The eat-local-food movement is picking up steam in Wichita, with more restaurants ordering in, new farmers markets wanting to sprout, and a new program giving sellers a way to communicate to buyers that the food they're getting is grown here.
"The farmers markets were swamped last year," extension agent Rebecca McMahon said this week, noting that she saw interest really pick up in locally grown food a year or so ago.
"This year there's a number of people getting started, and a number of new vendors. I've also talked to people who want to start farmers markets in different locations. It's slowly ramping up."
Nationally, the popularity of locally grown food — which usually is fresher, produced with fewer chemicals and grown by small family farms — has overtaken the surge in food marketed as organic. Even if people aren't so much interested in enhanced health or flavor, they like the idea of supporting the local economy.
"My thesis is that the world of shopping is going to change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50," Paco Underhill of Envirosell, a worldwide research and consulting firm, said. "And one reason is the farmers market. Family farms are coming back because you cut out the middleman."
But if the interest is there, there is also frustration on the part of consumers who often don't have ready access to local food.
"I would love to go to the farmers market at the Extension Center, but it's so far from Andover, and it seems you have to be there pretty early" to get the good stuff, said Jennifer White of Andover. When she shops at the Andover farmers market, she said, she can't find enough produce.
"We need a lot of growers to supply a community the size of Wichita. We don't have them," said Pat Randleas of Home Grown Kansas, a Wichita farm. She manages the farmers markets in Old Town and in Andover, sells her farm's produce at the markets and at health food stores and to chefs, and runs a CSA. Her CSA — which stands for community-supported agriculture — provides 45 subscribers a 10-pound bag of produce each week from the farm for half the year.
But Randleas is seeing more interest from young new growers, and she knows some greenhouse growers who are considering switching from flowers to vegetables.
More restaurants, too, are getting in on the local action.
"What we're trying to do is help the state of Kansas, so we try to buy everything we can local," said Jacquelyn Keefer, owner of the Lotus Leaf Cafe & Creperie in Delano.
Old Mill Tasty Shop, 604 E. Douglas, is preparing new T-shirts that read "Eat local — it's tastier."
"This summer, as more produce becomes available, we're going to have specials around it," said owner Mary Wright. She plans to introduce her customers to things they may not have eaten before, such as greens.
But while Old Mill will be advertising local on a T-shirt, many restaurants don't have a way to tell customers when they're eating locally grown food.
One way consumers and sellers may more easily come together is through a new program called Our Local Food. A Kansas Department of Agriculture grant is financing a chapter in south-central Kansas this year, and any business that sells locally grown food can become a member.
The members will have access to promotional materials that use the Our Local Food logo that customers can look for, and the businesses' names will be listed on a website, ourlocalfoodsouthcentral.blogspot.com, where people can see who is growing what and where they're selling it. Stores, restaurants and caterers also can join and list the local foods they sell and use as well.
"One of our goals is to... keep that identity from farmer to customer all the way," McMahon said. The Extension Service is a partner in the new Our Local Food chapter, which covers eight counties in south-central Kansas.
The chapter has several members so far, and director Natalie Fullerton is applying for a grant to keep the program going at least another year.
The program will have an eat-local challenge on the Fourth of July asking people who eat local foods that weekend to send in information, photos and recipes to be included in a drawing for local-food prizes and an e-cookbook.
Wichita dietitian Paula Miller also keeps an online list of area food producers, at lovelocalfood.blogspot.com.
McMahon said her biggest piece of advice for people who don't find what they want in the way of local foods is to tell the grocery store, the farmers market and the restaurant about it. And she encourages potential growers to jump in.
"The door's wide open" for growers to fill the niches of early- and late-season produce and fruit, she said. More broadly, "there's always a good opportunity for really good quality produce. If you can produce the best tomatoes, there's no reason not to give it a shot."
Wright of Old Mill Tasty Shop said she wished she could go local with meat, too.
"We'll have to take it a step at a time," she said.
The enthusiasm thrills Randleas.
"I've done this for almost 20 years... and I'm glad I've lived long enough to see it's important to people."