Local Hero: Joel Salatin Headlines Eat Local Week

Joel Salatin.

Joel Salatin.

Virginia farmer Joel Salatin calls it "an integrity local food tsunami."

Transition Sarasota's Don Hall describes it as "a renaissance of local food and farming."

Whatever you call it, it's at the center of Greater Sarasota's Eat Local Week, currently in progress. The event, which runs through Sun., April 22, is a celebration of the "local, sustainable food and farming" happening right here on the Suncoast, and it climaxes Thursday with a "Farm-to-Fork Lunch" at Anna Maria Island's Beachhouse, featuring a talk by Salatin.

Why Salatin? Since being featured in Michael Pollan's “Omnivore's Dilemma” and the documentary “Food, Inc.”, he's become one of the most recognizable faces in the battle for healthier, more sustainable and, yes, tastier American food. His family's Shenandoah Valley farm, Polyface, is the lead-by-example core of Salatin's campaign to promote what he calls the "emotional, spiritual, soul-level satisfaction" of local food.

According to Salatin, interest has never been higher. He calls the locavore movement a natural reaction to "the despicable condition of indsturial food," name-checking foodborne illness outbreaks, the depletion of nutrients in supermarket produce and the simple realization that "you can't just live on high fructose corn syrup and Velveeta cheese and expect to be healthy" as major factors pushing shoppers and diners toward local eats.

"What we have in this country is a crisis of participation," Salatin says. "We have never so disconnected ourselves from our visceral relationship with food."

The first step toward reversing that trend? Do it yourself: "The most profound thing you can do is begin preserving, processing and packaging your own food, rather than subcontracting that out to a global corporate enterprise."

But you have to know where to buy those raw ingredients. And that's where Hall's organization is stepping in. According to its website, Transition Sarasota's mission is to rebuild "community resilience and self-reliance." Eat Local Week advances that mission by hosting gardening workshops, putting on panel discussions about the benefits — ecological and economic — of local food, and screening films that touch on our area's environmental challenges.

Eat Local Week isn't exclusive to the Suncoast; events like it are happening all over the country. Hall was inspired to kickstart one in Sarasota after moving back here from Boulder, Colo., a locavore hub.

One of the challenges Hall faced was how to "weave together all the diverse strands of the local food movement." Transition Sarasota is dedicated to issues beyond food: combating climate change and reducing the use of fossil fuels. For local farmers, the goal is to produce a high-quality product that can reach the hungry masses and generate some profit.

According to John Matthews, whose Suncoast Food Alliance is an Eat Local Week supporter, Hall has succeeded at pulling together a diverse crowd of growers, activists and restauranteurs - who don't always see eye to eye.

Matthews played a pivotal role this year by roping in Salatin. When he heard that Salatin was scheduled to make an appearance at Rollins College, he leapt at the opportunity to bring him to town. (And to Tampa. In addition to appearing on Anna Maria, Salatin will appear at a farm to fork dinner at Ybor City's Roosevelt 2.0.)

"I have so much respect for him I can't say anything," Matthews says of Salatin. Matthews just "stammered and stuttered" when introduced to the farmer at an event.

Salatin's stature has enlarged to the point that he's having to limit the number of engagements he's doing for the first time. "It's really an exciting time," he says. One project that has him particularly energized is building "a virtual farmer's market" that users can visit to order directly from nearby producers.

"The beauty is that the local system, being small, is able to be incredibly adaptive to this new technology, whereas this big global system still has this great inertia," he says, sounding downright giddy. "We can just make a total end run around all of that."

But the revolution hasn't arrived yet, and the rapacious agribusiness corporations still largely dictate who eats what in America. Hall estimates that less than 1 percent of the food consumed in Sarasota was grown or produced nearby. And when you consider that even our farmer's markets feature fruit and vegetables flown in from around the globe, you have to imagine he's probably not far off.

Still, Hall sees signs of hope. His Eat Local website features a directory with listings of where to find all sorts of local goods. Hall says the number of entries has climbed to more than 200. "A quarter to a half of those organizations didn't exist five years ago," he says. "So it has come a long way, but we still have a long way to go."