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Local-grown food tastier, healthier, speakers say

by Sherry Fisher - May 30, 2006

John Turenne knows about good, fresh food.

That’s why he’s convinced that eating local, sustainable foods is the way to go.

“My grandfather couldn’t have spinach salad with strawberries and balsamic glaze in January, and he survived,” said Turenne, head of Sustainable Food Systems LLC and former executive chef at Yale. Now, it’s any food “anytime, anyplace,” he said, and the result is a lot of “boring, tasteless food” transported from thousands of miles away.

Turenne spoke during a conference, “Home Plate: Putting Local Food on the Menu,” held May 19 in the Rome Ballroom. Attended by chefs, business leaders, food service contractors, nutritionists, farmers, dietitians, and healthcare providers, the event was sponsored by UConn’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the Department of Dining Services, and the Connecticut Food Policy Council.

Turenne, who was instrumental in the implementation of a local foods cafeteria at Yale, said that having too many food options compromise taste and quality, while costing more money.

“We can put together menus with diverse international flavors and hundreds of choices, choices using ingredients from all over the world,” he said.

“That’s incredible, right? No. It’s not about quantity. When we offer massive amounts and out-of-season choices, I call it boring, tasteless food.”

Corn, strawberries, and kiwi fruit can be great when in season and locally grown, he said.

But tomatoes are bred so they can travel.

They’re shipped 2,000 miles so we can have them whenever we like. But what’s the nutritional value? The taste? Who is getting the money for the food we’re buying?”

Food produced locally not only tastes better, it saves fuel costs, Turenne said. He noted that the average distance from “farm to plate” today is 1,500 miles.

“More time and energy should be spent on better produce,” he said.

“Let’s go back to buying local. We can work with the seasons. Offer fewer items, and let the products be great tasting.”

When a food is in season, put it on the menu a lot, he said.

“Change the way it is served. If it’s asparagus, use it in salad, grill it, roast it, steam it. Serve it with pasta in a soup, but feature it.”

David Yandow, executive vice president of Fowler & Huntting Co., a wholesale food distributor, said “it is all our jobs to remind our customers that we should be buying local grown.”

There are five reasons for doing so, he said: We’ll live with a cleaner environment, with less fuel being burned; it promotes decreased use of pesticides; products will be fresher and healthier; it will enhance local economies; and local grown products cost less money.”

UConn’s Department of Dining Services purchases its local produce from Fowler & Huntting.

In an interview before the conference, Rebecca Gorin, assistant manager with Dining Services, talked about UConn’s involvement in using locally grown products.

“We’re using quite a bit of Connecticut or New England grown produce,” she said.

“When you’re dealing with smaller family farms, the consumer has more control over what they’re buying,” she added.

“You can talk to the farmer. It reconnects people to their food, which is important. When you’re buying food that is trucked from 2,000 miles away and shrink wrapped, you don’t know where it came from, who grew it, or who handled it.”

Many of the foods used in large quantities in the dining halls are grown or processed in Connecticut or the surrounding New England region, she noted.

These include fruits and vegetables when in season, Omar coffee, Bigelow tea, Garelick Farms milk, and Stonyfield Farm yogurt. New England Cage Free eggs are now being served in Whitney Dining Hall.

This fall, Whitney will begin focusing on sustainable foods, Gorin said.

One or two items per meal period will incorporate sustainable ingredients from local producers whenever possible.

Specific attention will be paid to how the food is raised or produced. Seasonality of ingredients will be a main consideration when developing recipes for the program.

“In a world of monster supermarkets and fast food,” buying local is better, Gorin said. “It’s fresher, and tastes better – especially produce.

The local varieties of produce are grown for flavor and not to withstand the pressure of thousand-mile journeys. Buy a ripe tomato, home grown, and you’re set. The same goes for stone fruits.”

She encouraged people to shop at farmers’ markets and farm stands, and to “talk to your produce and meat managers at the supermarket. Ask them hard questions, like, ‘Where is this product from and how was it raised?’ They should know the answers.”

Gorin is coordinator of UConn’s Local Routes program, which seeks to develop interest in locally produced foods on campus through fairs and festivals.

That group works with other UConn groups, including the AgriHusky EcoGarden Club, the Compost Facility Task Force, the Office of Environmental Policy, and Student Health Services to support sustainability on campus.

“We need to get the message out there that local tastes better, looks better, and keeps peoples’ money in the community,” Gorin said.

“It is important for UConn to showcase the state’s – and New England’s – bounty, and encourage people to make local food purchases.”

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