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Sioux City Journal IA

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					Sioux City Journal, IA
07-01-07

Organic food spices up Siouxland

By Alicia Ebaugh Journal staff writer

Bags of organic mixed salads fill a box sitting on the counter next to a carafe of
homemade Caesar dressing. On the stove, two vats of spiced tavern meat
simmer next to pots of organic macaroni in a white cheese sauce and a smoking
tofu soup.

Not everything in Chef Paul Seaman's kitchen has been "naturally grown." This
day, a can of Reddi Whip is employed regularly to give one last, fluffy flourish to
the homemade caramel apple pie and cheesecake slices that his daughter,
Lotus, carries on glass plates to the afternoon diners at the Gardner Cafe. But
Seaman's goal is to bring as many "whole foods" -- free of pesticides, hormones,
antibiotics and other "big industry" farming practices -- as possible to the table.

"You know the doctor's oath -- 'Do no harm'? As a chef, I try to do the same
thing," Seaman said. "To make sure the food is as pristine as possible, I go the
extra mile."

Less than a year ago, Siouxlanders concerned about healthy eating while dining
out had to drive at least an hour away to find a restaurant serving solely organic
and locally grown foods. Now there are two such restaurants in Sioux City, and
their "fresh" popularity just keeps growing.

Seaman opened the Gardner Cafe, located inside the Sioux City Art Center in
February, around the same time as Fiona's Firehouse Grill at 1211 Fifth St.,
owned by the Floyd Boulevard Local Foods Market, reopened its doors. Both
Seaman and Foods Market Executive Director Pat Garrity said the growing
popularity of the Farmer's Market proved there was a market in Sioux City for
natural, locally grown foods.

"The trend has been around for decades, but it's really just taking hold in the
Midwest in the form of restaurants," Garrity said. "Local operations have such a
huge future ... they're going to pop up all over the place. The possibilities are
quite awesome."

Searching for purity, connection

The opening of these restaurants came at a time when the popularity of locally
grown organic foods has been increasing, Garrity and Seaman said.

According to a 2004 study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at
Iowa State University, about 30 percent of Midwesterners think frequently about
where and how their food is produced. These consumers are willing to pay 12 to
14 percent more for produce, meat, milk and eggs if they know where they came
from and what practices are used, said Rich Pirog, Leopold Center assistant
director.

"More and more people are wanting transparency in their food system," Pirog
said. "They're either buying local or organic because they're concerned about
their own health, the environment or both. Especially after food scares, we're
finding more people want to buy local because the chain isn't as long, it isn't as
complicated. When you have more regional systems and there's a problem, the
problem doesn't neccesarily affect the national population."

The most important aspect of this new movement pushing the importance of
organic foods is that the issue of health has been brought to the forefront, Garrity
said.

"Four of the top 10 diseases killing us are related to our diets," he said, referring
to diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease and colon and rectal cancer. "People
have to realize there are costs to this so-called 'cheap food.'"

Closely related to the health issue is the issue of taste, Garrity said. Fast food
and even foods cooked at chain restaurants contain additives that "manufacture"
a taste that is unnatural to the food, he said. Michael Pollan points out in his book
"Omnivore's Dilemma" that food scientists cooked up the deliciously addictive
taste of Kentucky Fried Chicken in a laboratory by finding the perfect mix of
additives.

"Most of the recipes are very, very secretive," Garrity said. "We're not too sure
what a 'whole food' tastes like anymore."

Seaman agreed, but also said people initially balk at the word "organic" -- they
believe these foods naturally taste bad, but he said that is the furthest thing from
the truth.

"It's not an attractive buzzword here because there hasn't been a critical mass of
good cooks making good organic food," said Seaman, a chef for more than 30
years. "People are only going by their experiences. They remember the things
they've tasted weren't good."

Support and promotion of locally grown natural foods also helps build the "fabric"
of the community, Garrity said.

"We need to make it profitable for people to stay here and move here," he said.
"Having an outlet for them to sell their product while having the tranquility of
raising only 50 or 60 acres of land -- right now, that's not profitable."
In fact, the Floyd Boulevard Local Foods Market was recently given a grant by
the Leopold Center to figure out just how to do that through something called a
"processing feasibility study." In this project, many hours are spent calling area
businesses assessing the demand for "environmentally friendly" local food
products, then passing that information along to vegetable, fruit and animal
producers.

"We tell them then, 'This is the demand, can you plant this much and sell it to
us?'" Garrity said. "With a reliable supply, more healthy food will be available to
more people through our restaurant and elsewhere."

Guaranteeing quality at the same cost

Although both restaurants serve local and organic foods, Garrity and Seaman
said each restaurant has its own philosophy on how to do it.

To make sure his customers eat the best quality food possible, Seaman said he
searches for the best organic providers of products used in his menu, such as
buffalo for his buffalo lasagna or eggs for partner chef Anthony Pille's egg salad.
He prefers to buy locally when he can, he said, but sometimes a naturally-grown
product isn't available and he has to look elsewhere.

"I would go with a certified organic product from Pennsylvania rather than a local
sprayed product because I'm concerned about the health issues involved," he
said. "I do a lot of research on where the food came from so the people who eat it
can feel comfortable that they're making the best decision for themselves."

As a result, Seaman buys organic food from many sources, including the Foods
Market, grocery store chain Whole Foods and even Sam's Club. Fiona's
Firehouse Bistro, on the other hand, relies heavily on members of the Food
Market's producers cooperative to provide the fresh ingredients it needs.

"I go out to the farms and look at their operations, I become familiar with how
they do things," Garrity said. "I won't accept anyone into our program who doesn't
fit our criteria."

Those requirements are unbreakable, he said -- no hormones, antibotics or
additives, no animals from large-scale Confined Animal Feed Operations, and no
produce grown from genetically modified seeds. However, not all food in the
restaurant is "certified organic" with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We understand it's a bit restrictive, monetarily and timewise, for a lot of
producers," Garrity said. "We just stick to our standards and the product is still
good."
Executive chef Marlin Simpson and restaurant manager Lisa Jasman both came
to Fiona's a few months ago after the closure of Botticelli's, an Italian restaurant
that used to be located on Sioux City's north side. Simpson said that he didn't get
to work with fresh local produce and meats before he came there, and the
structure has given him a lot more freedom to create delicious dishes on a
moment's notice.

"A lot of the time I don't know what's going to be there when I come in," he said,
rattling off a few of the featured foods he's made lately -- Indian tacos with
locally-raised bison meat and an all-local meat and produce turkey pot pie. "It's a
challenge, definitely, but it's fun. That's why I do it."

Fortunately, the quality found in local, organic foods doesn't come with a higher
price tag for diners. Although the higher prices that farmers command for
naturally grown products are passed on to consumers at stores, the "direct
connection" available to Gardner's and Fiona's has been able to keep prices
reasonable, Garrity and Seaman said.

From the farm to the table

Patti Bancroft wipes her hands on her dirt-stained T-shirt as she points out the
different organic vegetables and herbs she sells at the Floyd Boulevard Local
Foods Farmer's Market -- some that make it into Fiona's Firehouse Bistro dishes.

"Our vegetable garden grows every kind of vegetable anyone could ever want --
we've got spinach, lettuce, potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, radishes, beets,
turnips, onions. And garlic. No one else has garlic around here," Bancroft said.

Her partner on the farm, Mike Olsen, takes a pitchfork and digs up a green stalk
of the pungent garlic, unearthing a tennis ball-sized white bulb. After washing it
off under the water pump, he brings it over for Bancroft to smell.

"They'll get about twice that size in a few weeks," she said.

Bancroft has been farming her whole life on this plot of land north of Vermillion,
S.D., but the 63-year-old only a few years ago took the steps to have 60 of her
farm's 1,200 acres certified organic by the USDA. However, her family has
always used more natural, sustainable agricultural processes, she said. As he
knelt yanking weeds from the basil patch, her father, former Vermillion attorney
Martin Weeks, said eating the food they've grown over the years has helped him
stay healthy.

"I can tell the difference if I have lettuce in the spring after a winter of dining on
grocery store salads," he said. "I feel better, stronger when I eat more natural
foods.
"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think that because it's quite a lot of work,"
Weeks chuckled, throwing the weeds into a bucket.

At Gardner's and Fiona's, the fruits of their labor end at the diner's table. Todd
Osborn of Sioux City brought his three young sons and mother to the Gardner
Cafe because he said he likes how good this locally grown, organic food tastes --
and so do the kids.

"I ended up having to get another tavern because my son ate it," Osborn said.
"Did you like it, Jack?"

"Uh-hum," Jack replied shyly.

Osborn pointed to the empty plates that used to contain a tempeh sandwich (a
type of soybean product comparable to tofu), organic mac 'n' cheese, and
lasagna left scattered across the table.

"I feel it's healthier for the kids, and you can tell they love it, too," he said.

				
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