If you spot shoppers scrutinizing food labels a little more diligently in the grocery aisle in the days ahead, or overhear people quizzing their waiters a little more closely at restaurants, you may be able to chalk it up to the Eat Local Challenge.
Each June, hundreds of people sign on for the event, now in its fourth year, pledging to spend the month eating foods sourced from within a 200-mile radius of New Orleans. They choose varying levels of participation, from “ultra strict,” for the totally committed, to “ultra lenient,” for those who understand all too well their own weakness for French cheese and Italian wine.
But at the end of the day, the Eat Local Challenge is about awareness, not compliance, and the format emphasizes the pleasures of local food and drink and the thrill of discovery, not the sacrifice of forgoing products coming from farther afield. There are no trophies for those who meet the voluntary challenges they undertake, but rather the upsides of spending money closer to home, supporting smaller-scale producers, reducing the ecological toll of long supply chains and simply celebrating the freshness, flavor and heritage of local foods.
“The mission is to build connections with more diverse food sources than you might have otherwise thought were out there,” said Lee Stafford, co-founder of the Eat Local Challenge. “There’s a much bigger picture out there for food these days, so information is the whole point of what we’re doing.”
To that end, the Eat Local Challenge has developed a calendar full of events that give anyone an opportunity to participate, whether they’re undertaking the month-long challenge or not (see nolalocavore.org for updated listings).
One of these turns the June 15 edition of the monthly OCH Art Market in Central City into the Local Food Expo, where vendors and devoted do-it-yourselfers will demonstrate and sell an array of food products not normally found at local farmers markets. The idea, Stafford said, is to showcase the ingenuity others have applied during past Eat Local Challenge months.
“One example is tea grown right here, stuff people thought you could only grow on the side of a mountain,” he said. “Things like that are great, because it shows that this isn’t all about eating squash every day.”
Tea isn’t the only local drink in the spotlight this month. For instance, the cocktails mixed at the National World War II Museum’s American Sector restaurant for a June 25 “garden to glass” event will start with liquors from Louisiana distillers garnished and blended with produce plucked from the museum’s own Victory Garden.
Throughout June, more than 60 restaurants around the area are serving at least one dish composed completely of locally sourced ingredients for the Eat Local Challenge. These dishes let those following eat-local regimens off the hook for cooking, but they’re also a very public way to showcase the possibilities for a wider audience.
“Chefs are the rock stars of eating locally,” Stafford said. “They’re already sourcing locally anyway, they have these amazing networks with their farmers and suppliers, so it’s not a stretch for them to do this.”
So in many cases, presenting an Eat Local Challenge dish is about tweaking an ingredient or two and demonstrating how all the pieces can mesh for a fully local dish.
For instance, the upscale bistro Coquette is serving a burger with beef from Two Run Farm; greens, tomatoes and the cucumbers for pickles from Covey Rise; and bacon made from pork belly from Chappapeela Farms (all local suppliers) on a bun baked in house. Meanwhile, Ye Olde College Inn can turn to its own adjacent Carrollton Avenue farm to source fixings for a strawberry salad, and Café Degas is dressing soft shell crabs from local waters with local vegetables and a vinaigrette made from last winter’s Plaquemines Parish citrus harvest.
Other restaurants will host special events tied to the Eat Local Challanege theme this month. For instance, the new vegan restaurant Seed presents a brunch on June 15 that will be both completely local and vegan, and on June 26 Tableau hosts a special dinner with each course composed of all-local foods and paired with drinks from local distillers and breweries.
While the Eat Local Challenge comes down to personal mealtime decisions for participants, Stafford hopes this wider array of events can help make June a marquee month for tourists with a special interest in local foods to visit New Orleans.
“Eating local is big all over the country,” he said. “I think this could be known as the month to visit when you’ll see what’s happening here, where visitors will really get that taste of place.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.