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Becoming a smart foodie

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So I'm in this meeting for Local Food Week (shameless plug: Sept. 17-25, peaktoplains.com). There are the local foodies, advocates from the Peak to Plains Alliance, people who've been immersed in the local food movement for years. Then there are newcomers like me, and some super-small producers who would like help promoting their products or classes, and want to be involved in getting the word out about the existence and availability of local meat, milk and produce.

As a newbie, I'm working on keeping my mouth shut.

Well into the meeting, a local business owner brings up the shortcuts that restaurants take to save time and money. A chef in a well-known restaurant had shared his frustration at being forced to use powdered soup base for his signature dish. "You should see the restaurant supply order forms," the business owner says. "Two-thirds of them are powdered soup and sauce bases: hollandaise, béarnaise, you name it."

This separates the old-timers, who nod their heads knowingly, from the neophytes. We do a classic Scooby-Doo double take: "Ruh-ro!"

I got interested in local foods mostly by accident. My book club read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, whose family moved to a farm back east, intending to grow or find local sources for all their food for a year. Kingsolver points out that our food system now is designed for maximum production and minimum price. Bigger is better, cheaper is best. In some industries, this may benefit the consumer, but in food production, taste, nutrition and variety, as well as family farms and local economies, get ignored. In a world set up to produce food based on the use of petroleum on a massive scale, quality of food suffers.

A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows how local and regional food systems create jobs and keep dollars in the local economy. Their figures estimate that "modest public support for up to 500 farmers markets each year could create as many as 13,500 jobs over a five-year period." (See the full study at tinyurl.com/marketjobs.)

I joined the Green Cities Coalition Local Foods Working Group and started a Facebook page (Local Foods Colorado Springs) and Twitter feed (@LocalFoodsCOS). I talked to farmers, restaurant owners and farmers market organizers to find out what could be done to get the word out about family farms producing fresh, high-quality food, and the restaurants and small businesses using local food.

Here's what I got from reading, asking questions and listening: Eat real food.

Don't ask what "real" food is. Everybody has an opinion. But I can share the idea of "better than," which helps me improve my choices without having to fixate on the "best."

Here goes: Closer is better than farther. Organic is better than conventional. Heirloom varieties are better than hybrids. Knowing who raised your vegetables or meat is better than anonymous consumption. Supporting your neighbors is better than sending your money out of the state or the country.

Use the "better than" scale to improve your food choices by one small step, or many. Ask for local-grown tomatoes, peppers or melons. Find out what grows in El Paso County, and who grows it. The Colorado Farm & Art Market (farmandartmarket.com) was started, and is run, by area farmers. It's a good starting place to connect with people producing food nearby.

What about local restaurants and powdered food? Again, try "better than." Ask questions, and pay attention to the attitude of the answers. Do your favorite restaurants use local veggies in season? Locally raised beef? Pastured chickens? Do they cook with real food, or use shortcuts?

If consumers ask questions and request better food ingredients in their entrées, restaurants will use more fresh food and local ingredients. If they don't, then you'll know, and you can choose. Vote with your dollars for what you think is important.

Here's a link to establishments that have earned the Farmer Approved label from the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers: goo.gl/OwIxs. They have committed to support small, local farms by using or carrying their products.

Again, this is just a start. Ask questions and share what you find out. Oh, and please attend events for Local Food Week.

Eileen Healy, a 22-year resident of Colorado Springs, works with community-based organizations promoting equality, local business and local foods. She maintains "Local Foods Colorado Springs" on Facebook, and @LocalFoodsCOS on Twitter.

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