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A growth industry, in your back yard

Local produce becomes a cause

By Jane Black
Washington Post / September 1, 2008
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LOS ANGELES - Some people will go very far these days to get locally grown food.

In California, more than 40 residents volunteered their back yards to an aspiring young farmer who could not afford to buy land of his own.

In exchange for a weekly supply of produce, they would let him till their all-American lawns into rows of lettuce, broccoli, squash, and peas.

These weren't Bay Area yuppies, either. In working-class Chico, about 85 miles north of Sacramento, the residents who offered property to Lee Callender, 28, last October included a real estate agent, a retiree, a school administrator, and a newspaper carrier, who offered a plot behind his trailer.

Callender had so many options, he was able to select seven properties close enough together that he could bicycle between the plots and begin to cobble together a business.

"We were inundated with calls," Callender said. "People said, `Please use my land. Make it productive.' "

The term "foodie" is no longer reserved for an exclusive club of chefs and discriminating diners. Today, food has become a focus - and a cause - for a broad audience, from individuals such as the Chico residents offering their yards to an idealistic urban farmer, to corporations such as Chipotle, which recently said that each of its more than 730 restaurants will be required to buy a percentage of the produce it serves from local farms.

Sodexo, the world's largest food-service company, now sources from 700 independent, regional farmers and is overhauling its menus to focus on seasonal and local ingredients. Wal-Mart revealed recently that it plans to buy and sell $400 million worth of locally grown produce at its stores.

"It's no longer the fringe elements," said Tracey Ryder, founder of Edible Communities, a publisher of regional food magazines. "We call it the new mainstream."

The movement is showing its strength this week as tens of thousands of food activists gathered in San Francisco for Slow Food Nation - four days of political rallies, lectures, dinner parties, and tastings. The conference, three years in the making, is the first national assembly of the US wing of Slow Food, an Italian organization founded in 1986 after the opening of a fast-food restaurant (a McDonald's) in Rome.

Food lovers, chefs, and producers can wander through taste pavilions to sample artisanal cheeses, honeys, and olive oils, or admire the quarter-acre "victory garden" that organizers planted this summer in front of City Hall. There will be panels led by the food intelligentsia, including Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and "Fast Food Nation" author Eric Schlosser.

"Think of it as a dinner party thrown by revolutionaries," said Anya Fernald, Slow Food Nation's executive director.

Lee Callender sees food as a path to social justice. "Good food is not just for the middle class. We want to make it accessible," she said.

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