By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — Local foods aficionados will kick off this year’s third annual Eat Local Challenge in a manner befitting a movement dedicated to celebrating locally produced food: they’re breaking out their forks and casserole dishes and turning out for a picnic.
But the Addison County Localvores, as the individuals behind the Eat Local Challenge are dubbed, have more up their sleeves than a simple potluck. This year, for the first time, the month-long challenge to eat locally grown and produced foods will include a harvest festival that should prove educational, entertaining and, of course, appetizing.
Slated to take place on the Middlebury town green — or, in the case of rain, in St. Stephen’s on the Green Episcopal Church — the Sept. 6 festival represents what Monkton resident Jonathan Corcoran called the localvores’ efforts to reach beyond their core of dedicated supporters to the “next concentric circles” in the community.
“This year we thought, wouldn’t it be great to try to draw more people in, and wouldn’t it be great to try to educate people about how to actually do more eating locally?” said Cornwall resident Kristin Bolton, one of the localvores organizing the kick-off event.
Definitions for what constitutes locally produced food vary — do foods baked or processed locally from ingredients produced from afar count? — but a general rule of thumb is that anything grown within 100 miles of one’s home is local.
The festival will include workshops designed to help challenge participants “survive” the Eat Local Challenge, with discussions for newcomers to the movement and diehards alike. Ranging from topics like raising backyard poultry, harvesting wild edibles and baking with whole grains to tutorials on building a first garden and putting food by, the workshops are a response to questions that Bolton said have cropped up from area residents who want to eat more local food, but don’t necessarily know how to go about that.
“Some of the impetus for the festival was, ‘How else can we support people doing this?’” Bolton said.
The festival is also a chance to celebrate the community ties built by the local foods movement. Those connections, Bolton said, are at the heart of eating locally.
“A lot of what needs to happen is an interdependence in the community about how we can share our resources,” she said. “That’s when eating local is most successful.”
The festival marks the start of the third Eat Local Challenge that the localvores — an offshoot of the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACoRN) — have sponsored. And, given the buzz about eating locally, it could prove to be the group’s most successful year yet.
“There’s definitely a greater interest in local foods,” Bolton said. “More and more people are talking about it.”
The challenge, localvores emphasized, isn’t about suffering — which is precisely why the “rules” aren’t rules at all, but rather a list of suggestions for integrating local foods into one’s diet. While the national eat local challenge — Eat Local America! — encourages participants to make local foods account for 80 percent of their diet for a month, the Addison County localvores have crafted a “choose your own adventure” approach to the challenge.
“There’s also a recognition that if you make it too hard for people, they won’t try,” said Bolton.
And those who do commit to trying should be encouraged even for making small changes in the diets, according to Bay Hammond, a Shoreham poultry farmer active in the localvores group.
“Nobody should be putting pressure on themselves to make those changes overnight,” said Hammond. Instead, she encouraged local foods novices to try picking one thing to tackle in the coming month. That could mean making one meal entirely from local ingredients a week, or pledging to spend a certain amount of money on locally grown vegetables while grocery shopping.
It’s with that thinking in mind that individuals registering for the challenge can specify how they wish to participate — pledging, for example, to eat local meat for the month, to organize an “eat local” dinner party, or even to extend their pledge for an additional week, month or year.
“It needs to be done on whatever level works for that family,” Hammond said.
Though the switch to eating locally can be tricky — requiring time more than anything else, Bolton said — the localvores stress the benefits of eating local foods, which, they argue, makes the added effort worthwhile.
Locally grown food reduces energy consumption — particularly in the United States, where some studies say the average distance food travels from farm to plate is between 1,500 and 2,500 miles.
Eating local foods also keeps the money spent on those foods in the community. According to the localvores’ Web site — www.acornvt.com. If Vermonters substituted local products for 10 percent of the food imported into the state, it would result in $376 million in new economic activity in Vermont, including $69 million in personal earnings from 3,616 jobs.
And, of course, other benefits crop up on the table itself — the food is fresher, and locally grown produce tends to be bred for nutrition and flavor, not for easy shipping. Local food, the localvores argue, simply tastes better.
The Saturday, Sept. 6, festival, which is sponsored by the Addison County Localvores and the Middlebury Natural Food Co-op, kicks off at noon with a potluck lunch and music from the Ridge Runners. Participants can bring a dish prepared from local ingredients to share, or simply join in at the table. Workshops will run periodically throughout the afternoon, and the festival will also feature music from the Shader Croft Band, Margie Bekoff, Raye Keyser and Izzy Lower.
Other highlights include fresh, hand-cranked ice cream, face painting and old-fashioned games for children and a fund-raising raffle for a dinner for two at a local restaurant.
Representatives from Vermont Fish and Wildlife, the Vermont Foodbank, Rural Vermont and ACoRN, among others, will also be on hand to answer questions.
Individuals interested in participating in the Eat Local Challenge can register at Mountain Greens in Bristol, the Fat Hen in Vergennes, the Middlebury Natural Food Co-Op, the Middlebury or Bristol farmers markets, or online at www.acornvt.org.