Forget about "upcycling" or "aging in place" or "tase." The cultural watchword of the year is "locavore."
So says the Oxford University Press (OUP), publisher of the New Oxford American English Dictionary, which chose "locavore" as its Word of the Year for 2007. The term refers to people who prefer to eat only locally grown food.
Nothing says cultural significance, however, like being on the cover of Parade Magazine. On Nov. 11, the day before OUP announced its selection, the ubiquitous national weekly featured a segment on local food as part of an issue titled "What Americans Eat."
"That means we've entered the mainstream of the mainstream," says Maggie Sullivan.
Sullivan, an environmental engineer, is the director of the Bloomington-based Local Growers Guild, a partnership of farmers, retailers, and eaters promoting local food in southern and central Indiana.
"Bloomington has been interested in local food for a long time," says Sullivan, who grew up here. "I would say Bloomington is pretty high on the curve for local foods."
What constitutes "local" depends on whom you ask. Some locavores focus on a 100-mile radius, while others are happy with food grown in the state or the region.
Whatever the definition, it's clear that interest in food grown closer to home is on the rise in Bloomington.
Attendance at the Bloomington Farmers' Market has skyrocketed over last year, says manager Marcia Veldmann with the city's parks and recreation department.
Last year, about 57,000 people attended the Saturday market, which runs from the first Saturday in April through the last Saturday in November. This year, Veldmann expects attendance will top 110,000.
Attendance at the Tuesday afternoon market is smaller, but even those numbers have doubled since that market started in 1999.
Demand is high enough to support an off-season market, as well. The Winter Market, run by the Local Growers Guild, draws shoppers to Harmony School from the last Saturday in January through March for winter greens, potatoes, cheeses, meats, honey and other products.
Veldmann credits the boom in popularity to the growing awareness of food safety issues and the success of recent books extolling the virtues of eating locally, such as The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
"[Local food] is definitely in the psyche of the country right now," says Veldmann, who adds that Bloomington is the "hotbed" of the local food movement in Indiana.
The success of the farmers' markets is just one indication of the city's growing interest in local fare.
Teresa Birtles of Heartland Family Farm in Lawrence County sells some of her produce at the Bloomington Farmers' Market. But most of it reaches Bloomington consumers through other channels, she says. Those outlets, too, are growing.
Heartland is a member of Core Farms, a community-supported agriculture venture, or CSA, that also includes Musgrave Orchard and New Earth Gardens. CSA customers pay upfront for a season's worth of local produce, which alleviates some of the farmers' financial risk.
"In exchange for that, [subscribers] are given the first of what comes off the land," Birtles told a local food gathering at the Unitarian Universalist Church in October. "People who join the CSA believe in me, and I want to give them the best."
The best is not always up to the farmer, however. If growing conditions are poor during a particular season, subscribers may receive less food for their investment than they would in more bountiful years.
Core Farms subscriber Bruce Lilly says the quality of the produce and the knowledge that he's supporting his neighbors make joining the CSA worth the risk.
"I think we got less [produce] than we might have if we hadn't had a drought this summer," Lilly says, "but we found that the food was excellent. Some of [Birtles'] produce is just remarkably good."
Lilly's attitude seems to be catching on. When Core Farms started five years ago, it had 25 subscribers. This year, it has 100. Birtles and her partners expect to take 150 subscriptions in 2008.
Several Bloomington restaurants have also developed a hunger for locally grown food in recent years. Birtles credits Chef David Tallent of Restaurant Tallent with being a "driving force" in the burgeoning relationship between restaurants and farmers.
Tallent says local food wasn't such a big deal when he was working in Bloomington restaurants in the 1990s. He didn't discover the joys of using local produce until he went to culinary school in New York City, where he worked for a restaurant that bought from a local growers' co-op.
The produce was so fresh "it was mind-blowing," says Tallent. The co-op also delivered items he'd never seen before, like sugarplums.
When he returned to Bloomington in 2003, he was determined to find local growers to supply his restaurant.
"When the farmers' market season started, I went over with a bunch of business cards and just started meeting people," says Tallent. "I would tell them I'll take anything that you have. One pound, half a pound, five pounds, whatever it is, I'll take it. I want food from farmers."
Once they realized he was serious, Tallent says, farmers started coming to him. Today, Tallent estimates that about 70-80 percent of the food he serves comes from Indiana and neighboring states.
Since then, other restaurants have caught the local food bug. The 2007 Local Growers Guide, published by the guild, lists about 15 restaurants and cafes among the Bloomington establishments offering local food.
"[Local food] is a higher quality," says David Fletcher of Blu Boy Chocolate Cafe and Cakery. "The local blueberries and raspberries actually taste like those two things. We've come to accept that a strawberry might smell like a strawberry but taste like Styrofoam."
Greg Rago of Nick's English Hut says that using local food allows him to offer high-quality meals even though he doesn't have the highly trained staff of finer establishments.
"If I get really good, fresh food and teach [my staff] how to put it together, not in a really extravagant way, the food speaks for itself," says Rago, whose burgers are made with local beef.
Nick's also uses a wide variety of local vegetables, including potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, onions and organic salad greens when they're in season.
"I consider myself a restaurateur [but] I'm not fancy-schmancy," says Rago. "For me to produce massive amounts of really good food, [using local food] is the best way."
Rago says his food sales have been rising consistently for months. He attributes this, in part, to the higher quality of local food.
Higher quality, however, comes at a higher cost. Large distributors like Sysco and Nash Finch can deliver produce far more cheaply than small local producers, despite the added transportation costs.
Local food isn't always available on a restaurant's schedule, either. Fletcher of Blu Boy estimates he goes through 40 or 50 dozen eggs a week. A large distributor that collects eggs from several sources can guarantee delivery every week, but local farmers are vulnerable if their hens aren't laying.
"If Teresa [Birtles] calls me Tuesday night and says she's only got 10 dozen eggs this week, I have to go to Sam's Club on Wednesday morning," says Fletcher.
It's hard to rely on the big distributors to fill in the gaps, Fletcher says, because they require him to purchase a certain volume.
Grocery stores face similar obstacles meeting year-round demand with a seasonal local supply.
"Our [local] apple season's almost over," notes Alan Simmerman, prepared foods manager at Bloomingfoods. "So we don't offer apples again until next October? We can't really do that."
Simmerman says Bloomingfoods will seek out high-quality apples from other states to meet customer demand in the off-season.
Nevertheless, Simmerman says his customers are willing to pay more for local food, which they perceive as having a higher value. He also sees more people prioritizing locally grown food that isn't certified organic over organic food produced by large corporations.
"What does the organic stamp mean for some corporate-level [producer] who might skirt the line as close as they can?" asks Simmerman. "Someone who's raising something all-naturally, someone that you know, I think a lot of people feel more comfortable going that way."
Local food isn't just for the those in Bloomington who can afford to pay more. So far this year, Hoosier Hills Food Bank had collected about 17,000 pounds of produce from farmers' market donations, and about 2,300 pounds from local gardeners participating in the Plant a Row for the Hungry campaign.
That's a small portion of the total amount of food that HHFB distributes to the hungry through local agencies, but resource development coordinator Jennie Rasmussen notes that the numbers are climbing, in part because of growing relationships with farmers at the market.
Indiana University graduate student Daniel Robison says eating local food is important to him but that finding it can be a challenge. He was surprised to learn that Nick's, a popular hang-out for students, serves local food.
"Usually when people do anything that's remotely progressive, they like to make it a marketing campaign," said Robison.
Robison thinks other restaurants might follow suit if they see Nick's setting the example.
"It's great that Nick's is doing it because [Nick's] is a community institution," says Robison. "Who else is going to take the lead other than some place like Nick's?"
Charli Wyatt can be reached at email@example.com.