I grew up a few miles west of the Union Stockyards in South Omaha. On windy days when the sun burned hot and bright in a blinding blue sky the acrid sent of manure would fill my nostrils while I worked alongside my parents and siblings picking pole beans and tomatoes in our garden. When I look back to my youth, before my parents were divorced, before south Omaha transformed from one kind of ethnic community into another, I think of our garden and the bright and blinding summer sun.
My parents weren’t exactly hippies, but they did name me Summer, and my older brother narrowly escaped the name Wolfgang. My dad always packed a lunch for work, the idea of eating out was unthinkable, and my mom made homemade yogurt, with a little warming device that now sits in the bottom of my kitchen cupboard. We grew most of our vegetables, and we often visited a now defunct health food store in Ralston called The Granery. The building still stands, as does its name, but carved out cubbies for small business have replaced the rows of sushi balls, and cardboard flavored grain-snacks my mother made us eat. The taste of health food has evolved considerably since the hippie revolution, where people like my parents included food in their back-to-the-earth philosophies.
Some of today’s most recognizable national food brands such as Eden Organic and Bob’s Red Mill started or came of age during that time. The 60s and 70s organic, small farm and health food movements were the first wave of the food revolution. They are the foundation for the locavore and organic obsession of the past 20 years, which marks the second wave.
Now that many restaurants promote their favorite farms on chalkboards or menus, and you can walk down the aisle of a mainstream grocer like, Hy-Vee, to find local, honey, jams and produce, what will the next 20 years of Omaha’s local food scene look like? Each person I interviewed had different thoughts on how the movement will continue and what it needs, but one thing is certain, they all believe it’s here to stay.
Local food is reaching beyond fine dining establishments like the Old Market’s The Boiler Room and Midtown Crossing’s The Grey Plume and into casual breakfast and lunch places like the Kitchen Table, on 14th and Farnam, west Omaha’s Over Easy at 168th and Q, a hip delicatessen like Dundee’s French Bulldog, and the charming and cheerful Two Birds Bakery in Elkhorn.
Last year, Trilety Wade and Megan Thomas, opened Two Birds Bakery on Main Street in an old Elkhorn post office. The two friends actually started their bakery years earlier by selling baked goods through the Nebraska Food Cooperative, an online year-round farmers’ market and local food distribution service. Eventually, they took the cakes offline and out of their home kitchens to invest in a brick and mortar structure.
“We chose the location we did, because this building was in my family,” explained Trilety. “My great grandfather built the building. He was a farmer and during the winter he would do construction.”
While she is thrilled with the amount of repeat business they have from people who seek out their classic or vegan muffins, cookies and rolls, Trilety said they may have inflated the role local food would play in bringing people to the bakery.
“For us, personally, we knew we were going to do as much as we could with local food. People here find [the local farm information] interesting, so we do our best to promote and educate customers on the value of locally sourced ingredients, but I don’t think that’s why people come through our door,” explained Trilety.
Two Birds Bakery sources butter, eggs, honey and milk from local producers noting that sometimes weather forces all parties involved to be creative.
“We source our butter from Clear Creek Organic Farm. One night … he couldn’t deliver our order, but someone who attended a lecture he was giving lived in Elkhorn, so Clear Creek gave it to him and that guy delivered it to us,” Trilety said with a bit of a chuckle.
Late last year, Over Easy, the homemade pop tart-serving local food restaurant with a drive through window, took over a strip mall space where a Blimpie’s sandwich shop had been. The owner, Nick Bartholomew, transformed it into a contemporary breakfast and lunch diner, where local suppliers are touted on a chalkboard embedded into a mosaic wall made from wood. Nick explained over coffee and juice one day that as a small business owner who wants to support local, you have to get creative about how you are going to allocate your money. For Nick, that meant adjusting his marketing dollars by trading a neighbor gift cards for advertising space on the back of her fence and distributing drink coasters to bars across the city printed with an abbreviated menu and the mantra, “Friends don’t let friends cook breakfast hungover.”
Whether the quirks of buying directly from the farmer are seen as opportunities or challenges, many people are seeking streamlined distribution models. The Nebraska Food Coop is one model where consumers pay a membership fee, not unlike Costco, and order from their website, nebraskafood.org. Farmers list what they have available and the shopper picks it up at a delivery site. Lori Tatreau, manager for Lone Tree Foods, a network of local producers in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska is working towards a variation on that model. Many of these efforts, including Lone Tree, are funded through grant money and volunteer hours, which can lead to concerns over continuity and longevity.
“Lone Tree is trying to be a food hub. Farmers working together to aggregate and distribute their product,” explained Lori. “Ideally you would have a warehouse where farmers would truck in their product, drop it off, then it would go off to restaurants, grocery stores and schools the next day. Most importantly it would stay source identified so you are still tracing the food from the farm to the plate as much as possible.”
The grant funding Lori’s position will expire in September, which means this organization is in a state of administrative transition.
“The local food hub model tries to keep more money in the farmer’s pocket. They are going to pay Lone Tree Foods or any food hub something to administer the buying, selling and distribution process, but our system is going to be owned by the farmers,” explained Lori. “The goal is to get it out of grant funding, so being an LLC makes the most sense, which is what will likely happen. It’s got to fly this year or its not.”
Local food has also recharged a desire to not just eat, but eat well at home. Grocery stores like Whole Foods and Hy-Vee offer cooking classes but specialty retailers like Provisions, a soon to open retail store at Midtown Crossing, and private in-home classes are also gaining momentum.
Beth Richards and Sharon Olson teach canning classes out of a home they purchased together in their Minne Lusa neighborhood. Their goal focused more on building community, than starting a business. For a small fee and a smile they will teach anyone to can almost anything. They just picked up a bulk order of 3,000 canning jars this spring.
Most recently we have seen Chad Lebo, founder of Cure Cooking, grace the city with his passion for teaching curing, cooking and baking traditions. Chad moved to Omaha in June 2013 and six months later he opened Cure. Those interested in taking classes on cheese making, smoking, dry curing, sourdough breads or fermentation can register for classes online at curecooking.com. He will teach them in-his home or yours. Prior to moving to Omaha, Chad lived in Madagascar, where using what was available and a do-it-yourself approach to cooking was a way of life. Formally trained as a teacher, he combined his passion for the classroom with his love of craft food.
“We’ve had great interest here in Omaha with people who want to learn how to make traditional foods rather than just going out and buying what is available to them,” explained Chad. “By teaching these foodmaking methods you are keeping some of these traditions alive.”
Passing on food traditions is critical for Lebo who says much of what he sharing isn’t difficult just forgotten. This summer he will offer a class for children through the community gardening organization City Sprouts. In the future, he hopes to teach Cure Cooking classes as part of classroom learning in the schools.
“We can teach history, science and math through educating children about and preparing traditional foods with them. They get to be the scientist. Only instead of having something meaningless to them at the end of the experiment, they get to eat it,” Chad said.
Once we’ve sourced our food locally, learned how to prepare it at home and found a little respite in a restaurant or two, the real work begins. Perhaps what is most likely to propel the local food movement to the next level is when local food advocates become the policy makers. Organizations like the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition, the Metro Omaha Food Policy Council and No More Empty Pots among others are working on various levels to impact local food policy. The Center for Nutrition was instrumental in facilitating farm to school relationships, while No More Empty Pots address food security issues and the recently formed Metro Omaha Food Policy Council is working to create an equitable, nutritious and sustainable local food supply, primarily through community awareness and engagement efforts. William Powers, farmer and executive director of the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society would like to see local food people in policy-making positions.
“As long as the consumer continues to seek local foods, and foods associated with place, the culture will continue to grow and evolve,” explained Willia. “The local foods revolution has been around long enough already to not be a fad. As more people of all demographics gain accessibility and knowledge of that local food system, the more it will be in demand. The challenge with local foods is we need more farmers utilizing local markets and sustainable agricultural principles, which is predicated on community and place.”
By now consumers have grown accustomed to the quality of local produce – fresh sunflower sprouts to mix up our salads, tomatoes arriving every August to remind us why we suffer through July’s heat, and squash, potatoes and winter greens that sustain us through the cold, grey months of winter. We’ve even come to realize asparagus, if grown locally, can be tender when it’s as thick as our thumbs and discovered the nutty wonder of prairie plants like Jerusalem artichokes. Now that we’ve tried them, we want them not only at the farmers market, but also at the grocery store, not just for special nights out, but also casual lunches, breakfasts and quick bites on the run. As much as we love dining out, dining in has taking on new meaning as well. We have a renewed interest in what we offer for dinner, even if its just fresh pole beans served to your brother nearly known as Wolfgang.
Find out more about Local Food at the Paradigm Gardens Local Foodshed Area at Earth Day Omaha this Saturday, April 19, in Elmwood Park from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Boiler Room: http://www.boilerroomomaha.com/
The Grey Plume: http://www.thegreyplume.com/
Two Birds Bakery: HYPERLINK "http://www.twobirdsbakeryomaha.com/" http://www.twobirdsbakeryomaha.com/
French Bulldog: http://frenchbulldogomaha.com/
Over Easy: HYPERLINK "http://www.overeasyomaha.com/" http://www.overeasyomaha.com/
The Kitchen Table: http://www.kitchentableomaha.com/
No More Empty Pots:http://nomoreemptypots.org/
Metro Omaha Food Policy Council: http://metroomahafpc.wordpress.com/
Lone Tree: HYPERLINK "http://www.lonetreefoodsnetwork.com/" http://www.lonetreefoodsnetwork.com/
Minne Lusa House: https://www.facebook.com/minne.house
Cure Cooking: HYPERLINK "http://curecooking.com/" http://curecooking.com/
Nebraska Sustainable Agricultural Society: http://www.nebsusag.org/
Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition: HYPERLINK "http://centerfornutrition.org/" http://centerfornutrition.org/