Whether it's Saturday Market at the Port of Ilwaco, neighborhood egg and berry sellers, Astoria's Sunday Market or last weekend's Lughnasa Festival, signs abound of the robust interest in delicious local foods around the Lower Columbia region.

Somewhere else perhaps it would not be so easy and tempting to incorporate "homegrown" items in daily menus. (By homegrown, we mean foods produced within a county or two of ours.) But as befitting our position west of the end of the Oregon Trail, the Lower Columbia is still lavishly endowed with the natural assets that lured many of our ancestors across the continent many years ago.

Although we can no longer boast of being able to walk across the Columbia on the backs of migrating salmon runs, we still have more than enough fish to qualify as one of the nation's greatest centers for fine seafood. Add in Dungeness crab, razor clams and Willapa oysters, not forgetting the mighty and delicious sturgeon, and it's feasible to feast throughout the year.

The carnivores among us also delight in farm-grown beef. An enthusiastic contingent of hunters avidly longs autumn and the harvest season for deer, elk, ducks, geese, bears and other wild game, all of which have prosperous populations, thanks to careful stewardship.

Vegetarian options also abound, particularly for those willing and able to eat dairy products - all our counties support dairy herds, but it's needless to say that Tillamook County is to cheese and ice cream what Newcastle once was to coal. If this summer is any indication, global warming may even give our cool coast a consistent shot at producing decent outdoor tomatoes. They and a lot of other produce already can be nurtured along, with a little luck and TLC.

Striving to eat good local foods is largely free of the faintly elitist aftertaste - and premium prices - of the organic-food movement. Avoiding excess use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides remains a great idea, of course, but the more important issue when it comes to personal and environmental health is knowing where our food comes from. Especially the vegetables we should all be eating more of are a lot more delicious when harvested ripe at a nearby farm rather than shipped across the country or world.

There are many other good reasons to eat what grows right here. Supporting local growers keeps more of our money right here in our local communities. Nearby production limits the amount of climate-warming gas created by long-haul transportation. And so on.

The Chinook Observer is in the midst of a several-week campaign to focus more attention on local foods. Watch for more here in our pages.

It's up to each of us to take advantage of these delicious opportunities in these glorious days of summer.

Where does our food come from?

Lughnasa Festival provides chance to ripen knowledge about locally produced food

By KATIE?WILSON

The Daily Astorian

Beneath its flushed, easily-bruised skin, a single peach can contain an entire economy, community, security task force and philosophy.

Who knew?

Saturday, individuals and businesses will join forces to make North Coast rsidents think twice (or three times) about food, where it comes from and how they eat it.

Iris Sullivan, owner of Astoria's Blue Scorcher Bakery and Cafe at 14th and Duane streets, is one of the main organizers of the Lughnasa Festival. It's a celebration of community through the common necessity of food. The festival will also include music, games and demonstrations. It will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 15th and Duane streets.

Sullivan is on a campaign for local food. As in all good campaigns, the public must meet the candidates. Many of the farmers who supply the Astoria Co-Op and the Blue Scorcher will be present Saturday.

Fred Johnson is one such farmer. A former chef, he sold his restaurant six years ago and ran headlong into all the toil and joy of being an organic grower. His 70-acre farm in Naselle, Wash. was bought and built up in the name of fresh produce.

"I wanted to become the farmer I couldn't find," Johnson said.

The chef in Johnson reared up as he moved among the the tomato plants in one of his greenhouses and plucked a bean from a nearby plant.

"It's so sweet," he said, nibbling on it. "I might do it up with a bit of oil, but not much. You don't need to enhance this flavor. Fresh produce kind of ruined me as a professional cook. It was seeing that the emperor has no clothes. I could never go back."

"I learned so many tricks to make up for the fact that the food didn't have much flavor," he said about his pre-fresh produce days. "With this," pointing to the bean plants, "I don't need any salts or fats."

Fresh produce is like religion to Johnson. The flavors, the variety, the freshness: divine.

Not only is the quality better, the food is safer and makes more sense economically, he says.

"There has been a commodification of food," he said. "It's less than 10 percent of your dollar that actually pays for the food. With the rest, you're paying for the middleman, the marketing, the storage and the packaging."

With local farmers and producers, consumers know exactly where the food is coming from and what they are paying for, he says, and more money goes back into the community.

This is echoed by other people in Astoria's growing local food-minded community.

"The bitter taste of poor quality remains much longer than the sweet taste of a low price,'" quoted Matt Stanley, general manager at the Astoria Co-Op on Exchange Street. "It may be cheap, but you pay a lot for packaging and advertising. Not for quality."

He said consumers at large chain grocery stores are not paying the "true price," by which he means the cost of environmental damage. Those costs, he said, are put onto someone else, far away from the owners and consumers. Consumers are also paying for any promotional campaigns that stores run with the food.

"When you shop local and eat local, you've paid the true price," he said.

The true price, however, can be higher than some people are willing or able to pay for everyday eating in these tight economic times, although the Co-Op is able to keep prices fairly competitive.

"The question may be being able to afford strawberries at all, much less organic strawberries," Sullivan said.

Local, organic dairy products and eggs tend to cost more, said Sullivan. She uses organic butter at the bakery and pays as much as three times more for it.

Often pressed for time, Sullivan shops at Fred Meyer and Safeway - "I'm not a total food Nazi" - but she tries to make regular trips to the Co-Op and keep her food as local as possible. She has found that the produce at the Co-Op is often the cheapest way to go.

"Cheaper and nicer," she said. "Food is coming to supermarkets from far away. By the time you get that produce, it's four or five or six days from the field. Then it sits on a shelf. Every single day, every single hour, nutrient levels are dropping."

Stanely admitted that the emphasis on local and organic food can seem elitist, something for the rich, or the hyper-active. But food is more than a statement. It is, quite literally, a way of life.

"Eating - what an intimate thing that is," Stanley said. "You're putting things into your body and those things become you."

So the true price also includes health returns. Shopping at chain grocery stores may be cheaper, but are consumers making up the difference with higher health bills?

Tom Duncan, general practitioner at the Lower Columbia Clinic in Astoria, said they often are.

He quoted from Michael Pollan's influential book, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto": "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

Eating locally means you know where your food is coming from and who is producing it and you can hold them accountable. Duncan cited recent spinach and peanut recalls. The production of those foods was far away and carried out by only a few companies.

"It's not a good idea to extend food networks to insecure lengths," he said. "The second they break down, you're in trouble. Anonymous sourcing is very good and very cheap if you're WalMart, but the food network should not be a hierarchy, a top-down kind of thing."

"Local growers are not anonymous," he added. "If something does happen, the damage is contained and you can tell where it came from."

Part of the Lughnasa Festival is Sullivan's "Food Challenge" where she challenges people to begin thinking about where their food comes from. The challenge climbs in levels. Level 1 is to take one minute and think about where the food in a meal comes from. Level 5 is to buy as much food locally or directly as possible.

Ultimately what Sullivan, Johnson, Stanley and Duncan are looking for is a strong, well-fed, supportive community. The festival will show people what's out there.

"Buying local, you're keeping money in the community," Stanley said. "You are creating a relationship with people who grow this food. Also, what are you paying for? You're paying for health of the soil, quality and safety in the food."

"I think people are naturally drawn to options," Sullivan said. "They want to know, 'What are our options?' It's more about dialoguing about it."

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