Lakeland’s Growing Locavore Scene
By Eric Mohrman
Eating is carnal. Physiologically, it provides essential nutrients, and sensually, it satiates and pleases the palate — hopefully. But eating is becoming increasingly cerebral, too, as growing numbers of people are giving more consideration to what they consume.
They think about what indignities their food may have suffered en route from farm to plate. They think about where it comes from, how it was grown or raised, what it was treated with, whether it’s at peak freshness and nutritional value, as well as whether its production or transport hurts the environment.
Nationally, this has meant a proliferating interest in locavorism, or eating as much locally produced food as possible, with “local” typically defined as within 100 miles. This trend has taken root in Lakeland and appears to be on the verge of a growth spurt.
This is well gauged by the city’s weekly farmers market.
“The Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market is the core of the locavore scene,” Peggy Campbell states. She and husband Jeff “Scotty” Campbell co-own the chemical-free Barefoot Creek farm (TheBarefootGardener.org) and run their market stand, Scotty’s Produce. Campbell is also a co-founder of The Barefoot Gardener, a Polk County gardening club dedicated to local, organic eating.
Held downtown every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. (except in August), the Market is comprised of numerous Polk County-based food producers, artists and other vendors.
The market has quadrupled in size over the last five years, according to Campbell. It “has grown phenomenally because of the tremendous interest and understanding by so many of how important buying local is,” she explains. She estimates about three-quarters of her regular customers at the market are there for part of their standard weekly grocery shopping.
The burgeoning market, and others like it in the area, is one clear indication residents are increasingly eager for the freshness, peak flavor, high nutritional value, and environmental friendliness of locally sourced food.
Lakeland farmer Gil Daigneau of Go Natural Organics, Inc. (GoNaturalOrganics.org) points to the steady growth of his co-op, which he started in 1995, as further evidence.
“Initially, no one was interested in it,” he says. Today, a solid base of members put down a deposit for the ability to come pick their own fresh produce any time, any day.
His graduate-level studies in nutrition and biology at the University of Florida in Gainesville sold Daigneau on the idea that many cancers and metabolic disorders had direct ties to contaminants in the food chain and the environment. This prompted an interest in clean eating, particularly in light of his mother’s battle with breast cancer and his father’s fatal brain tumor.
The vast quantities of imported food are some of the greatest obstacles to a natural diet, Daigneau claims. Many prominent foreign sources have little to no regulation regarding pesticide and other chemical use.
“And we very seldom inspect what’s coming in,” Daigneau points out.
Up to 85 percent of the seafood and 60 percent of the produce Americans eat is imported from other nations, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In recent years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been forthcoming about the woefully inadequate job it’s able to do inspecting imported foods. Back in 2008, the Government Accountability Office estimated it would take the FDA 1,900 years to inspect every international plant exporting edibles to the U.S.
Trust between producer and consumer is a key issue for locavores. Visiting the land where the food was grown and knowing the people responsible for it fosters confidence that it hasn’t been unknowingly artificially enhanced or chemically treated, Retta F. Baucom explains. Baucom is the manager at Lakeland’s Shady Oak Farm, where she also offers gardening classes.
Baucom agrees that Polk County’s interest in locavorism is on the rise. Shady Oak Farm, which produces about 54,000 pounds of blueberries annually, along with a wide variety of other crops, has seen increased demand from area residents and local commercial outlets.
“More and more, I’m seeing families wanting to make better choices,” Baucom says, adding that local college students are turning up at the farm in higher numbers lately and that patronage from the over-40 demographic has tripled over the last year.
She also stresses that locavore consumers greatly benefit the local economy by keeping money in their own community and providing essential financial support to keep family farms afloat.
“By buying local, you’re giving small farms a future,” as Baucom puts it.
Money is mostly what’s responsible for our reliance on imports. As the food supply chain has become ever more beholden to profit margins, its companies have traded wholesomeness, humane methods and sustainability for the cheapest sourcing and reduced overhead.
Consumers carry some blame, too, though. Insisting on things like year-round access to plump, perfect tomatoes anywhere in the country creates demands that can’t always be naturally and locally met.
Nowhere do food economics and consumer demands intersect more poignantly than in the restaurant industry.
In downtown Lakeland, the team at Red Door Wine Market (RedDoorWinemarket.com), led by owner Richard DeAngelis, is deeply entrenched in locavorism.
“We’re in tune with sustainability, we’re trying to keep our carbon burn down,” DeAngelis says.
He locally sources and produces as much of his food as possible. Some comes from Daigneau’s farm, where the restaurant gets a variety of lettuces, tomatoes, strawberries, herbs and other produce. However, the two proprietors work together primarily for local animal products. This includes four chicken breeds and two duck breeds, and they’re working on a heritage pig program and a rabbit warren.
Red Door also serves hormone-free Florida ground beef and gets some fruits and vegetables sourced locally through John Goddard Produce. Additionally, many of the fresh herbs and vegetables used in-house come from the chemical-free garden on-site maintained in collaboration with students from Lakeland Montessori Middle School across the street.
While the children learn about gardening and locavorism, Red Door gets rosemary for its specialty popcorn with truffle oil, as well as snap peas and snap pea greens, squash and squash blossoms, spring onions and more.
DeAngelis emphasizes his desire for Red Door to achieve greatness as a multigenerational establishment. Among other things, this requires the highest quality ingredients and operating in an ecologically responsible manner.
He stays far away from what’s easy and common. He’s uninterested in offering the same menu items everyone else serves and sugar-laden or heavily processed products. “If we served wings and Budweiser and Coca-Cola, we’d probably attract a bigger crowd, but how long would we last, and where would we matter?” DeAngelis ruminates.
“We don’t own a freezer and we don’t own a microwave,” he adds. In a restaurant, this is a sure sign of prioritizing freshness and eschewing shortcuts in the kitchen.
Locally sourced food attracts many of Red Door’s patrons, and DeAngelis recognizes the strong and growing locavore community in Lakeland. And he likes it. “The best customer is always an educated customer. The more demanding our customers are, the better it makes us.”
DeAngelis cites Cafe Zuppina as another restaurant in town focused on local sourcing, but he laments that the Lakeland dining scene in general is being too reticent about joining the locavore movement. He hopes area foodies will use their influence as consumers to encourage positive changes, rather than merely settling for what they’re offered.
“Engage your favorites places. Find out how they’re cooking and what they’re cooking and where they get it from,” DeAngelis advises.
Campbell agrees that restaurants are a prime sector where Lakeland’s locavore movement has ample room to grow. Restaurants, their patrons, the local economy and the environment all benefit when they opt for fresh, high-quality, chemical-free ingredients that weren’t trucked in from far away.
Fortunately, plenty of producers in Lakeland and across Polk County are on hand to meet increased demand as more residents and restaurants embrace locavorism.
“We are in a period of great transition at Barefoot Creek, looking to offer more local, fresh, chemical-free food through other outlets besides the market in the next year. We plan to do this by expanding our line of what we offer, offering unusual, hard-to-find, gourmet vegetables through a farm stand and to local restaurants,” Campbell says.
A number of other area producers say they, too, are gearing up for expansion and looking to form relationships with local restaurants. It certainly seems the Lakeland locavore scene is poised for a surge in the coming year.