Local greens offer different ways to fight fast food

By Cal Colgan | jcolgan@flagler.edu
Photos by Phil Sunkel

Richard Villadoniga said the slow food movement has a saying.

“You know your lawyer. You know your doctor. You know your dentist. Why not know your farmer?”

The Fruit Cove Middle School teacher is the founder of Slow Food First Coast, the Northeast Florida chapter of Slow Food USA, a national group dedicated to promoting community-sponsored agriculture, or CSA. The slow food movement is one of the several groups of green-minded individuals cropping up in the county who are finding different ways to encourage the use of locally grown food.

Villadoniga said that a CSA is a subscriber-based system where consumers pay for a box of freshly-picked organic produce delivered to them each week by a local farmer. The amount of produce that the farmer delivers is based on the need of the subscriber, and this subscriber-farmer relationship can last as few as 10 weeks to several months.

While Villadoniga doesn’t know of any grocery businesses that purchase locally grown food, he said there are several restaurants around the city that are CSA participants. He said SFFC even gives out an award called the Snail of Approval to local restaurants that make an effort to purchase food from local farmers.

One place that stuck out in Villadoniga’s mind as new CSA-friendly restaurant is the Floridian.

Located on Cordova Street in downtown St. Augustine, owners Jeff McNaly, Jenie Kepner and Patricia McLemore founded the Floridian so that they could cook and sell food with locally grown ingredients to customers.

A member of SFFC and its Snail of Approval committee, Kepner said she, McNaly and McLemore wanted to fulfill the same responsibility as other restaurants on the West Coast and the growing green-friendly eateries in Jacksonville. She said that although the Floridian is not a pure example of a CSA participant, they will become more subscriber-based once the Sunshine State starts to yield more fall crops.

One of the farms that partners with the Floridian is the CartWheel Ranch, which supplies the restaurants meats. Kepner said even the meats from CartWheel are more environmentally-friendly than those consumers might find at the local store.

“For us, not only is [CartWheel] within a hundred-mile radius, but all of their beef is antibiotic-free and hormone-free, and it’s grass-fed and finished on grains, which [the farmers] found to be the best process for them,” she said.

“We seafood shop to get local fish,” said McNaly, “and we’re looking to even work with local fishermen themselves, as soon as they have some product for us.”

The Floridian’s owners said they try to only serve certain produce when it is in season, and they vary their menus when an ingredient is out of season. Kepner said they haven’t received any complaints from customers yet, but she suspects that come mid-winter, she will have to explain to patrons why they can’t have a certain vegetable ate in the summer.

“[I]t’s a way of educating people . . . because I think to such an extent, we’re a culture [that] is very much accustomed to getting what we want, when we want it, no matter what the cost,” Kepner said. “If we’re able to inform people who might not know that you actually can’t get cucumbers year round . . . then it kind of transforms the way people think about their food and the source.”

But not all who are for the use and distribution of locally grown food make a profit off of their efforts. Take CitySprout, for example. When the group’s director, Cash McVay, started the Lincolnville Community Garden at the Eddie L. Vickers Recreation Facility more than one year ago, the city’s restrictions prevented CitySprout from selling the produce to the local farmer’s market. Since the city allows CitySprout to till have the garden at the recreational center free of charge, they can’t sell their food to anyone.

“But we do produce local food that is eaten by the members and given away to local charities,” McVay said. “So in some sense, we are community-sponsored agriculture. It’s just maybe a different type of CSA, in that members donate their time and their sweat equity to produce food, and that food finds its way into the community.”

McVay said that in addition to allocating a box to the local activist group Food Not Bombs, which serves mostly vegetarian food to homeless and hungry people in the Plaza de la Constitucion, CitySprout also has five communal boxes that will soon contain organically-grown plants.

“[T]wo of them are going to have vegetables, one’s going to have flowers and two are going to have culinary herbs,” he said. McVay said that anything produced out of the boxes will be available to CitySprout members or the public, and he hopes that there will be enough produce from the boxes so that CitySprout can donate the harvest to local organizations like soup kitchens or Food Not Bombs.

McVay said that the necessity of projects like the Lincolnville Community Garden comes from the problems of the fast food industry.

“Our economy has developed in a way that requires us to have everything as convenient as possible,” he said. “But in order to process and feed a mass of people through a fast food mechanism — you can’t just do it in a natural way.”

Chuck Riffenburg and Seth Teston agree that our nation’s industrial food system is not sustainable.

The founder of the Flagler College Hunger Initiative and First Chair of the Student Government Association’s Green Committee, Riffenburg, a Flagler College senior, has worked with CitySprout, religious groups and schools to develop community gardens all over St. Johns County.

Teston, a Flagler junior and member of CitySprout, has started to help Riffenburg in his efforts to cultivate Flagler’s own community garden, located by the college’s tennis courts and behind the First United Methodist Church.

Riffenburg said that the major food corporations’ genetic modification of food amounts to “modern-day imperialism.”

“We’ve seen the patenting of life forms, which by the way is something we’ve never voted on constitutionally,” he said. “Companies like Monsanto go into the Third World, take over the entire economy and [the food production], so [developing countries] are entirely dependent on these corporate structures.”

Both Riffenburg and Teston think that community gardens are not as exploitative as the modern food industry. But they realize not everyone in the green movement operates in the same way. They said that although they would rather the green movement not to be motivated by profit, they would prefer businesses to buy locally grown produce.

“You’re going to have a variety of different options and how they work, and I think it’s best that way,” Teston said.

While he says he would like to see the push towards sustainable agriculture grow on a national scale, McVay said it won’t happen overnight.

“You can’t just tell someone to find three hours a day to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner on their own,” he said. “I think it’s going to take some time for the mass of our society to catch on and start doing things that we need to do.”

But while the local food movement is still small compared to the modern food industry, McNaly said it is not beneficial for people to choose fast food in the long run.

“Yes, they can go to Taco Bell or McDonald’s or WalMart and get crappy produce and meats that might fulfill them for a month or so, but eventually the effect on their health and the effect on the environment would be the larger detriment,” he said.

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