasonal greens like garlic scapes, mizuna or raab.
Between a Whole Foods within walking distance and two New Seasons stores less than a mile away, plus Providore on Sandy that’s not much further, most of the list was covered. Not to mention the four farmers’ markets nearby for seasonal produce like local peas, favas, carrots, fruit and whatnot. Meats or fish? There are butchers and fish markets aplenty. And even if a recipe calls for exotic ingredients like Vietnamese culantro or key limes or black cardamom pods, between the Asian, Thai and international specialty markets in the area, there are very few things I don’t have access to.
Okay, maybe not fresh durian. You’ve got me there.
So my trip last week to the northeastern reaches of Oregon was a bit of a wake-up call. I was there to attend the Eastern Oregon Community Food Systems Gathering in La Grande, sponsored by the Oregon Food Bank. Added benefit: the keynote for the day-long conference was delivered by my friend Lynne Curry, an author, food activist and journalist from Joseph, Oregon.
The 53 people who gathered that morning over local pastries and coffee were a mix of food bank folks, Oregon State University Extension people, representatives from other community food agencies and a handful of area farmers and food retailers.
Curry’s keynote contrasted the food system she found in 2001 when she moved to Joseph with the one that exists in 2016. When she first arrived, the only stores that carried groceries had a few staples, but depended mostly on sales of cigarettes, beer and junk food. Most of her actual food came from what she termed the “hidden food system” of rural living: food access meant getting eggs from the woman at the bookstore who raised chickens, foraging for mushrooms and other greens, and growing vegetables herself or trading with neighbors for the things she didn’t grow. In the winter she fed her family from meat in her freezer and the jams, pickles, vegetables and sauces she’d preserved during the summer, much like our grandparents did in earlier times.
It was amazing to me to realize that almost none of the food produced—mostly wheat and cattle—on the region’s rich agricultural land is consumed locally. Rather, it’s shipped hundreds, if not thousands, of miles across the country to go into the commodity market. Though, as Curry noted, that is starting to change, with livestock producers like Carman Ranch in Wallowa and 6 Ranch in Enterprise beginning to produce a marketable number of grass-fed cattle, as well as working with other area farmers to offer pigs, lamb, goats, chickens, eggs, honey and vegetables to their neighbors. These ranchers are also bringing their products to a growing number of families in Western Oregon who are interested in humanely and sustainably raised local meat.
Curry is seeing the interest in locally produced food—like the meat and vegetables above, along with beer and other products—becoming much more widespread, losing the “elitist” or “gourmet” label it had in 2001. Today, even in the far-flung regions of our state, she said that people are talking about where their food comes from, along with how it is produced, in a much more meaningful, inclusive way. And in this region where conventional agriculture—i.e. an industrial model that uses pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics—was the norm, people are beginning to demand more organic, sustainable food products for their tables.
Farmers’ markets in the area, which were few and far between in 2001, became a big outlet for local farmers and producers, and experienced growth that has slowed somewhat today. But, like here in Portland, they still act as incubators for new products, plus being what Curry referred to as a “third place” where communities can gather. She believes that this social aspect may be as important as the food that is sold, with the added benefit that they have an intrinsic educational component, showing people a different model of a food system, one based on community and relationships.
Despite this good news, though, there is still a great deal of work to be done on the issues of access to good food, not to mention the problem of food insecurity—that is, not having reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
Photo of Joseph, Oregon (top photo) from its website; photo of La Grande farmers market from its website.