'Eat Your Vegetables!' Takes on Fresh Meaning

Supporters of 'sustainable cuisine' encourage people to look beyond their forks

Back when most American families lived on farms, giving thanks for food on the table carried a lot more collective poignancy.

Today, people are separated from their food sources. The local market has turned into the superstore, and millions of dollars are spent processing, packaging, and transporting food.

A small but growing movement is promoting a return to simpler times, however, when people ate closer to the earth. These food professionals and consumers say that getting back to basics will help ensure purer food and a safer environment for the future. Their cause: sustainable cuisine.

With the celebration of Earth Day on April 22, people may be encouraged to think about what went into raising the food they eat. They may ask: What are the environmental issues that affect food prices, quality, and purity? Even, what do my food choices support?

Earlier this year, the United Nations held a dinner featuring dishes that support concepts of sustainability. The definition of "sustainable" grew out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro: "the capacity to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The dinner was prepared by Michael Romano, executive chef of the Union Square Cafe in New York, and other prominent members of the Chefs Collaborative 2000, a group of leading chefs who support and promote sustainable cuisine.

Sustainability can mean different things in a world where natural-resource depletion (especially topsoil erosion), pesticide use, preservatives, hormones, genetic engineering, and other food-related issues are public concerns.

"For the first time ever, the ocean is [becoming] a depleting resource, not a replenishing one," says K. Dunn Gifford, president of Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, which helped sponsor the UN dinner. Add to the big picture a global population explosion - estimated to reach 10 billion by 2050 - that means more food must be produced for more people.

That figure causes people like Dennis Avery of the Center for Global Food Issues to call sustainable agriculture a "fantasy of eco-activists." Mr. Avery says that, as the world approaches peak population, countries will need more high-yield agriculture that utilizes pesticides, genetic research, and disease- and stress-resistant crops to keep up.

Farmers also make the argument that pest-control chemicals are necessary to bring in high yields, so that they can make a living from farming. Growing organic produce often means a lower yield. The market demand is often low, too, with the result that organic farming is less lucrative. (Although some success stories prove otherwise.)

Sustainable-cuisine supporters stress that they are not extremists, and that they are not advocating a ban on pesticides or preaching that everyone become vegetarians. (They point out, however, that because animals are higher on the food chain, it takes more resources and energy to produce meat than plant-based foods.)

"We're simply saying it's about choices," says Mr. Gifford of Oldways, the Cambridge, Mass.-based trust that fosters cultural exchange in food, cooking, and agriculture.

Studies indicate that consumers want pure, unadulterated food - yet don't want to pay a higher price for it once they're at the store. Awareness of the issues, however, has steadily grown.

"The public is just beginning to act in ways that - whether consciously or not - support the ideas of sustainable cuisine," says Gifford. The percentage of people who buy organic food continues to rise, he says. Stores specializing in organic produce, such as the Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods, are growing in number.

On the political front, the President's Council on Sustainable Development recognizes that the country should move toward long-term economic success of farms, environmentally sound agricultural systems, and "a healthy and secure food supply." And many countries now have a "green" movement that supports pure food and clean environment, Gifford notes.

From chefs' point of view, the heart of sustainable cuisine is very often in their own backyard. Supporting sustainable cuisine means buying from your community farmers' market or greenmarket, and eating the foods that are in season - as much as possible.

"We need to support the people who are taking care of the land for future generations," says Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. Ms. Waters is a well-known supporter of green cuisine. "This is the way people ate before we found the microwave, freezer, the shortcuts of the '50s - and changed our idea of what food should mean." she says. "[Sustainable cuisine] is our salvation. We must pay attention, or we will be out of topsoil in the next 20 years," Waters says.

As a restaurateur, Waters echoes the sentiments of many professional chefs whose definition of the highest-quality food for their restaurant is food that is as fresh as possible: "I want food that is alive food, lettuce that is just-picked," she says.

The practice of supporting local farmers and buying fresh, organic produce is so pervasive among top chefs in the country, many of them consider it not only their artistic philosophy but a moral responsibility. Some restaurateurs are even growing their own produce on their own land.

Rick Bayless, chef-owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago stresses another aspect of supporting local farmers: community relationships.

"Once you have a relationship with farmers, you understand agricultural economics, you understand what farmers are going through," he says. One thing that people don't always realize is that buying local means that less fuel was used in transporting food, he notes.

Farmers' markets and whole-foods stores are growing in Chicago, reports Mr. Bayless, who helped design and prepare the UN dinner menu. "There is a hunger and a longing inside a lot of people to reconnect to the earth," he adds, predicting: "We will see embers of that be fanned into a big flame."

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