Local Food Guide sorts out ‘sustainables’

If you’ve been exploring the local food scene, you know it’s a confusing world out there. Farmers markets are popping up all over the city on different days of the week; restaurants are claiming various degrees of local-foodiness; grocery stores are placing ambiguous “locally grown” signs in their produce departments. And then there’s all the terminology: organic, naturally grown, grass-fed, certified this or that. How’s the average, well-meaning consumer supposed to sort it all out?

One great resource is Georgia Organics’ Local Food Guide. The fourth edition of the booklet, released this spring, helps shoppers figure out exactly where their food is coming from and how it’s been handled along the way.

Organized into five regions statewide and subcategorized by county, the 96-page guide itemizes the farms, farmers markets, restaurants, caterers, and other businesses that raise, produce, or sell local foods.

Taken as a whole, it offers a pretty good snapshot of the kinds of food-management practices, regarding personal health and environmental stewardship, that are emerging in Georgia.

“There’s too much buzz around the word ‘sustainable,’” says Georgia Organics communications director Michael Wall, who edited the guide. “We wanted to be more specific. We wanted consumers to have in their hands the information they need to figure out which farms are doing more.”

Member farms were asked to self-report the certifications they hold (USDA Certified Organic, peer-certified naturally grown, Animal Welfare Approved) and the growing methods they use, such as raising animals on pasture, avoiding synthetic hormones or fertilizers, refusing genetically modified seeds.  

“Consumers don’t necessarily know about these production practices,” Wall says. “But then they see ‘no antibiotics used’ with one farm, and then they don’t see that symbol on another farm, and that kind of gets those consumer wheels turning.” It might even put some pressure on farms with less stringent practices to step up their efforts, he notes. “That transparency has a ripple effect.”

New this year is a self-reporting feature for restaurants. Restaurants were asked to guesstimate the percentage of local, organically grown food they use. The system isn’t perfect, but it is helpful to those of us who try to support local farmers.

The guide also includes a handy seasonal produce chart, a list of common terms and their meaning, and a few short articles of general interest to local-food lovers.

Where can you find the free 2011-2012 Local Food Guide? Georgia Organics mailed one to every member, and it’s distributing them to farmers markets, stores, restaurants and the like. Within a few weeks, the information will be available online, too. The nonprofit is updating its searchable directory of local food resources. Soon you’ll be able to plug in your ZIP code to find a list and map of nearby gardens, farms, restaurants and other organizations and businesses with a connection to local food.

In the meantime, just look for me at your nearby farmers market. I’ve got a huge stack of the guides, thanks to Wall, which I will be attempting to unload at every market I visit throughout the spring and summer. I’d be glad to give you one. Or five.