Tampa's Local Food Mythology- A 'Farm to Fable' Reflection

Cover picture by Steve Madden for original Tampa Bay Times Article 

Tampa’s foodies were sent into a frenzy last Wednesday afternoon as Laura Reiley dropped her well researched investigative report on Tampa’s ‘local’ food scene. The article pulled no punches as it ran through a litany of local restaurateurs and unveiled their fibs and fables. I deeply appreciated the unveiling of these specific places in town that have moved quite a bit beyond hyperbole and yet I also can’t help but wonder what hope there is for that longing in consumers toward which these places are appealing. For years I have been growing more and more conscious about the foods we eat and the ways in which our sourcing of food affects everything from our bodies to our planet itself. 

Whether we are consuming genetically modified products or produce that has been bathed in chemicals or flown across the planet and back before it is served to us, the idea of eating sustainably seems to become more and more of a utopian dream as time passes. As somebody who has wrestled with this tension for years I share in the pain of all of those who realized Wednesday, thanks to Reiley, that your consciences have been salved by lies and your righteous food choices have actually been something closer to naïveté and gullibility. Many have been aware of the ways that large corporations ‘greenwash’ products to make them seem more environmentally conscious in response to growing conscious consumer demands. While the consumers’ consciences do affect corporate behavior it is only insofar as the corporate profit motive, which knows no conscience, can convince consumers to buy. It seems that perhaps we expected better from our small, local corporations. 

Beyond the question of restaurant integrity though, lies a more fundamental and local question for you locally minded foodies, can local and Tampa ever be a thing? Five years ago, a friend and I did a local food experiment that has left a lasting impression on me. We had heard of folks doing a 100 mile diet in which they only ate food that had been sourced from within that distance of their doorstep. We pulled out a map of Florida and then drew out a 100 mile radius circle from my address in Ybor Heights. Half of the circle was the Gulf of Mexico and we wondered to ourselves if it could be done. Could the two of us eat only food that came from within this circle for 30 days? Within the first day of this experiment we began to realize just how difficult it was going to be. We decided to be strict and therefore not allow any salts or oils or anything else that was not 100% verifiably local. This proved to be problematic as we realized how desperately we needed to find sodium sources and finally we ended up dehydrating water from the gulf to meet this need (probably not advisable). Perhaps most difficult of all was not having coffee (obviously this extreme posture was part of the experiment that could never be sustained long term, and that’s why trade exists). In any case, we sought out local farms, neighbor’s fruit trees, and any markets that might carry local products. Needless to say it was a full time job to figure out how to eat like this. Even at the Tampa Whole-Foods, which turned out to be one of our best chances of finding something, items labeled “local” were from farms that stretched quite a bit beyond our 100 mile marker. Every time we found an item that might work we would hold our breath in anticipation as we googled the location of the farm. Occasionally, we even found a potato or zucchini that qualified. It wasn’t long before we became regulars (perhaps even annoying pests) to places like The Dancing Goat Farm or Sweetwater Farm. Here is the thing, Tampa doesn’t produce very much food. On day 6 of our experiment I posted on Facebook:

What I was realizing is just how little local resources there actually are in and around Tampa. If everyone decided they wanted to eat this way, or if for some reason the trucks stopped delivering food to our city, there would be gunfights in our gardens.

Our self published reflections on our experience eating local in Tampa.
This powerful experience came flooding back to my mind as I read Reiley’s ‘Farm to Fable’ article. I just kept thinking to myself, these false labels and lies at our restaurants are related to a kind of mythology of local food in Tampa. The idea that there could be regularly sourced and available local food at a restaurant that was not telling you ‘sorry we are all out’ more than they were delivering on your orders, is a fairytale in Tampa. 

Nobody could do better than The Refinery’s “as much as we can” posture. If everyone was honest that’s all any of us can do, and we should. We can recognize the challenges to ethically sourcing products and not throw our arms up in despair and concede that it isn’t even worth trying. Of course it is! I am glad to see these restaurants called to task on their integrity because lying about what you are selling is, well, unethical. Doing your best and being honest about that struggle, that’s admirable. 

The 'F**k Monsanto Salad' pictured in Laura's article is topped
with watercress that was grown organically, by a
working poor community,  at the Well on Florida Ave.

In the years since this local food experiment that we dubbed ‘Surviving Tampa,’ I have been working hard with my local community to grow our own produce. Planting garden after garden and forming a network of gardens throughout Tampa that we call the Tampa Eden Project, which is an initiative of The Well, a not-for-profit committed to working with and among the poor in Tampa. Gardening has fit in with our cause well as we labor alongside many who don’t have work or secure food sources and we have been trying to help demonstrate ways that we can work together to grow food. Over the last year and a half The Well community has been working with Joo Lee, a local aquapon who’s been partnering with initiatives like ours and the Sustainable Living Project to raise fish and grow produce in symbiotic relationships in aquaponic systems. While working to teach our community how to grow our own produce and tilapia he has also been developing relationships with places like Mermaid Tavern, who has recently been purchasing some of our watercress and other greens that were produced in the system. While these products are local, organic, and produced in the neighborhood by struggling neighbors, there is hardly enough to meet the demand of their every salad at this point. We are excited about the relationship though and working hard to grow more as they have been encouraging us to expand and promising to continue purchasing our produce. At this point it is a symbolic gesture toward an intention, a hope for things to come, and they are not marketing our story as there is not much to tell at this point. There is however, a seedling that is being nurtured. It means a lot to a community like ours that a local restaurant would take an interest in our work and our potential as a grower. Our community is full of people in need of earned income and Tampa is full of scarcity when it comes to local food, perhaps there is a good fit here for a potential business that creates jobs for those who most need them. Joo and Becky, one of the owners of Mermaid Tavern, have been in discussions about a potential partnership that would provide a much larger space for Joo to scale his production capacity. Joo and I have been in discussion about how this might be a great opportunity to continue our work in the community and possibly create some meaningful and gainful employment for some of those that are unemployed with whom we have been working each day. As Rebecca Krassnoski was quoted in the article as saying “I think a lot of times farmers with a good story are used as billboards.” Local, organic, food grown by a community working with Tampa’s poorest is a great story, and one that perhaps should be used as a billboard. At this point though honesty would have to say, it’s a hope, a dream, an idea that we are working toward, but even that is worth investing in. It might be one of the only ways for Tampa to take seriously its own food insecurity, lack of local production, and the need to plant and nurture righteous seedlings.