On any given Sunday, beginning in the early morning hours, vendors trickle into a downtown island parking lot, carting crates and baskets full of free-range eggs, kale, collard greens, fresh goat cheese and more.
A man tunes his guitar while the early bird shoppers stop by tables, checking out produce while taking long draws on to-go cups of coffee or Third Coast Kombucha, a mushroom tea touted for its probiotic properties. Neighbors wave at each other from across the market; children play.
“It’s about community,” said Cate Black, market manager for Galveston’s Own Farmers Market, 2508 Postoffice St. “We encourage folks to make a morning out of it; to enjoy the weather and the music and get to know local food producers.”
On market days, shoppers can find leafy salad greens with earth-tinged roots from $3 and $5 a bushel.
“Sometimes people think farmers markets are more expensive,” Black said. “But how economical is it to buy a head of lettuce that you know won’t last three days in your fridge before it starts wilting and tasting a little less than stellar?”
Galveston’s Own Farmers Market and others like it are part of a growing locavore movement across Galveston County and the Clear Lake area. The movement is gaining steam as more small, mainland farms crop up and area restaurants and shops seek locally raised meat, locally caught fish, locally grown produce, honey, cheeses and other foods to meet a surge in consumer demand.
The locavore movement appeals to consumers who want to know more about what’s on their plates and who don’t want their food traveling long distances before it reaches their table. Much of the movement is tied to sustainability. Also, buying locally creates connections among people in a world where food production is global and consumers are far-removed from the process, proponents say.
‘A Fantastic Feeling’
Black recalled visiting her mother in Houston a few weeks ago.
“I ended up leaving town much later than I expected, and nothing was open other than fast food chains,” Black said. “I was on the freeway driving, wondering how I was possibly going to make it back to Galveston when I was this hungry.”
Then Black remembered a forgotten snack, packed earlier that morning. It was a grapefruit, rolling around in the back seat of her car.
“I have never been so grateful to see a citrus fruit,” she said. “The whole time I was eating it I kept thinking: ‘I need to thank Jorja for picking this.’ It was a fantastic feeling — to know the person who picked and sold me that grapefruit, to know where it came from.”
‘Where Are You From?’
Food nurtures us; it sustains us; it becomes a part of us. It’s a lot like love.
Eating a meal is one of the most intimate experiences. And, yet, with the ever-quickening pace of daily life, it’s easy to forget to ask the important question of our food: “So, where are you from?”
Take my weekend breakfast tradition — a home-cooked plate of bacon and eggs.
A glance at the tiny lettering on the back of the carton reveals my eggs were plucked from chicken coops in Carmine, Texas. I can only assume the eggs traveled down state Highway 290 and Interstate 45 for 100 miles or so, where they landed on the shelves at my grocery store. Through some research, I find that the bacon was cured in Canada and loaded onto a southbound semi-truck at the company distributor in Amityville, N.Y. The coffee was sprouted from delicate blossoms in East Africa.
Then there’s the cream and sugar; the salt and pepper. For such a simple breakfast, it’s a lot to digest: a multimodal transportation system — planes, trains and automobiles — bring our ingredients, some on a cross-continental journey, from source to saute pan.
‘A Happier Scene’
Casey McAuliffe and partner, Alex McPhail, who recently started Moon Dog Farms in Santa Fe, represent the modern, small farmer. They’re young, well-traveled, educated and interested in sustainability.
“For us, making your everyday meals from food grown near your home connects you to people — it ties you to others, who, in turn, are tied to you,” McAuliffe said. “It’s a happier scene than buying foods from a box, a bag, a bottle or package that come to you without any human feeling.”
“After college, Alex and I were living in Austin,” McAuliffe said. “We shopped at farmers markets and had a garden, but, eventually, we wanted more.”
The pair left their jobs — he was the screenplay competition director for the Austin Film Festival, and she was a preschool teacher for the Dougherty Arts Center — and hit the road in a 1991 Dodge Dakota with a slide-in camper. With their Chow/Akita mix, Saxton, they road tripped with an eventual deadline in mind.
In three months, they were to report for their first day of work as volunteers on an organic farm in upstate New York. After their farm stinted ended, they moved to Brooklyn. But when they learned about a piece of family land in Santa Fe available to them, they decided to launch Moon Dog Farms, but not before McPhail studied sustainable agriculture at a community college in North Carolina. Both got jobs on local farms before starting Moon Dog Farms, a vegetable operation and orchard in Santa Fe. The farm produces all-natural, sustainable fruits and vegetables. They sell the fruits at a roadside stand in Hitchcock and also at Galveston’s Own Farmers Market, among other venues.
“As we see it, this is a lucky time to be a small farmer in Texas,” McAuliffe said. “We have a long way to go to catch up with other regions in the nation in terms of awareness of local and organic farming and encouraging people of all classes and cultures to buy food locally and organically.”
Heidi Hall, creator of Angry Dips and Market Street Foods, started her business with a mission to feed her young family the healthiest foods possible. The popularity of her dips catapulted Hall into a certified commercial kitchen and her products onto shelves of Oasis Juice Bar & Market, 409 25th St. in the island’s downtown, and also Galveston’s Own Farmers Market.
“I have always been interested in growing our family’s food, but involvement in the farmers market has widened my perspective,” Hall said.
Her culinary vision was made more achievable when her husband, Tyler, started Island Aquaponics downtown. Island Aquaponics doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or genetically modified seeds. Aquaponics, based on symbiotic relationship between fish and plants, is similar to hydroponics, except there is no need to add fertilizers to the water. All the water in Island Aquaponics’ system is captured rain. The fish, primarily tilapia, reside in a roomy 4,000-gallon tank, where they swim, grow and spawn, according to the company’s website.
The water funnels through a series of filters on its way to the water beds, where plants float on rafts, soaking up all the nutrients and water they need. Once the water completely moves through the system, it completes the circle and is returned to the fish tank clean and aerated. Island Aquaponics offers high-production urban farming and grows everything from basil to bell peppers to chard available at Galveston’s Own Farmers Market.
“I feel strongly about this option and hope that the Aquaponics method will encourage others on the island — who like the idea of having an organic garden but don’t like weeding or who have space limitations — to be able to do so,” Tyler Hall said.
“If we want to improve the quality of our food, we must support the local farmers who are diligently working to keep our food options open,” Tyler Hall said. “Every time you spend money locally, you reinvest in your community and strengthen its collective efforts.”
Bringing Back ‘Slow Food’
Locally grown produce just tastes better, said David Skinner, who owns Tabella at Clear Creek Winery, 709 Harris Ave. in Kemah.
“When you taste a vine ripe summer tomato, it’s a completely different taste from a hot house tomato,” Skinner said.
Tabella serves up seasonal dishes created from locally sourced meats, vegetables and seafood. The locavore movement also is about mindful eating. Skinner wants to see the return of slow food to the dinner table, he said.
At Tabella, which opened a little more than a year ago, the ambience and the menu are conducive to slow food rather than fast, and the typical table turn is about two hours.
“Unfortunately we have become a country accustomed to over-processed foods and quick service restaurants,” Skinner said. “When I grew up, dinner time was something special and the conversation was as important as the meal.”
About 95 percent of the ingredients in Tabella dishes come from Texas and more than 75 percent from within a 100-mile radius.
A Natural Buzz
There are several benefits to eating locally grown produce, freshness being one of them, said Dr. Victor Sierpina, a University of Texas Medical Branch family medicine expert certified by both the American Board of Family Medicine and the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine.
“The greater the distance from the farm to the table — as with foods that are shipped long distances and stored — means they lose a certain amount of nutritional value,” Sierpina said. “Another benefit of supporting local farmers — many of whom are raising their foods organically — is that it diminishes our exposure to pesticides, insecticides and other chemical products.”
There also are medicinal benefits of locally grown food, said Sid Holliday, a Galveston beekeeper and producer of Pure Beeing Honey, 1702 Broadway in Galveston.
“A teaspoon a day keeps the allergies away,” Holliday said.
Locally grown honey helps consumers build up a resistance to allergens, collected in the form of pollen by the bees that make the honey, experts say.
“Most of the honey you buy in the grocery store has very little medicinal value,” Holliday said. “The majority of it has been heated to the point that it loses most of its nutrients.”
Corporate and industrialized agriculture have altered the ways bees pollinate and produce honey and has caused colony collapse disorder. Pure Beeing works to create a home for bees where the honey flows freely, “but in a way that follows nature rather than commerce.”
‘Need To Reconnect’
Perhaps one of the easiest local foods to obtain in these parts is seafood. Many coastal residents catch theirs or shop at places such as Katie’s Seafood Market on Pier 19. All the seafood served at The Sunflower Bakery & Cafe, 512 14th St. is from Katie’s, where seafood comes right off the boats.
Dairy also is becoming a hot locavore commodity. The Sunflower Bakery & Cafe offers locally made cheeses.
Harry Blair, who with wife Lisa owns the East End eatery, said he got interested in cheese-making after sampling products in San Francisco.
Blair has produced feta, cow’s milk cheddar, goat milk cheddar, Swiss and Brie cheeses using unpasteurized raw cow’s milk from a farm in Schulenburg and fresh pasteurized goat milk from a farm in Santa Fe.
Area locavores hope the movement continues to grow.
“We need to reconnect with where our food comes from, knowing where and how it is grown,” Heidi Hall said. “When our food is locally grown, we have the opportunity to connect to the process, make sure it aligns with our values and then ultimately support the community that we chose to live in.”