Menu for a Small Planet

That's why we need to focus on sustainable agriculture, renewable resources and the politics of food. In Phoenix, now is a very good time to "think globally and act locally" where dining is concerned. We need to grow good, nutritious meat alternatives.

I'm on the board of overseers for Chefs Collaborative 2000, a Boston-based group that is trying to foster a farmer-chef connection and encourages growing and consuming organic produce locally, among other socially responsible goals. I have hesitated to announce our position locally because I want to make sure that we can do it. By that, I mean I want to be sure that I can successfully partner with the farmer. I don't want to give false information to my clientele. I can tell you right now that about 80 percent of what we're bringing in is organically grown locally. Our meat isn't produced here, nor is our poultry. But we are currently involved in locating and cultivating resources. It's an ongoing process.

Key to the process is the farmer-chef relationship. Rather than letting a farmer's land be sold for a strip mall or a housing development, restaurants need to join farmers to help make agriculture as financially viable as development. When land becomes a strip mall, it's gone forever and it will never come back. We all have some serious questions to examine now because the land is disappearing.

I am committed to local farming. I have a friend, Wayne Smith, who is a land planner and landscape architect by trade and education. But he also is at a stage in his life where he is doing something he really wants to do: organic farming. So he has bought five acres of land--The Farm at South Mountain--which he's been grooming for the last couple of years. He and I now work together to plan for RoxSand's produce needs. He also grows for his own small lunch place and for a small farmers' market. We are working with other local growers to get what can't be produced by South Mountain.

When consumers work with local growers, it lets them know exactly what and how much to plant. That eliminates the cost of waste as well as that of transporting surplus goods to distant markets. But it takes a commitment from the consumer because the farmer puts a lot on the line.

Obviously, the partnership asks something of the restaurant owner. It also asks something of the people who work in the restaurant--in the kitchen. The goods are so fragile; but on the other hand, so fresh that they will last longer.

Using organic produce asks something of the public, too. Organically grown produce is rarely uniform. Tomatoes and potatoes may not have the symmetry that we're accustomed to. But I have found that the public really appreciates a thing that is irregular. It's part of its beauty. People want good things. They don't want to be polluted. They don't want their kids to have birth defects from nitrates in the water supply.

The problems are not monumental. In more traditional societies, people have been doing this forever and ever. It's only a matter of making the effort.

The biggest problem we have is distribution. It's hard for the farmers to do the growing and then bring the produce to market--when there is no market here.

In other cities, there's a green market, a large center or warehouse where farmers drop off their stuff, and you, as an individual or a restaurant owner, can go and buy what you want. San Francisco, Boston, Berkeley, New York City all have green markets, but we don't. We have gone down this path so many times over the last ten years--why must it always be a dead end?

Maybe it requires somebody to step up to bat and actually finance a green market. How about it, City Council?

This suggests a larger problem. Why are we so set in our ways? Let's make people realize that there are better ways to do things. My hope is not to settle for this level of complacency. People are not getting the quality that they deserve. As consumers, they're settling for second and third best. It doesn't have to be that way.

Arizona is the third-largest agricultural producer in the country. But nearly all of its produce gets shipped away. It's happening everywhere. My ex-partner in Hawaii asked me what I pay for Hawaiian ahi. It turns out he's paying $4 more per pound than what I'm paying and he's getting a lower grade. All of the prime grade ahi from Hawaii is being shipped off the island.

It's the politics of food. It's why Hawaiians now weigh 300 pounds. They're no longer eating their indigenous diet. It's the same for the Pima Indians. In order to get our indigenous foods back--there are no better melons than Arizona melons--farmers have to be able to transport melons here, and they need a market.

Just imagine their overflowing trucks rolling in from Chino Valley, from Queen Creek and down from the White Mountains. We could support a central market; the population base is here. There is the demand. And we have a growing season that lasts longer than almost anyone else's. It's a matter of not having our wealth shipped off to the L.A. market. And New York.

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