If there's one thing I really love about Arkansas, it's got to be the sense of community. People know each other by name here; know about their families and lives and what they like to get up to on the weekend. Recently, there's been a lot of development of that community-vibe in our food system. I've been thinking about local food sources and the community it creates, and so I went out and spoke with a few people from restaurants or markets that source local ingredients.
We throw that term "local" around loosely, but what does it really mean?
"Food you love from people you know- that's really what it's about. It's more than getting yourself full, it's a connection," said Stephanie Hamling, a jack-of-all-trades at North Little Rock's Argenta Market.
The Argenta Market is a grocery and deli in the downtown community of Argenta that draws clientele and goods, from the adjacent Saturday farmer's market. Hamling said there's a good "synergy" between the two - Argenta Market offers the farmers free coffee, and when the farmer's market ends they'll come in to see what we need for the upcoming week in produce, jams, cheese, and sauces.
"We have over 100 local vendors, and they make this a destination spot," Hamling said. She works on the website, manages customer service, and sources local products, but while she was originally a graphic artist, it's the relationship with the customers that is her real concern. She said that she knows 75% of the people who walk through the front door, and while I was having lunch from the deli I saw her walk up to a man and hand him a gift certificate because she "appreciates him always coming to visit them."
That's what I'm talking about when I talk about community. But there's more to it than that.
Loblolly Creamery is soda fountain a few blocks from our office. The digital team takes a walk over there at least once a week - it's their "spot", so to speak. For Sally Mengel, co-owner of the artisan ice cream shop, a local business is one that supports its community.
"We do that by buying all local ingredients and making everything from scratch," the artisan ice cream maker said.
While we talked about their small-batch ice creams and traditional Arkansas ingredients, Sally said hi to a few customers by name, and knew what a couple of them were going to order.
"It makes it more enjoyable - you know who you're serving, you get to know people. We're creating this dialogue- we're not a traditional soda fountain, sometimes we don't even have vanilla. We're kind of opening people's perceptions and palettes... All with local ingredients."
I like to buy Arkansas ingredients for a lot of reasons - I'm from Arkansas, want to support my fellow farmers and have those dollars flowing back into my state's economy. Like Jack Sundell, from The Root Café, said, "whether its food or a hammer from a hardware store, if you seek out local suppliers you're supporting all that local business, a place that has its own personality, and your community on the whole."
But Brandon Brown, owner of Hillcrest Artisan Meats ("H.A.M."), noted that "local" is kind of a trendy topic, and one that doesn't always work for a business model.
"There's a big difference between local food and good local food," he said. "I think that people fall into a trap of ‘just because it's local it's great.' There's a lot of local stuff that's not great."
While we sat in the in the charcuterie, rich aromas hanging in the air, Brown pointed out the pictures adorning the wall - pictures from the farms where they source their meat, both in Arkansas and around it. He and his wife moved to Arkansas from Oregon, and saw an immediate need for a free-range, grass-fed meat source and started to befriend farmers, some of whom are in those photos.
"We were really disappointed in the food that's available in Little Rock - so we opened this place out of selfishness and necessity!" he said with a laugh.
And that's why he, and others, see the local food movement as an opportunity to educate.
"People expect to come here and have every vegetable or egg to be local. I try to explain that we don't have local milk because our last local dairy closed a few years ago or that you just can't grow avocados in Arkansas, so we have to source them from somewhere else," Hamling said about Argenta Market. "I think we're educators more than anything else."
Part of that education means explaining that the price of high-quality, locally grown food is worth the extra cash.
Brown told a story of a first time customer coming in to pick up a whole chicken. When Brown rang his total up- about $20 for just the bird- the man was appalled by the price, but bought it anyway. By the next afternoon, the customer had posted to HAM's Facebook page an essay about just how wonderful that chicken was and how he'd never buy another commercial chicken again.
"It's really expensive to grow meat well, without hormones. What we buy it for reflects that, what we sell it for has to reflect that," Hamling said.
Sundell says that there's no comparison between these high-quality local foods and industrial products - people want good taste and good health.
"People are interesting in eating healthier. You're eating local food closer to the time it was picked, so it just has more nutritional value than a tomato that was picked two weeks ago, shipped green, & sprayed with ethylene gas to ripen. It looks like a tomato, but it doesn't taste like a tomato," Sundell said. "Another big issue is transparency. You hear about food borne illnesses and outbreaks - that type of thing rarely happens when you're dealing with a local food system because production isn't so industrialized."
And less industrialization means better tasting food.
"It doesn't take a chef or a knowledgeable food critic to taste the difference between an Arkansas tomato and a store-bought tomato. There's no comparison." Sundell said.
When I go to the farmer's market, I see a mixed bag of people both selling and shopping - young, old, first-time farmers, third-generation land owners. But eating local food isn't a new idea.
"Before there was convenience food and all these packaged goods, people grew their own food and had to buy from farmers... But now it's becoming more valued," Mengel said.
Hamling echoed that sentiment.
"In generations past everybody was trying to get off the farm, but now I think people are looking for community and connection where they can get it, like going back to the land, and we want to support that."
Like I said, I love the community aspect of my home state. We support our farmers, and there is a growing movement of people who want to make that more common. I think local food and the fellowship it creates is a powerful movement, but I couldn't say it better than Jack Sundell does.
"I don't see it as something that's a passing fad. With local food, it's something that builds community so naturally and it's something that people really crave and haven't had access to. When they come together over good food, I think they get something special that you can't just find anywhere."