A career in culinary photography has put food at the center of my life—not just as an object to be captured on film, but as a muse for storytelling. As the senior creative director for LPK Photo and former photo editor at Bon Appetit, I’ve long found inspiration in the ways that food connects us to each other and to the earth.
But somehow, over the last 50 or so years, we have lost our way when it comes to food, nutrition and diet. For most of human existence, we’ve eaten a broad range of complete foods, based on seasonal availability, farming practice, hunting prowess and community consciousness. We foraged nearby fields and forests, planted crops, planted gardens and raised livestock on small farms. Our consumption was based on the limitations of our land. More recently, we’ve endeavored to engineer our diet based on endless studies that show a need for (or aversion to) certain nutrients, fats, allergenic agents, glutens or inflammatories.
Since the 1950s, we’ve moved away from the sources of our food and the ways it’s produced. We’ve developed a cultural preference for convenience above all, so that seasonal fluctuation in availability of certain foods rarely affects our ability to get them. We can have whatever we want whenever we want it—peaches in January, pomegranates in July. All it takes is importing it from someplace really far away and transporting it at a huge environmental cost.
As someone whose lifework is about bringing people closer to food and creating visceral expressions of our connection to it, I find it heartening to witness the burgeoning farm-to-table movement that has exploded over the last decade. With it has come a growing network of farmer’s markets and a demand for community-supported agriculture (CSA). We’re seeing visionary change in unexpected places, like Rust Belt cities such as Detroit and Cleveland fighting inner-city food deserts (neighborhoods abandoned by mainstream grocery retailers) with thriving urban agriculture programs.
Increasingly, on a national and even global scale, restaurants and large grocers are venturing into the local and sustainable food movement, demonstrating the financial viability of sourcing locally. WalMart’s Neighborhood Markets, typically located in densely populated areas, are pursuing a locally grown campaign and Kathy Book, senior culinary innovation manager for Kroger, says that her company is actively pursuing a full program of locally sourced produce in their stores nationwide. Kroger stores in Colorado are leading the effort, and have introduced a program to provide inventory that is sourced from within 100 miles of each store. Farm-to-table is even impacting the tourist industry with luxury experiences in exotic locations, such as Babylonstoren Farm in South Africa, where guests are free to wander the gardens, orchards and pastures, pick whatever they please and prepare their harvests in private, designer kitchens.
How can we as individuals make an impact in the recalibration of our food supply? CSAs are one of the very best ways to reconnect with the farmers who grow our food. By joining a CSA, you sign up with participating growers to receive regular shipments of fresh-from-the-farm produce, based on what’s seasonal and plentiful. In my experience with CSAs I’ve found that it’s a great way to get back in touch with the natural sequence of the seasons, discover some things I’ve never tried and enjoy some of the freshest produce there is. Through CSAs, you can also buy herd-shares of dairy or beef cattle and enjoy grass-fed beef or raw milk, otherwise unattainable because it’s illegal to sell raw dairy products commercially in Ohio.
It strikes me that this part of the country—southwestern Ohio—is unique in that we have a large rural region that is easily accessible from the urban core. Our farmer’s markets are great and plentiful, with Ohio’s oldest operating public market, Findlay Market, attracting shoppers with family-run meat markets, heirloom and organic produce from local growers and everything from original Cincinnati pastries to handmixed spices. When I can’t make it to Findlay on the farmer’s market days of Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, there are dozens of farmer’s markets in the city’s surrounding neighborhoods, including Northside, Wyoming and at Lunken Airport, to name a few.
In addition to our farmer’s markets, I have a great love for visiting working farms, such as Turner Farm in Indian Hill, which is very near to the city’s center. These operations still use time-honored farming practices like horse-drawn machinery instead of heavy, motorized equipment which can damage the land by compacting it rather than naturally tilling it the way horses’ hooves do. In Turner Farm’s honor-system store you can find the sweetest carrots or the freshest eggs you’ve ever eaten—whatever is in season and just picked or laid. There’s no reason not to take the time to get out to one of these great farms where you can see the fields planted, the harvest ongoing and the chickens free-roaming while picking up fresh produce, eggs and meat.
To find more ways to bring farm-to-table practices into your life, visit LocalHarvest, a national, online community that can connect you to local growers, family farms and CSAs across the United States or eatlocalcorv.org, a grassroots initiative that support local growers and eaters in the Cincinnati area.