Food Revolution: Local, Sustainable, Good Food
By Cara Aungst
I grew up in the heart of Amish country. It's a place where eating well is hard work. You pick the corn you eat (and shuck it, and steam it, and cut it off the cob for that matter, but I digress). We picked raspberries in the dead of summer in someone's back pasture. It was a time when words like pesticide-free, heirloom, organic, whole wheat and local were not cool, and I wanted so badly to be cool. All I really wanted was to be like the kids I saw on TV that ate red licorice and Coke and frozen vegetables.
But then, right in front of my eyes, the way that our country viewed food started to change. The nation as a whole started using words like organic, fresh, local. It started to recognize that the way food was altered and modified was causing health problems and allergies. It started to realize that fresh foods simply tasted better than something flash-frozen and sitting in freezer cases. Sustainability wasn't just a byword—it was our only hope for a future. It started a revolution.
Thankfully, this shift echoed in me at the same time. I came back to Pennsylvania from Chicago, craving the taste of the fresh food I’d always known. I could see Happy Valley for the beautiful place that it is—farm land filled with grass-fed beef farmers, pesticide-free chicken farmers and vegetable and fruit growers. Some have been raising food this way for generations and some had the awakening that I did—just as genetically modifying food to last during long truck rides to your grocery store makes your veggies taste sodden and flavorless, buying local, organic foods is delicious, good for your body and good for our community.
It is a good change in our minds, bodies and tastebuds, and it is taking the country by storm. The USDA reports, “Farmers’ markets have continued to rise in popularity, mostly due to the growing consumer interest in obtaining fresh products directly from the farm.” The number of farmers’ markets has jumped from 1,755 in 1993 to an impressive 8,144 in 2013.
In our own area, this concept of eating local and fresh is not new. Farmers and producers are involved in this movement alongside a growing number of business owners. Sustainability is personal here – it's about doing the right thing for our area, and for our future.
It's no secret that Dante's Restaurants and Nightlife (which includes The Deli, Hi Way Pizza, Liberty Craft House, Mario's and more) has been making their food 'local' long before it was cool. In fact, it goes beyond working with local producers … they ARE the local producer. Their day starts at 11 p.m. when orders are placed for the foods for the next day. Corporate bakers and pastry chefs who work in their bakery and commissary create countless breads, dough and desserts from scratch. Each restaurant has a unique brand and strength, and contributes its signature goods. For instance, you can find Mario's Vodka Sauce at the Deli. Wings are smoked at Bar Bleu downtown, and sauces and salad dressings are made from scratch at another. It's all from scratch, all from Andy Zangrilli's recipes, and all made to order to ensure that every dish is as fresh and great as it can be. The foods are distributed to each restaurant – their signature dishes, sauces and specials – and another day begins.
Their clockwork organization and give-back to the local economy are just as clearly seen in their sustainability. Behind the scenes at each restaurant, there is a sustainability program running from 'the front of the house' to the 'back of the house' in practical ways like light bulbs, packaging from vendors, bringing in experts to help them innovate, and educating their staff to make their restaurants as sustainable as possible. It takes deliberate effort and isn't cheap, but the benefits of knowing that they are making a difference makes it all worth it. In April 2014, they became a beta tester for the Centre County Recycling & Refuse Authority, and in 2015, they composted 23.66 TONS (47,323 lbs) of organics!
Happy Valley Winery grows 90% of their wines on their farm because it tastes better and supports the local economy. Locally produced and marketed wines channel a larger share of revenue directly into the community than factory wines produced in other areas. Their winery-related buildings are also constructed based on strict energy efficiency, and they produce 80-90% of their own electricity to power their equipment, tools, and heat unit for their winery and tasting room. In addition, Sustainable Ag practices are strictly observed when managing diseases and insect pests.
The results of their hard work have been astounding – their award-winning wines are taking the world by storm, including their Vidal Blanc Ice Wine which just won the 2015 PA Farm Show - Governor's Cup Best of Show Sweet Wine in addition to the 2013 PA Farm Show - Silver Medal and 2013 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition - Silver Medal.
Pizza Mia! is doing it for the kids—yours and mine! Leaving less of a footprint (and making great food at the same time) is their goal. They accomplish it by doing things like planting their own wheat within eyeshot of the mill, so the combine trucks that harvest the wheat can go straight to the mill instead of causing pollution with extended transportation. They also grow their own tomatoes and cucumbers and work with local farmers to raise beef and pork.
“Why would we use someone else's tomatoes when we can use our own?” John Jennings says. “They taste better—we don't have the pollution of transporting them to our restaurant, and it supports our local economy.”
They are also in the process of developing a system to cook their food using solar power.
In addition to these local eateries providing fresh, locally sourced food, residents of Happy Valley have access to Tait Farm, Harner Farm and Meyer Dairywhich have been providing local foods for us for generations. Newer farmers' markets and CSAs emerging, places like Greenmore Gardens, Friends and Farmers Co-op and Healthy Harvest Farm, are making it is easier than ever to find quality produce and meats at prices that make sense and taste amazing.
Fair Trade Penn State changes the way we look at food sourcing. As we become more aware of where our food comes from locally, we need to have the same awareness for the other foods we eat. Did the person harvesting my banana have running water? Were the cocoa beans in my chocolate bar picked by child slaves? Could the person who picked the beans for my morning coffee send her child to school? “We’re at the forefront of this issue, and thankfully, consumer awareness of fair trade has been constantly increasing over the past decade or so,” Barbara Donnini says. Last year, Fair Trade Penn State was influential in securing State College’s official designation as a Fair Trade Town, and they are helping Penn State take the steps to become a Fair Trade University.
Our Buy Fresh Buy Local section has more stories about local sustainability that is making our food delicious, good for us, and good for our local economy. It's a revolution we can all take part in...starting with something as simple as a box of hand-picked berries. Change has never tasted so good.