Eat Local Week teaches residents about the benefits of home growing and sustainable food choices.
There’s something wonderfully unusual about eating a juicy fruit that was just pulled off a tree.
A few minutes off busy Lockwood Ridge and a couple turns off a serene canopy road lies SweetSong Groves, a 2-acre oasis of tropical plants that, when ripe, are safe to eat as soon as they’re plucked off the branches. No need to wash — everything is organically grown without pesticides.
Owner of the urban farm, Darryl McCullough, is also the treasurer of Transition Sarasota. The environmental group is behind Sarasota’s eighth annual Eat Local Week, a series of more than 20 events Oct. 19-28 focused on showcasing the diverse local food community in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
The driving force behind the mathematics professor-turned-farmer’s passion for local food and sustainability — a value that echoes the mission of Transition Sarasota — is his belief that in the U.S., most food doesn’t have an identity by the time it reaches our mouths. It has no past when you don’t know where it came from.
“It’s different if you know the person who grows your food,” he says. “If someone eats my fruit they can come here and see the tree it was grown on and ask me how I grow it and I can tell them what I put on my trees.”
That connection to where our food comes from was lost after the industrial age, McCullough says. But locally grown food, like his tropical fruits, are a healthy and sustainable way to get back in touch with nature while supporting the local economy.
“We’re a little bit of an antidote to that anonymity of the food system,” he says of Transition Sarasota.
People aren’t aware of what’s actually happening when they buy packaged food or produce shipped from several states or countries away, he adds, which is one of several reasons why eating local is so vital.
Eating local as a trend
The Transition Movement is worldwide, McCullough says, with its earliest roots tracing back to 2006 England. Transition Sarasota started in 2011 as part of the Peace Education and Action Center. As of 2017, it’s an independent nonprofit that helps provide food and economic security by supporting local, sustainable sources.
Transition organizations have popped up all over the U.S. in the past 12 years, but the popularity of eating local is perhaps most visible in the form of a term used by countless modern restaurants: farm-to-table.
McCullough says eating local isn’t something to be thought of as a fleeting trend, but he appreciates how farm-to-table eateries and events show a growing awareness about the problems with the food system and the benefits of getting fresh food on our plates.
Transition Sarasota Executive Director Janet Lewis agrees, saying this trend isn’t a bad thing, but it’s just one small piece of a larger puzzle that Transition Sarasota is trying to put together utilizing residents along with local growers, farmers, educators and leaders from other environmental organizations.
“What I really value is the community-building aspect — the economic aspect and reducing greenhouse gases by cutting back on shipping,” she says.
One of the issues she’s most passionate about is food security. Though she thinks it’s great that many high-end restaurants are offering farm-to-table options, Lewis says her efforts are more focused on the people who are struggling to put any food on the table at all.
Healing through harvest
Camille Van Sant is the project manager for Operation Eco Vets, a nonprofit that grew out of Green Path Veterans Farms. Green Path is an ecologically designed farm that trains and employs veterans, helping them heal and achieve personal success by growing food and creating edible landscapes.
For the second year in a row, Van Sant has organized a Veterans Farm-to-Table Dinner for Eat Local Week that will benefit Operation Eco Vets. The concept is unique: Guests buy a ticket for themselves as well as for a veteran to attend the fundraiser.
The dinner consists of food grown by veterans on a farm shared with Easterseals Southwest Florida’s VIP Academy.
Van Sant’s support for the eat local trend relates more to the growing popularity of agritourism, which is a new focus for Operation Eco Vets. Soon, Green Path will start offering farm tours with a farm-to-table lunch included.
Although she’s a fan of the trend, Van Sant notes it can perpetuate a false representation.
“By pushing for farm-to-table, people are romanticizing farming,” Van Sant says. “It’s tough work, especially in Florida because of the heat.”
She notes that working together toward a common goal — harvesting a crop — can offer an alternative form of therapy.
“Most of them have some level of PTSD ... I’m finding that just being together and talking is very helpful to get beyond that.”
Progress grows on trees
McCullough started to take his interest in the benefits of fresh food more seriously when his wife was having health problems. They decided to see if switching to a more nutritious organic diet would help, and ever since they’ve maintained a healthy lifestyle as home growers.
He also thinks becoming a home grower helped connect him to nature in a way that he’d never been connected before.
“It’s kind of a gateway to a larger awareness to our connection to the environment,” he says.
If you start growing food, you start becoming aware of how humans are damaging ecology, he adds, and you also realize how unhealthy non-fresh food really is.
“The way we do things in general is environmentally destructive,” he says. “The foods we produce aren’t necessarily healthy and there are a lot of issues But eating local food helps address all of our problems at once.”
Whether you want a gourmet meal, a family activity or a class, McCullough say there’s an event for everyone during Eat Local Week, which helps to show how multifaceted this movement is.
Bridging the gap
The Transition Sarasota logo is a bridge, and Lewis thinks there couldn’t be a more appropriate symbol for what the nonprofit, and Eat Local Week, is trying to accomplish.
“It’s about people changing,” she says. “People are on different parts of the bridge ... and we can help each other over that bridge.”
In this metaphor the bridge seems to be the medium for moving toward a more sustainable, local food-centric community. But when asked what’s on the other side, Lewis was more broad.
“It means moving toward more of a society that we want to live in,” she says. “Our vision is a sustainable, thriving community ... But different communities have different definitions for that.”