Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Farm to Table...all about local foods

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of chatting with Zachary Cohen, creator of the upcoming food and farm reality TV show Farm to Table: The Emerging American Meal. Zachary and I discovered that we had quite a bit in common and likely could have talked about the local and sustainable food movement, food policy, cooking, health, nutrition, farm fresh restaurants around NYC and so much more for hours on end. As a result, we decided to put our thoughts to paper, or rather to our respective blogs, and conduct a series of back-and-forth interviews on topics relating to all-things food. What both of us, and many of our fellow New Yorkers, are (or are not) eating and why. Here's the first interview in which Zachary asks me for my thoughts around local food--plain and simple. Check out the highlights below and read about why we should care about and support local food and how to easily work it into your life bite by bite. Stay tuned for additional interviews and learn more about Zachary's own blog and his upcoming reality cooking, education and travel show, Farm to Table.

Introducing Marissa Lippert, Local Foods Nutritionist


I personally believe that local foods will be one of the essential ways in which our country rescues itself from the enormous hole we’ve dug for ourselves. Eating local foods begins the reparation process in ways that extend beyond just health and wellness, though certainly those are critical areas that need immediate attention. Supporting local food systems connects us to the providers of our food, it keeps money in the community, it increases employment; furthermore, every dollar not spent in support of industrial agriculture is a meaningful way to speak with our wallets. Still, the most tangible and long lasting effects of a heart local foods system in this country will be better health and better food. I do not know anyone that would argue with that.

I remember once talking with Chef Josh Eden of Shortys.32 in New York’s Soho neighborhood. He had just put a new dish on the menu, a Jerusalem Artichoke soup, and asked me to try it. To my knowledge, I had not ever tried Jerusalem artichokes, and if I had I surely wasn’t aware of it. The way Chef Eden, or "Shorty," as everyone calls him, talked about his soup, it was as if he was talking about his child or perhaps even a lover. The fantastic amount of thought he had put into it was clear. He cared whether I liked it. I could see it immediately.

I’ve witnessed this same sense of connection in countless conversations with servers, sommeliers, cheese mongers, baristas and of course farmers. And I can tell you, these people are not in it for the money. Crappy pay, worse hours, poorly behaved customers (or animals); the reasons NOT to go into the service business (or farming) are legion. But what I have heard time and again, is that every so often there is a perfect moment when one truly "serves" a customer, when one gives something to someone that they need. It is these moments that make it all worthwhile. Food provides sustenance to people, both physical and spiritual; therefore a sort of halo effect is conferred upon the people who have chosen to be the providers of that sustenance.

This halo effect extends even further than just those in the service business.

Marissa Lippert, a nutritionist in New York City with a practice downtown, contacted me recently. She had found the website and wanted to chat. We rattled off some names of books, authors, specific articles we both had read. Marissa relies heavily on incorporating local and sustainable foods in her nutrition programmes. It was clear we needed to explore more about each others work as it seemed like we were on the very same page regarding health, food, nutrition, and the deleterious effects the mismanagement of these issues has on peoples’ lives. What was also clear was the care with which she had examined the nutritional habits of her customers, and also the society as a whole. It made me think of Shorty. She simply got it. The halo was there.

So it is with this in mind that I interviewed Marissa, so that we could all get a professional’s take on local foods movement. Does it help people with their nutrition? Can we design local food programmes that serve both our ideals and our waistlines?

Below is the result of our first interview of which, I am sure, there will be many others. Welcome to the Farm To Table family Marissa! Her full contact information is at the end of the interview, but you can always hit up her website.

What does local food really mean to people?

I think ‘local’ has a very basic meaning to most people — food that’s grown, produced, and/or raised closer to home. The ‘locavore’ movement that developed a few years back, defines local as food being produced within 100 miles of where you live. The term local suggests that food is fresher, often more flavorful and more nutrient-rich – particularly with produce because it’s being harvested when nutrients are at their peak and we (as the consumers) are getting that produce soon after. Local means less travel and storage time. It also allows us to connect with the person who’s actually growing or producing the food we’re eating, which is a huge bonus. I think something happens when we’re able to connect our food back to its starting point. You build relationships – with local farmers, with your community, with how a food tastes and what it does for you both, from a health and a pleasure standpoint.

How are average city dwellers making local foods more of a priority?

Average city dwellers, like you and I, are making local foods more of a priority simply by paying more attention and making a conscious choice to purchase them rather than another product. Hitting up your local greenmarket or scoping out “local” and “seasonal” signage at the grocery store. Even taking a small step and making a conscious effort to buy 15-20% of your total groceries/produce from local vendors/farmers is significant. I encourage people to start small. Look for seasonal, local fruits and vegetables at the grocery store if they’re not able to get to the farmers market. If it’s January and you’re looking at tomatoes shipped in from South America, they’re probably not going to taste too great…and that’s a decent amount of travel time/food miles…not to get too “carbon footprinty” on anyone. Make smart choices when you’re able to – you don’t have to go full-force locavore in a week…or even a year, but making the purchase of local products more of a priority can absolutely add up over time.

If not, why not?

I think people are often daunted by an over-abundance of information around food, health, diets, nutrition etc. What’s the latest trend and is it really something they have time in their life for? We’re not sure if we should be buying ALL local or ALL organic or a mix of both or all sugar-free or low-carb or what have you. The more people are informed with the simple basics around good food and where it comes from, the easier they’re able to decipher all the misinformation – sticking to basic whole, fresh foods as straight from the source as possible. The less “man-handled” the better.

As a nutritionist, how do you bridge the gap between eating healthfully and making food really enjoyable?

I really aim to keep things as simplistic, realistic and accessible for people as possible. Conveying great food and the idea of eating well in an exciting and manageable way allows really anyone to look at “healthful food” in a new light…and make it work to their advantage, working it into their particular lifestyle. Who said pasta, fresh pesto sauce, delectable dark chocolate, wine, artisan-baked bread and an amazing local cheese (just to name a few) can’t be a part of a healthful diet? I try to encourage people to get into the grocery store and take a trip to their neighborhood farmers market and then get back into the kitchen (or for a lot of New Yorkers, christen it!) – even if it’s just once a week, you’re getting excited about making and eating fresh, flavorful, healthful food that much more.

What is your approach with someone who is interested in incorporating local foods into their diets, but is weary of going totally local or seasonal all at once?

My approach is to help them figure out what’s most convenient and accessible for them…and what they might eat most frequently – have your fridge stocked with a few bare-bones basics at all times. Like a local yogurt or eggs or milk for instance. Or make it a weekly habit to stock up on 2 or 3 different fruits and different vegetables to always have on-hand. Make those particular picks your local ones…start small and then go from there.

What is "nutritionism?" How hard is it to negotiate all the variegated food and diet advice. How do you simplify the message for your clients?

I see clients everyday who are completely overwhelmed by “nutritionism” – or what I call the nitty gritty minutia of diet-world hell. It’s not fun, is totally confusing and often leaves people stuck in a worse relationship with food than when they started. Think of it like dealing with that psycho ex-girlfriend/boyfriend you just can’t break free of. I work with clients to drill back down to the fundamentals around food and eating…tapping into what our bodies are trying to tell us – what tastes good, what actually satisfies us, what we’re craving and why, when we’re hungry…and when we’re not.

1. Do you have rules?

I wouldn’t say I have “strict rules”…that sounds pretty miserable and in my mind, rules are made to be broken. But I do help clients set parameters and realistic (and sustainable!) guidelines to work with in order to achieve whatever their individual goals are. Everyone, particularly in our beloved type-A city, loves a little structure. It’s really about working to figure out the right balance for yourself. Between eating out frequently, drinking, eating on-the-go…there’s always a way to make things work in your favor.

2. Are they absolute or more flexible?

ALWAYS flexible! Life’s definitely not absolute and there’s no way that eating – seeing that you’re doing it multiple times a day – can or should be absolute either. Eating’s often an experience and should be pretty exciting. Make the most of it when you can.

3. If not rules are there any guidelines that you find effective with your clients?

Definitely. My top 3:

1. If you’re looking to drop a few extra lbs, reassess your portion sizes. Cut back by just 10-15% and you’ll see a significant difference over a couple of weeks. Something to note…most restaurants serve 2-3 times the amount of food we really need to be chowing down on!

2. Pile on the fruits and vegetables (ideally local when you can get them!). Vitamin, antioxidant, and fiber-rich produce should really be the foundation/focus of each and every meal throughout the day. Fruits and vegetables fill us up crazy fast off of much less.

3. Think about the concept of “balance” …develop a healthful foundation or ‘typical’ daily routine of solid meals and snacks for yourself that eventually become more of a constant in your busy life. Recognize what style of eating and what foods help you feel and look your best. What ‘staple items’ do you always want to have in your fridge/pantry or readily available at work? This way, when you have a ridiculous bender of a weekend or a string of heavy eating/drinking days (and we all have them), you can pick right back up on your healthful routine and keep on moving ahead.

Does the local movement help people simplify?

Yes, I totally think it helps us simplify things because it encourages us to purchase seasonal items – to shop, cook and eat more seasonally rather than having an overabundance of options in front of us at the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong, options are fantastic, but I think there’s something great (and certainly very nutritious) about seeing what local/seasonal items are available on a given week. I think it boosts our creativity around food and cooking, bringing new ideas to the table…new foods to experiment with. I’ve fondly termed it “renegade cooking”, but I also am not normally one to follow recipes, I like cooking ‘off-the-cuff’. It’s a fun challenge and you might just stumble on an incredibly tasty creation!

Why should we be eating local foods?

Plain and simple: more nutrition, more taste and flavor, and more community/agricultural support all for less money (usually) and less of a carbon footprint.

How does including local foods in your program help people?

It gets them thinking about food and what’s on their plate in a fresh light, from a different perspective – ideally. I think it places more value on what you put into your body and it makes healthy food much less daunting and boring and much more appetizing and exciting.

Where does cooking fall in all of this?

One of the most common issues I run into is people are so unaccustomed to cooking that asking them to get back in the kitchen is like asking them to climb Mt. Everest. For sure, definitely in a city of people who often use their ovens as storage units – for anything but cooking utensils. By no means do you need to climb Mt. Everest every night…or every week. But taking small steps to get back into the kitchen – stocking up your fridge, turning on a burner or two…it changes the habits and routine you keep. You’re able to take that much more control over what you’re eating – and do so relatively easily.

From a nutritionists standpoint, what does cooking do for people looking for help?

I really find that getting into the kitchen (again, even just once a week), connects you to the food you’re purchasing and eating. You often care just a wee bit more and can see, taste and feel the value of preparing your own food.

And how do you weave the importance of local foods into cooking or eating locally?

Like I mentioned above, TASTE and FLAVOR. Can’t go wrong there when it comes to buying and cooking local. I always use the example of the nasty mealy tomato shipped halfway across the country in the middle of winter – that versus the juicy, vine-ripened Jersey tomato that hits farmstands and greenmarkets in the height of summer. Absolutely no comparison hands down.

1 comment:

Zachary Cohen said...

Great Marissa! Awesome interview...getting great traction on it today!