Livin' La Vida Locavore: These locals look for food close to home

“A what now?” asked Desirée White of St. Louis.

“I’ve never heard of that before,” said fellow city resident Kathleen Kelly.

Locavore wasn’t on the tip of Mason Earles’ tongue either. “Is it supporting the local economy through where you eat and where you shop or is it actually locally grown and locally produced foods? And then within that: What do we mean by ‘locally produced food’?”

Emily Schlickman, Earles’ partner and Washington University classmate, wanted to pin down a number. “Is it 10 miles? 150?”

So much for being the New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 word of the year; a lot of people can’t say for sure what a locavore is – even when they happen to be one.

Miles and miles

It’s been estimated that Americans’ food travels an average of 1,500 miles before reaching a table. Even a simple salad could rack up quite a tally. Shopping at local grocery store chains, you might buy romaine lettuce from California, mushrooms from Wisconsin, a red onion from Nevada … and stop counting before you even get to the ingredients of a basic oil and vinegar dressing. How far away is Italy exactly?

High food mileage does no favors for the environment, the local economy or a growing number of taste buds. Hence the phenomenon of people who try to eat local foods.

People who, like White, grow produce in a community garden. People who, like Kelly, shop at Local Harvest Grocery in the Tower Grove South neighborhood. People who, like Earles and Schlickman, seek out local growers at the Soulard Farmers’ Market. (The couple has found that unless a vendor posts the location of a farm, the produce probably doesn’t come from somewhere nearby – and they’d rather it did.)

Really, locavores come in more varieties than apples. And they’re not just eating fruits and vegetables for dinner.

Local favorites

“We typically try to put the Missouri products at eye level,” said Roger McElroy, a buyer for Straub’s Markets. Seek and you will find things like salsa from Florissant, honey from Ballwin, barbecue sauce from Perry and coffee from Edwardsville. Feeling a few ingredients short of a meal? Touché. Bring home some bacon.

Kelly Childs of Glendale buys pork, chicken and free-range eggs from Farrar Out Farm in Frohna, Mo., at the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market. She gets locally made butter at a farmers’ market. Milk she’s got – thanks to another farm in the area.

Jeff Slay of Chesterfield sources a lot of his groceries locally, too. Every week, he drives to a friend’s farm for milk, beef (when it’s available) and eggs. “When you get eggs from chickens that are out in the grass and are actually able to eat bugs and worms, you see these nice orange yolks compared to the paler yellow yolks from a grain-fed chicken,” Slay said.

As far as locavores go, Nicole Klein is a little bit spoiled. Within walking distance of her Edwardsville home is a farmers’ market, a butcher, a baker and the coffee shop where she picks up weekly deliveries of produce from nearby Biver Farms. Eleven years before locavore entered America’s vocabulary, Klein’s was one of the first three families to subscribe to a CSA, or community supported agriculture, with Biver Farms.

“Part of the appeal was the idea that you don’t eat strawberries in November,” Klein said.

Get fresh

Not too long ago, she was reminded of why she tries to stock up on what’s in season. “Schnucks had strawberries on sale recently and I thought, ‘Well, once is not going to kill us.’ So we got them and the kids were like, ‘Mom, these are not very good. I don’t think they’re in season,’” Klein said.

One of the main locavore maxims goes something like this: The shortest distance between two points equals a better-tasting meal. Foods can also be fresh to the touch. “You can get familiar with fresh-picked stuff. You can really almost hold it and tell,” Slay said.

White agreed. “This is one of my pet peeves: You’ll go into a grocery store to get, for example, tomatoes and they say ‘vine ripened,’ and you pick these things up and they’re hard as a rock.” Not so the tomatoes she’ll harvest from her garden this summer.

Eating seasonally isn’t a cinch, by any means. Citrus- and beef-heavy diets, for example, can make long winters longer – assuming, of course, you eat oranges and rib eye.

Juggling acts

Omnivores aren’t the only ones who have a dilemma.

Earles and Schlickman, both vegetarians, want a variety of vegetables, regardless of the season. Childs has to work around the sometimes finicky appetites of two young children. (“My daughter is tiny – she’s practically off the weight charts. If she’s going to eat bananas, I buy her bananas,” she said.) Slay avoids pesticides like the plague, and so if a local product isn’t organic, he buys one from elsewhere that is. Kelly likes to entertain. “I had 20 people come over for dinner and some of them eat a lot. I just couldn’t afford to do a dinner like that with all locally produced food,” she said.

Eating locally can come with a higher price tag, but the prevailing sentiment was you get what you pay for. Klein said things sometimes even out. Artisan bread, for example, costs her a little more than store-bought would, but local produce costs her less.

Kelly, by the way, didn’t toss her locavore ways out the kitchen window just to host a dinner party. Alongside “prefabsteroid birds,” she served locally made potato chips, Missouri-grown rice, locally grown greens, Companion bread and Serendipity ice cream.

You are where you shop

Locavores typically have a soft spot for independent businesses, whether they sell hardware, books or foodstuffs. About five years ago, Kelly tried to support a minimarket set up by the Missouri Farmers’ Union. The location was convenient enough (an office building on Grand Boulevard), but limited hours made it hard for her to shop there.

Farmers’ markets and grocers like Local Harvest and newcomer Winslow’s Home in University City have made locavores’ lives a lot easier. Still, stocking refrigerators and pantries can require multiple-stop shopping, which is a synonym of carbon miles.

“I wish I had a lesser evil calculator,” Childs said. In the meantime, she’s limited herself to shopping at two farmers’ markets, Local Harvest, and Whole Foods Market. “I had to draw the line at a certain point,” she said.

Klein doesn’t have to drive around much to get her shopping done, especially once the Goshen Farmers’ Market opens. Even so, she estimated her diet is only about 25 percent local. The butcher shop where she gets meat, for example, sells Illinois-raised beef and pork, but its chickens come from down South. What’s more, locally made products may or may not use local ingredients – the coffee may be roasted here, but there’s no such thing as a Midwest coffee bean.

Even crops that start local don’t always stay local. Take wheat. According to Tommy Sallee, agricultural statistician at the Missouri Agricultural Statistics Service, most of the wheat grown in Missouri travels to mills outside the state, where it mingles with harvests from other areas. Fungibility muddies the waters, all right. So does the fact that Missouri wheat mills don’t typically use homegrown grain. If flour milled on our doorstep contains wheat from Canada, does it still count as local?

Definition, please

It doesn’t matter what the dictionary says. The meaning of local isn’t set. Locavores have to define it themselves.

“Anyone close enough to come to a local farmers’ market, I would consider local,” said Slay, who for a time never questioned where food came from before it showed up on a grocery store shelf. Earles and Schlickman don’t have as narrow a definition just yet – but give them time. Even longtime locavores sweat semantics.

Since last December, Cher of University City has been blogging for Locavore Nation, a project launched by American Public Radio’s Splendid Table program. Over the years, she’s had three definitions of local food – make that four.

“In the 1970s, in Olympia, Wash., ‘local’ meant the immediate community – our family was growing most of its food organically, trading surplus and blueberries with neighbors for their surpluses.

“Thirty years later, for the locavore project, I borrowed a definition from Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: local food grown or produced within 100 miles of home. After a few weeks, that definition became more elastic so that we could actually eat. … Some days, a U.S. product label qualified, because it was the closest I could come,” she said.

After moving to Missouri from Oklahoma in March, Cher and her husband adopted yet another definition of eating locally. It’s a lot like one they’ve used before: food grown or produced within 100 miles plus an occasional sprinkle of Thai seasoning.

Most locavores make exemptions, including the four San Franciscans who coined the term. Their Web site,, lists a hierarchy of choices: locally made, organic, family farm, local business and terrior. Start at a farmers’ market rather than a supermarket, they advise, and plan your meals around what you find. Utilize your freezer. And whatever you do, don’t expect to be perfect.

The operative word is try

“Nobody around here’s growing bananas, so I just sort of suck it up and buy bananas at the grocery store,” Klein said. “What I wouldn’t do is buy strawberries when I know it’s strawberry season and the Biver guys are going to have them.”

Somewhere down the road, Slay plans to join a co-op of some kind, Childs a CSA. (The latter has already talked to friends about buying and “splitting” a cow.) For now, they’ll keep seeking out local choices when they grocery shop.

McElroy of Straub’s said that expanding the distribution of local foods can take time. “One of the obstacles that I’ve typically found is that people have a good product but they aren’t ready to go to market with it. Packaging, insurance – there’s just a whole host of issues. And it has to be a consistently good product,” he said.

Self-sufficiency in food production makes sense to a lot of people. “The whole concept of globalization floats on a sea of cheap oil, and if that disappears, globalization disappears,” Kelly said. “I feel like what I’m doing now is supporting the struggling young industries. I think that if we’re able to get a local food industry going here, we’re more likely to get higher-quality foods that are more commonly available.”

In the end, the locavore lifestyle is about making good food choices; it is not about eating unsalted kale every day. In fact, you don’t even have to call yourself a locavore.

“I cannot warm up to that term,” Cher confessed. “But I’ll keep trying.”