Lee Stafford is driving to Avery Island to pick up 200 pounds of salt. The island has a naturally occurring salt dome, a source of salt for indigenous Native Americans before the island was settled by the Avery family in the 1830s.
The salt will be divided into 2-pound bags for each participant in the inaugural Eat Local Challenge, a 30-day event that kicks off June 1. More than 150 participants have registered to commit to a "locavore" diet — eating foods sourced within a 200-mile radius.
The term locavore has been thrown around a lot in recent years as sustainable food movements creep into urban environs. The word was added to the recent edition of the Associated Press' reporter bible the AP Stylebook — it's defined as "the preferred term for a person who strives to eat locally produced foods."
And the movement is growing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported farmers markets increased from 2,756 in 1998 to 5,274 in 2009. Fifteen years ago, there only were 1,755.
The markets multiplied in response to demands for fresh, nongenetically modified foods grown without using harmful chemicals and healthier, local food options. With the Eat Local Challenge, participants going locavore get those health (and environmental) benefits, and organizers are helping point them in the right direction.
"Most people I talk to say, 'Sure, I would love to eat locally, but I don't know what is local, and where can I get it.'" Stafford says.
Stafford, who runs Saturn Screenprinting and Euterpe Recycling Center, helped organize the Eat Local Challenge with nutritionist and vegan activists Leslie Brown and Linda Michurski, who help run the Hollygrove Market & Farm.
Registration for the challenge includes a 10 percent discount on Hollygrove farm's produce, a local foods buyer's guide and access to an online forum and recipe blog, where users can share cooking tips, ideas and their experiences with a locally focused diet.
"People in this area may not have any idea what is growing close to them," Brown says. "We've been surprised to find a huge variety of things grown and produced in our radius. People might think they have to limit themselves to a few things if they do the challenge. ... You go to the local farmers market and you can find stuff you'd never dreamed of being grown locally, as close as Laplace or St. Bernard Parish, and honey from Uptown. You won't feel limited at all."
In 2008, Congress broadly defined a local product as "the final product" made no more than 400 miles from its origin, or within the state in which it's produced. There's vagueness about ingredients, however: Is beer made with imported hops still "local"? Where does your bakery get its yeast? Never mind, Congress says. It's still local.
The USDA says in its 2010 Local Food Systems report that "Though 'local' has a geographic connotation, there is no consensus on a definition in terms of the distance between production and consumption. Definitions related to geographic distance between production and sales vary by regions, companies, consumers and local food markets."
For the challenge, organizers chose a radius of 200 miles. The more strict you are in following the rules, the fewer the options on your local foods list. But it's still a long list.
"The last time I got a Hollygrove box, there were pinto beans in it," Brown says. "Dried pinto beans — stuff I didn't realize were grown here."
Northshore farms burst with strawberries and blueberries in the spring. Bergeron Pecan Company in New Roads offers pecan oil for cooking (rather than vegetable oil). Colonial Refinery in Gramercy provides much of the sugar found in local grocery chains. "With a little research you can find just about anything you need," Brown says.
That's likely to make the challenge easier — but not too easy. The NOLA Locavore website reads, "This is going to be difficult." But a closer look spells out the details: Participants can choose from one of three guidelines (The Wild Card, the Bienville or the Ultrastrict) tailored to their comfort level.
For the Ultrastrict, participants must stick to the 200-mile rule, which encompasses anywhere from Lake Charles to Pensacola, Fla., and Canton, Miss., to hundreds of miles of the Gulf of Mexico. The Bienville offers some leeway: Spices are OK, so is coffee, so long as it's locally roasted. Locally brewed beer is OK, too, despite imported hops. The Wild Card is much looser. Coffee, sugar, chocolate, beers — all OK, but challenge organizers advise participants to stick as closely to the rules as possible.
"We're saying 200 miles, and we're saying it has to be 100 percent locally produced," Stafford says. "It has to come from the ground or come from the water, the land. You got to catch it or grow it. It can't be just made here. It's got to be grown here."
Rather than focus on what's not available, creators of the challenge hope participants will discover the bounty of products Louisiana has. Where to start? How about one of the three Crescent City Farmers Markets and other farmers markets in the metro area, community gardens and, of course, restaurants and grocery stores. All it takes is a discerning eye.
"We can grow so much more down here than we're growing — all kinds of fruits and vegetables, apples, avocados, olives, garlic," Stafford says. "Break the old habits. I'm motivated by my own curiosity of what foods are local."
Another goal of The challenge is for participants to see the health and environmental benefits of eating locally. The Eat Local challengers would prefer their food come from down the road — rather than transported from thousands of miles away. It's fresher, and there's a better chance to find out from the grower the conditions under which the food was grown.
"We have mostly small farms — a lot of the new young farmers, even ones who've been around a while, use what are called symbiotic growing processes," Brown says. "Instead of overusing soil, growing the same plant over and over again, they rotate their crops, and they might use animals as pest control instead of pesticides."
Local farmers also are likely to use organic methods, Brown says, though they don't necessarily apply for organic certification becausse of the expense involved. Local farms like Adam Aucoin's Coq Au Coin Poultry Farm in St. Francisville also ensure humane practices. The same goes for the Smith and Kleinpeter creameries, which raise antibiotic- and hormone-free dairy animals.
Organizers dismiss perceptions that it's more expensive to eat locally — grabbing a Belle Chasse tomato and not a Mexico-grown tomato, for example — and say it might even be cheaper.
"A Hollygrove box (of produce) is $25. It's supposed to feed two people for a week — brown rice, beans, fruit, vegetables, herbs," Brown says. "Depending on your diet, you may need to supplement with a little more. I don't think those items are terribly costly. I don't think (the challenge) is going to be that much more costly. It might even be less expensive. It's certainly less than eating out all the time and buying frozen processed food."
By next year, the event will have expanded its recipe base from this year's 30-day event and helped start a few gardens, organizers say. This inaugural challenge is the group's training wheels.
"We expect it to keep growing from year to year until we don't have to do it anymore because everyone's already [eating local]," Brown says. "When it's already in your mindset, when you go to the grocery store, you already look for the local products."