The Value Of Local Produce

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - September 27, 2006
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It was enough to make Popeye weep.

With an outbreak of E. coli, traced (so far) to bagged spinach grown in three central California counties, the FDA continued to recall spinach, as the number of people affected by the sometimes deadly bacteria grew. As of last week, more than 114 people in 21 states reported serious signs of sickness, 16 people had suffered kidney damage and at least one person died. And there wasn’t a spinach leaf to be found around the nation - unless, of course you live on the Big Island, where locally grown spinach from Honopua Farm, owned by Roen and Ken Hufford, was safely hand-picked as usual and delivered to Merriman’s Restaurant and the farmers market.

The E. coli outbreak was traced to Natural Selection Foods based in San Juan Bautista, Calif., and the company immediately recalled all bagged products containing spinach. To date, there’s no news from the FDA on when supplies will be considered safe again. That means it may be a long time before you’re enjoying spinach salad, saltimboca or eggs Florentine.

“Buy local” is a mantra we’ve been chanting for years. And it’s not just about supporting local farmers and the economy, it’s also about eating well. As this massive food scare has shown, the multimillion-dollar food processing industry may produce cheap food - but at what cost? For years people have been realizing that processed food, battery-farmed hens and hormone-fed beef doesn’t taste as good as simple, locally grown food - and while a serious E. coli outbreak is not something to celebrate, perhaps it will encourage people to reassess their buying decisions. In Hawaii, you might have to pay more for locally grown fruit, vegetables and beef, but the difference in taste is phenomenal.

Local farmers have seen a huge rise in orders since the outbreak last week, with calls coming in from restaurants and hotels denied their Mainland supplies.

“It’s been amazing,” says Dean Okimoto, the owner of Nalo Farms. “On Friday our phones started ringing and the orders for greens just kept coming” - many of them from customers who’d previously switched to Mainland produce because of price.

“This is a good example of how important local food is when you live on an island,” says Okimoto.

For one thing, it’s easier to trace the source of a problem when you’re dealing one-on-one with a farmer, and not as Natural Selection Foods does with thousands of contacts. “And the other thing is,” says Okimoto, “it’s easier for us to control our farm workers when we’re working with smaller numbers.” At Nalo Farms, greens are cut daily by workers who wear gloves at all times, while over on the Big Island, spinach leaves are picked one by one, packaged and then sent to market the same day. Of course, that’s going to cost more by the time the produce gets to the supermarket - but isn’t it worth it?

The two major concerns that hotels and restaurants have with buying local food are quantity and consistency.

“They complain that the quantity isn’t there with local farmers,” says Okimoto, “or they need a more consistent product that some farmers can’t guarantee.”

What that means is certain restaurants want their tomatoes, for example, to be exactly the same size every time they order. Do you really care that the tomato on your burger is a cookie-cutter corporate chosen size? Don’t you just want it to taste like a really good tomato?

And while local restaurants and hotels hastily try to find an alternative to spinach for their salads, Okimoto is hopeful that when the scare is over, they’ll realize that buying locally has many advantages.

“We log everything that’s cut on the farm,” he explains. “And we can tell you not just that the greens you’re eating came from the farm, but from which corner of the farm.”

Hopefully some of the larger hotels and restaurants will remain customers long after the E. coli scare is forgotten. And in a timely move, next month consumers can finally find Okimoto’s hugely popular greens in the supermarket.

“We’re coming out with a range of Dean’s Greens,” says Okimoto, “that will feature a variety of our salad greens in different mixes.”

The lettuce mixes will include arugula and an Asian mix, and should be in most major stores by the end of October.

But in the meantime if you can’t stand life without spinach and you’re looking for a healthy, tasty alternative, why not try tatsoi? Packed with Vitamin C and folic acid (much like spinach) this spicy, dark-green leaf is a great substitute.

And, yes, it’s locally grown. Happy eating!

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