Bonnie Bernardi gets ready to take a bite of her bruschetta made with multi grain bread and locally-supplied hot house tomatoes.(Photo by Colleen Reynolds/WJBC)
By Colleen Reynolds
On Tuesday of this week, it was National Food Day. What? I think about food everyday – probably too much. But, this was a nationwide celebration and movement for healthy, affordable, sustainable food. If you look at the prices at the grocery store or restaurants, you know that eating healthy isn’t always affordable. Here’s a fun little test to see if you are eating “real.” Take it and you might be surprised. I try to eat "clean" and I scored a C. Ugh.
However, as I think about some of my favorite places to eat in Bloomington-Normal, I realize they tend to be places that make an effort to use local ingredients. By that, I mean ingredients from farms within 50 miles or so. I regularly eat at Kelly’s Bakery and Café, Desthil, A René, Medici, Garlic Press Market Café, Baxter’s American Grille and perhaps the restaurant most known for using local food sources, Station 220 which claims to be central Illinois' only farm-to-fork restaurant which utilizes ingredients from its Epiphany Farms in Danvers.
There are also certified organic farms in Chenoa, Congerville, Downs, Ellsworth, Fairbury and Heyworth to name a few. They help provide produce, herbs, meat, eggs, and other ingredients such as honey. But, the local foods network is sparse and not well connected. That is the goal of the Edible Economy Project. The idea is to build a reliable network of locally sourced foods to meet a growing demand. Heartland Community College recently secured a $99,000 grant to help aid in developing at least three on-farm food hubs to expand local markets for specialty crops and products. These hubs will allow small farmers to aggregate, market and distribute their products to large local buyers including schools, universities, hospitals and other institutions.
How hard is it now to get local ingredients? Kelly Mathy of Kelly’s Bakery and Café says there are always obstacles. For example, a local farmer who supplies eggs has fewer in the winter because his hens lay fewer when its cold. So, she supplements. “This year is a great example. We go through about 25 bushels of apples in the fall. Well, with the weather and the drought, getting apples has been a real challenge.” She says they’ve had to stop serving applesauce a full month earlier due to the shortage.
With red onions she also came up short in meeting demand for about three weeks due to weather conditions. Mathy adds, “We're pretty flexible and have worked hard at making the relationship with farmers a priority so we are willing to wait an extra couple days for produce that we can get locally.”
Lancaster’s Restaurant in downtown, which just began serving lunch this week, also uses local ingredients and owner Jan Lancaster takes advantage of what’s available at the weekly farmers’ markets and uses her own garden plus she places orders through Common Ground grocery store.
Coffeehouse & Deli General Manager and Executive Chef Eric Short grows fresh produce on a plot of land along west College which he also allows for community gardening. Short adds the vegetarian restaurant is also getting ready to revamp their menu with lots of new items.
Recently, I stopped by the Sustainable Gourmet fundraiser for the Ecology Action Center in which Medici Chef Jeremiah Tryon prepared menu of a dozen items made with local ingredients such as Chimayo Chocolate Butternut Squash Bisque using Brown’s Produce in Bloomington and Quiche Fromage with Ropp Dairy Farm cheese in Normal and eggs from Dearing Country Farms also in Bloomington. HERE IS A FACEBOOK PHOTO ALBUM WITH SOME GREAT SHOTS FROM THE KITCHEN AND THE EVENT.
People attending the event say fresh is best. Bonnie Bernardi is a local foods fan and attends farmers markets regularly because she likes the idea of foods produced without pesticides. Laurie Fuller believes in getting food sourced closed to home – from her garden. “We try to eat out of our backyards but the drought made it hard.”
The local foods movement is just that – a movement with committed people who want to change the way we buy and eat food. One of the biggest groups doing that is the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. They have a Farm to Restaurant Initiative—a project to increase sales of specialty crops and locally-produced foods to restaurants and to educate restaurant owners and chefs about how to use and buy local ingredients. The organization also has monthly local food dinners at various restaurants in Springfield, Bloomington/Normal and Champaign. he group also has a guide to local food that lists restaurants, farms and farmers in Central Illinois that are committed to local foods.
There is one other effort on this front. A small group continues to push for investment in the Green Top Grocery Store -- a community-owned grocery store. Organizers feel confident they will be able to raise the $27,000 needed to open. Ultimately the cooperative will be financed through membership dues.
Here is a list of restaurants that are committed to local ingredients:
Foodnote: Two Blokes and a Bus had their first day of official business this past week, setting up in the Alamo II parking lot from 11:30-1:30 and sold out before the scheduled 2 p.m. end to lunch service. Co-owner Jon Fritzen says “It could not have been a better opening.” The blokes and their bus will be at Direct Factory Outlet starting at 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday and then head to Read’s Sporting Goods for a total of six hours of service. They are starting with lunches to keep consistent. “We’re gonna simple and build on that,” said Fritzen.
Colleen can be reaches at email@example.com