Visit any Athens restaurant and you’re likely to be hit with a board of specials, often containing a multitude of locally sourced ingredients. Differentiating itself from mass produced ingredients, local food is produced within a short distance of where it is consumed. Just as carnivores and herbivores eat strictly meat or vegetables, the term locavore describes those who strive to eat primarily locally-sourced food.Why It’s Newsworthy: As the desire for sustainable life practices continues to increase in public consciousness, eating locally sourced ingredients and produce is one of the biggest ways an individual can cut down on his or her carbon footprint and support the local economy. Athens restaurants have embraced this trend, utilizing locally sourced food in their menus and finding great success.
“Beyond just what you eat, it’s trying to live as sustainably as possible,” Jeneane McGuire, general manager and owner of LRG Provisions, said about what being a locavore means to her. “That means eating what you can locally, shopping locally, [and] being involved in your community.”
As a restaurant and catering company in Athens’ Five Points, Provisions strives to source local ingredients for their rotating menu. This means obtaining produce from nearby farms such as Woodland Gardens in Winterville, Georgia, or Athens’ own Collective Harvest.
McGuire cites multiple benefits of using local ingredients, such as how they are healthier, fresher and better for the local economy.
“You know who’s growing it. You can visit the farm; you know what they’re using on it. You’re also helping support the local economy, and there’s a fun story in there, too,” McGuire said. “It feels better; [it] tastes better. And it feels better to support a local business.”
One of the biggest benefits of sourcing produce locally is that it can dramatically cut down on one’s carbon footprint. Supply chain produce, or food that is grown elsewhere and then shipped to mass market grocery stores, requires travel upwards of hundreds of miles. Up to 83% of carbon dioxide emissions come from food production, according to TerraPass. Shopping for one’s produce locally cuts down on these transportation emissions, lowering one’s personal carbon footprint down to nearly 7%. For restaurants supplying food for a large community, these effects are exponential.
“There’s not as much fuel. And the carbon emissions for the food to get to you, it’s not as high,” McGuire said. “Obviously, we’re trying to get things that are organic and sustainably done. But it also just feels like the right thing to do just in general for the planet.”
Although Provisions’ origin restaurant, downtown Athens’ Last Resort Grill, has a standing menu that does not change based on seasonal ingredients, they still strive to source produce from community farmers and base specials on current seasonal ingredients.
Kitchen Manager Aaron Phillips says they could just as easily, and more cheaply, obtain ingredients from mass suppliers like Cisco or P&G.
“They’re pretty indifferent of where it comes from, and they’re just sourcing the cheapest possible product,” Phillips said. “[Sourcing locally] makes me feel better, and it makes our kitchen feel better.”
With such a wealth of farmers in the surrounding Athens area, Phillips said it has been relatively easy to create mutually beneficial relationships. Citing a partnership with farmer Chris Bach from Zoe George Farms in Monroe, Georgia, these ingredients delivered daily go right into the dishes on the specials board.
“It just is ideal, and it’s not an opinion thing,” Phillips said. “When you source locally, it’s fresher… it’s just better produce in general.”
Local produce can also provide more nutrients than mass-grown fruits or vegetables, according to Virtua Health. The fresher produce is, the more nutrients it retains. Local produce has a higher likelihood of having been harvested more recently than supply chain ingredients, and also avoids any chemicals, gasses or waxes companies may use to extend the life of their produce.
“Once it’s harvested, a lot of the vitamins and nutrients start deteriorating. On average, our produce is traveling 20 miles or less, whereas a lot of times, like from distributors or grocery stores, on average, it travels over 1,000 miles,” Lisa Merva, Collective Harvest general manager, said. “Something I hear a lot of our customers say as their number one reason for wanting to support local farms is just because of that community, keeping money in our community, [and] keeping small businesses alive and healthy.”
Erin Wilson, general manager at downtown fine dining restaurant The National, said the “power of numbers” of Athens’ surrounding farmers has made sourcing local ingredients a simple and straightforward process. Basing daily specials on what they can source from local farmers, their menu changes throughout the year based on what’s in season and available to them.
“If we get turnips that day instead of beets, we just change it on our menu. It helps us stay really open to seasonality and allows us to stay as seasonal as we possibly can,” Wilson said. “But also on the flip side, when we do get something we weren’t expecting, or say, a product that we really love comes in a little earlier than I expected it, it’s almost less of a challenge and more of an excitement.”
However, not all diners are as up to date on the benefits of local food. After removing salmon from their menu, citing the farm-raised fish available was unsustainable and not of high enough quality, McGuire found Provisions customers disappointed.
“I just didn’t feel okay with it anymore, but the consumer really wants salmon, you know?” McGuire said of sourcing the fish. “That’s been a bit hard for us.”
Instead, LRG Provisions now offers a red fish dish, using fish from The Gulf of Mexico.
“I brought a little mini red fish plate to a customer last week who was sure she only liked salmon,” McGuire said. “And she ended up liking it, so that was actually super cool.”
When it comes to educating the public about the pros of locally sourced food, Wilson finds its best to enlighten through foods diners may already be familiar with.
“When you eat something you eat all the time, but it’s made with better ingredients and you can see that side-by-side comparison,” Wilson said. “And that’s really special.”
Anabel Prince is a senior majoring in journalism at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
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