Rosie's Real Food Journey

20131023_100848(0)I was recently approached by ASU Sustainability student, Rosie Plath. After introductions, Rosie took out a pad of paper, sat down, smiled and asked bluntly, “What is real food?” It’s a beautifully abstract yet simple question, but as she details below, there don’t appear to be any right answers! She was very well spoken and insightful, so I asked for a copy of the final draft of her paper—which, to my glee, is a beautifully-written narrative piece, featuring interviews from the Roosevelt Growhouse’s Kenny Barrett, Welcome Diner’s Michael Babcock, and myself.

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The name’s Bond. James Bond. And I am on a quest to find the truth.

Well ok, not really. My name is Rosie Plath not James Bond, but I am on a mission to discover the answer to an increasingly difficult question: What is real food?

When beginning my investigation I did what any good private investigator would do first and consulted my trusty advisor, Google.  Per usual, my friend Google returned with a quick and seemingly simple answer, presented neatly and matter-of-factly: “Real foods- Those that nature gives us; plants, roots, fruits, nuts, seeds, meats, eggs, milk and those made from it. Fake foods are those that human beings create trying to imitate the natural food” ("Google,") Well that sure was easy!

But wait a minute…Google said that foods made from “real foods” are themselves also considered real food, so does that mean that because ketchup is made from tomatoes it is a real food too? Is ice cream real food because it comes from milk? Is a McDonald’s hamburger real food because it comes from cows??

I had hit a wall. Google was no longer able to give me answers to the questions I posed and so I set out with a mission to learn what real food actually meant in the real world. But where could I find these answers? Where could I find real food? I decided that in order to reveal the truth I had to start where food is born, so to speak, so I went to the Roosevelt Growhouse, a community garden in downtown Phoenix’s art district.

As I pulled up to the location I was greeted by a large scarecrow sporting a pumpkin head and burlap-sack shirt and I could immediately see the patches of green leaves and vines that covered the front yard of the house.  After parking and feeding change into the meter, I sat down on the front porch with the gardens founder, Kenny Barrett, and asked him the question I was so desperate to find the answer for: what is real food.

For Kenny, real food meant something different than the response Google had offered me. To him, real food wasn’t just fruits, vegetables, meats or nuts; his definition included that the food had to be “grown ethically, grown nearby and not travelled far, recently pulled off the plant, and grown without crazy pesticides” (Barrett, 2013). This definition of food was much more complex than what I had found online and it raised issues such as the chemicals that are used in producing food as well as the distance food travels before it gets to our table.

According to Kenny, his interest in food and gardening came from feeling disconnected from the process of growing food (a theme all too common in today’s modern world which was highlighted to me when my 27 year old friend Bernadette came to volunteer in another community garden with me and had no clue that the purple vegetable growing on a plant was an eggplant!) and he wanted to know what his food looked like while it was still actually growing.

To his surprise the process of growing produce “on the vine” took months! This insight prompted him to begin to grow his own food and so he transformed his once desolate and unsightly front yard into a garden where he and his friends could tend the plants together.

From this idea, Kenny’s personal garden grew into an organized community garden that now grows a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables, produces fresh crops and herbs (the mint I tasted was amazing!) for various local eateries, and creates the opportunity for people of the community to get together and share in the importance of naturally grown food.  In fact, the surrounding area where the Growhouse is located has become a staple in “local culture” and is filled with individuals like Kenny who care about the arts, the environment, and the well-being of local community.

When I asked Kenny what problems he saw within our local food system he replied that consumers were so used to paying a very low price for produce from “box stores” that it was often hard to make the decision to pay the extra costs figured into the prices of crops that are raised ethically, sustainably, and locally since most consumers equate a cheaper price with a better deal. I believe this to be true because I catch myself thinking exactly this way when comparing prices at the store, even though as a sustainability student I know the importance of full-cost pricing in terms of environmental degradation.

Before I ended my conversation with Kenny I asked him how he sees our local food system changing. Although he admits that it is hard to gauge because he somewhat “lives in bubble” in a neighborhood of likeminded people, Kenny sees a revolution happening in our current food system where more and more individuals are becoming conscious about not only where their food comes from and how it is made, but also are beginning to realize how extremely important a local and sustainable food system is.  As he mentioned, because we rely so heavily on a small number of large corporations that currently produce and transport the vast majority of our food, it puts us at risk of catastrophic proportions if something were to disrupt the existing food system. However, having a well-functioning local food system could help to buffer the negative effects that could arise from problems like a shortage of food or increasing food prices.

I thanked Kenny for his time and he gave me the names of a few people he thought could help me attain the answers I was searching for including Steve Russell, the Local Food Coordinator for an organization called Local First Arizona. LFA is a nonprofit organization, which represents a coalition of locally-owned businesses which form the backbone of the Arizona economy.

Steve’s office was conveniently located down the street from the Growhouse so I put more change in the meter and walked to my next interview, pondering the information I had just learned from Kenny: real food is grown close by, doesn’t use crazy chemicals, is grown ethically, and is pulled from the vine. Ok, I thought to myself, so then by this definition, ketchup, ice cream, and Mickey D’s burgers are not real food. I felt like I was closer to finding out the answer to quest, and it was turning out to be a much more enjoyable task than sitting at my computer desk with Google as my only advisor.

Although there wasn’t any noticeable component of the food system in Steve’s office space, his vast knowledge of the system and local food was evident the moment we began to speak. I started my interview with the same big question I was trying to answer: what is real food?

Steve’s response was similar to Kenny’s but brought up new ideas to ponder: “real food comes from the Earth, is grown close by, doesn’t use chemicals, doesn’t contain any genetic modifications, and it builds a local economy of mutually beneficial relationships” (Russell, 2013). Steve’s concept of real food brought up the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as well as the idea that real food actually just isn’t about the food itself, but also about the symbiotic relationships formed within the community of people who are producing and consuming the food! Genius!  This comment made me think about the parallels between a local food system and the systems within nature where mutually beneficial relationships help to strengthen the entire system.

Steve’s definition of real food led me to ask if he believed that “organic” food was real food, which in short he said not always. While the organic label does ensure the food is grown free of pesticides and genetic manipulation, it does not ensure that the farm it came from is small-scale or local, or that sustainability and environmental stewardship are priorities; in fact, many of these growers are the same megalithic agricultural corporations that pollute waterways with fertilizer runoff and the airways with pesticidal drift.  These corporations exploit “organic” labeling as a marketing tool, dispassionately dedicating only a small portion of their lands to organic growing, in order to appeal to consumers who are trying to eat better or healthier.  This makes the organic label (like most food labels) problematic because most consumers, me included, are not fully aware of what organic really means.

The “organic” label is highly desirable from a marketing perspective and Steve points out that the challenge of obtaining organic certification is one of the biggest problems within the local food system in Phoenix. Because this certification is extremely expensive and the transition period (often 2 years or more) is challenging, it often appears to be out of the reach of small, local growers who are truly bringing quality, pesticide and GMO free food to the public. However, as he points out, successfully navigating the process of certification can be a huge game changer for small growers, because of the enormous markets this simple label opens up to them.

From some consumers’ point of view, buying an “organic” cookie produced from a large corporation that is sold in grocery stores across the US is a better and more worthy option than buying cookies at a farmers market which do not have the organic label, although all of the ingredients used in this cookie may in fact be organic by definition.  Although the cookie from the store is labeled as “organic”, its purchase may actually be not only less healthy because it is still highly processed and has the need to use preservatives to maintain freshness and shelf life, but it can potentially be more harmful to the environment because of the factory production and distribution processes it takes to get that item on the store shelves.

Furthermore, the cookie from the store does nothing to strengthen the relationship of the community where it was purchased, while on the other hand the cookie from the farmers market allows the consumer to actively interact and form personal ties with the producer of their food. Thus, the expensive nature of organic certification is harming our local growers by deterring would-be customers from their stands simply because they lack the “label”.

Another problem Steve has seen within our local food system is that many of the small growers who wish to participate in events that would strengthen the community (such as a program called the Arizona Farm to School Network which brings local growers and schools together in an effort to enhance school food) are unable or unwilling because they are under contract with large industrial corporations. In fact, of the 40 farmers that Steve recently contacted in an effort to sign them up for the program, only 5 were able or interested in participating.  This shows how much power the large agribusiness type producers have even over those individual farmers we would expect to be free to help their communities as they please.

I asked Steve if he thought that in 20 years’ time we would see a very different system which had little to no industrial agribusinesses and his response was an honest “no”, that we would probably never see the end of big agriculture.  For me personally, this type of news is always hard to swallow and I feel it is easy to get discouraged, feeling like my small efforts make no difference and are being carried out in vain. Steve himself has felt this way, but has an amazing outlook on staying positive and continuing in his passion for local, sustainable food even when the task seems daunting. He says he has accepted that the structure exists but acknowledges that he is one person doing his best, which is the most significant thing anyone of us can do.

On a brighter note, Steve mentioned he has seen positive changes within the local food system in the past few years and attributes some of it to the explosion and visibility of information available online, especially in the forms of documentaries as well as to a market that is well-matched. From his point of view, more and more people are becoming concerned about not only what is in their food, but also the entire process that brings it from seed to their table and the popularity of farmer’s markets and local food fairs are exploding across the country.

By the end of my chat with Steve I had worked up a hearty appetite and decided to check out the Welcome Diner nearby which boasts a menu made from mostly locally grown ingredients and was co-founded by a good childhood friend of mine, Michael Babcock.

When I got to the diner I took my place at the small counter and was immediately greeted by an enthusiastic employee and offered fresh squeezed lemonade which was just made with lemon juice, simple sugar syrup, and water, all mixed right in front of me! I was so excited to see that behind the counter was a board with a list of all the purveyors contributing to the diner, which included Hickman’s farm for eggs, Ridge View farms for chicken, Hayden flour mill for grits, and the Roosevelt Growhouse for honey, just to name a few!

The menu was filled with mouth-watering southern comfort foods and after what seemed like forever I finally decided on the vegan po’boy sandwich which came with fried avocado (yum!), pico de gallo, kale, and chipotle remoulade all on toasted French bread and a side of “welcome fries”.

The sandwich was delicious and the employee told me that the French bread was made exclusively for the diner by a local bakery with nobody else in the valley carrying it but them. This little tidbit of information made the crisp bread even more delectable and I felt like a part of an exclusive club.  I was surprised to see the kale was different shades of greens and purples, and it made the sandwich not only tasty but visually appealing. This, I thought, is real food!

After I finished my amazing meal I sat down with Mike to find out how his philosophy helped to create the idea for the diner and to see if he could answer the difficult question of what real food was.

According to Mike (who has been cooking in various restaurants for more than ten years including Gallo Blanco at the Clarendon hotel), real food is made from “whole, natural ingredients, free from pesticides and GMOs, and is treated, raised, and slaughtered in a sustainable way” (Babcock, 2013).

This concept of real food, unlike the others, considered meats and how they are treated from birth to slaughter and as I discovered later, Mike even considers what the animals are being fed when making purchasing decisions for the diner.  As he described it, the diner chooses to use foods that are locally sourced when possible but sometimes a local option is more environmentally harmful and he will make the decision to source from somewhere farther. For example, when considering where to purchase his beef he originally was going to buy from a farm in Flagstaff but when he found out those cows were eating grain that was shipped from Oklahoma, he decided to get his cows from a ranch in Colorado instead because they produced a smaller carbon footprint than those from the farm in Flagstaff.

This leads me to the point that diners objective is more than just providing delicious, quality food using mostly local ingredients, it cares about reducing their impact on the environment, teaching people about the importance of knowing where their food comes from and how it’s made, and strengthening the community where the diner is located.

To date the diner currently employs 16 employees all of which live within a one mile radius, they recycle, and they compost all their food waste in 10 compost bins within their 3 acre garden that is located across the street, and of course from where some of the produce used in their food comes from.  The diner also teams up with other members of Roosevelt Row to host numerous community events, the most recent one being a film festival.  These types of ventures help to strengthen the community surrounding the diner as well as producing opportunities to share their food with people who may otherwise not have known about the restaurant and its philosophy.

According to Mike, the local food system is rapidly growing in popularity and reality TV shows that glorify chefs as “rock stars” are helping to push people away from the world of boxed dinners and processed foods. He also noted that 5 years ago the demand for locally sourced and “organic” foods was much less prominent and that today the local food scene is much more dynamic because of the demand for it. This observation gives me hope that we really are in the midst of a revolution in how we view our food and the importance of contributing to businesses that promote locally grown foods and products.

I gave Mike a big hug before I left the diner and as I walked out I couldn’t help be feel empowered and hopeful by the conversations I had participated in during the afternoon. Now I was ready to answer the question of what real food was.

Combining all the facets from the day’s mentors, I decided that real food is subjective. There is no right or wrong answer and everyone’s personal beliefs and principles will dictate what real food means to them.  For me, real food can now be defined as “natural, fresh produce and meat products, free from pesticides and GMOs, that is grown/treated ethically, grown with consideration of environmental harm and is sustainable, is grown and sold close by, and creates a positive, mutually beneficial relationship within the community ”.

While my definition is by no means an absolute truth, I feel confident that my understanding of the importance of incorporating local foods into the mainstream has changed my previous opinions about what real food is and it is my hope that I will be able to share this information with anyone who will listen.  Taking a cue from Steve’s individual philosophy, I will continue to be positive that I am making a difference in the world in spite of monumental problems like those presented by the current industrial food system and I will do so with an unwavering passion knowing that I am one of many people who are doing their best.