Saturday mornings are nice for sleeping in, unless you happen to own a downtown cafe. On a cold Saturday morning last month, just before 8, Josh Makoutz was behind the counter of Bradbury's Coffee, the new North Hamilton Street cafe he owns with wife Jill.
As a handful of customers lazed over coffee, he prepared for a trip to the Dane County winter farmers' market, just across the Capitol Square at the Madison Senior Center. Then he climbed into a battered Volvo station wagon and went shopping for eggs, meat, spinach, onions and mushrooms, all sold by the Wisconsin farmers who produced them, all meant for the inexpensive crêpes that are the cafe's specialty.
The Makoutzes are among a growing number of Madison restaurateurs who use locally produced ingredients in their dishes. They are affiliated with the southern Wisconsin chapter of Buy Fresh, Buy Local, a group of more than 20 similarly dedicated restaurants.
Buy Fresh, Buy Local is a project of the Madison's 11-year-old local-food advocacy group REAP (for Research, Education, Action and Policy). REAP, in turn, is one of hundreds of local groups and businesses promoting the notion that food is best when it has not traveled very far from the farm.
This burgeoning network of farmers, activists, worshipers, gourmands, retailers, restaurateurs, corporate bigwigs, bureaucrats and, increasingly, everyday shoppers has become nothing less than a movement to transform the modern American food system.
When it comes to local food, "I really feel that Madison has a destiny," says Odessa Piper, the pioneer who established L'Etoile restaurant. "If you take a look at where it is, geographically speaking, Madison is surrounded by some of the most exquisite and lush agricultural land."
In fact, says REAP's Miriam Grunes, "I'd venture to say that what we've got going in this part of the planet is among the top areas of the country that are getting it."
At its most basic, the local-food movement is about a farmer picking up an onion he grew and putting it into the hand of a customer. That is what happened that Saturday morning at the farmers' market, which was a lively oasis of food and warmth in the senior center's common area.
At the Fountain Prairie Farm table, John Priske greeted Makoutz, who was eyeing Styrofoam coolers full of meat. "How do you like the dried beef?" the farmer asked. "Is it too salty? Reason I ask is, we're going to maybe revamp."
The meat transaction over, Makoutz strolled to the Pecatonica Valley Farm table for eggs, to the Blue Valley Gardens table for onions, to the Black Earth Valley Farm table for shiitake and oyster mushrooms. It was a formidable haul.
It was not everything Makoutz hoped for, however. He left without the raspberry preserves he sought.
"Part of the problem with the market is people who don't show up," he said, philosophically. "Now we'll probably have 30 people come in today asking for the raspberry crêpe."
But it was not a crisis. Indeed, one truth of eating locally is that not every food item is available all the time, whether because of the seasons or because a farmer and a customer do not connect one Saturday morning.
Madison's local food scene has many facets, but its most distinctive emblem is the Saturday Dane County Farmers' Market, the 36-year-old bazaar that convenes on the Capitol Square every week between April and November. People come to the market to politick, enjoy music, browse handmade crafts, people-watch and, generally, take part in a defining Madison event.
Oh, and they also come to buy food: fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, eggs, cheese, honey, syrup, preserves, all produced in Wisconsin, all fresh from the farm, much of it organic. The market is a foodie's delight, a draw both to tourists and to locals stocking up on their weekly needs.
So successful is the Saturday market, in fact, that it has spawned a growing number of smaller farmers' markets: 15 and counting, held weekly in every city quadrant and in outlying communities. The newest is in Paoli, south of Madison, where a Saturday market will debut May 3.
Although the markets represent the local-food phenomenon at its purest, their seasonal nature doesn't help farmers whose "expenses are 365 days per year," notes Tony Ends, a Rock County farmer who heads Janesville's Churches Center for Land and People. To help meet the year-round needs of farmers, the 20-year-old Churches Center organizes a schedule of winter markets at churches in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.
The past winter saw nearly 50 Churches Center markets, most of them held at churches in mainline Protestant denominations (Presbyterian, Methodist). Three of the markets were held in Madison.
"I'm the first lay leader of the group," says Ends, who attends an Episcopal church. "They picked me because I am farming with my family, and I'm very close to what we all recognize as the most important factor in achieving the mission, and that's linking consumers to farmers and their products in a face-to-face relationship."
When consumers buy food from farmers, "It's more than a business transaction," says Ends. "It's a friendship. It's a community."
Much has changed since 1976, when Odessa Piper established L'Etoile, the acclaimed fine-dining establishment predicated on fresh, locally sourced food. When it came to local food, "there wasn't a tremendous amount available," she recalls.
In putting together her menus, which changed seasonally, she formed collaborative relationships with nearby farmers. "The menu drove farmers to produce more," she says, "and when the farmers would come up with new crops, that would stimulate me to do even more." It is a process that continues under Tory and Traci Miller, the chef and manager to whom Piper sold L'Etoile three years ago.
As much as anything, the local-food phenomenon emerged in response to industrial-scale agriculture, which has produced deceptively inexpensive food at a high social cost.
"We have an agriculture system that targets business efficiency," says the Churches Center's Tony Sims. "To the point that an industrial model of specialization, concentration and ever-expanding scale means that we don't have relationships between producers and consumers."
All of this contributes, he says, to "an anonymous food chain" that has "all sorts of ecological and health, nutritional, social and economic implications that are not good."
Among these implications: Expensive fossil fuels are used to transport food staggering distances, all so American consumers can eat, for example, fresh tomatoes in the dead of winter.
Now comes the local food movement, which is producing new social networks, new business practices and new public policy.
Locally, there has been a flowering of grassroots organizations. Some are culinary, like Slow Food Madison, the local chapter of an international group whose mission is, as its website says, "to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people's dwindling interest in the food they eat."
At the Madison group's annual meeting in February, members gathered in MATC's gourmet dining room for a meal of pork barbecue, potato focaccia and berry sorbet, all made with local ingredients by MATC chefs. The talk over dinner was of local food - of raw milk and butter tastings, of winter spinach and cheese tours.
After dinner, Slow Food Madison leader Susan Boldt stood and raised a provocative question: Madison is "so rich in food organizations," she said. "Where do we fit in?"
The conundrum was not settled that evening, but members offered suggestions for the group: more vegetarian events, a winter breakfast, a blog. There was talk, too, of reaching out to one of the city's newest food groups: the UW-Madison chapter of Slow Food International.
Meanwhile, other Madison groups pursue activism, like Family Farm Defenders, founded 10 years ago in response to the controversy over bovine growth hormone.
"Our goal is to transform the food system," says executive director John Peck, who notes that the group has members in all 50 states.
Then there is REAP, which advances local food on various fronts. It produces the Southern Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas, a comprehensive listing of farms, farmers' markets and other local-food resources. REAP annually holds the thriving Food for Thought Festival. It educates school children in the virtue of local eating. And it promotes the use of local foods in restaurants, both with Buy Fresh, Buy Local and with its Local Night Out events.
Still, amid its successes, the local-food movement is suffering growing pains. There is, for example, the problem of access. Local food can seem a bourgeois taste, one enjoyed by customers of pricey fine-dining establishments and precious natural-foods supermarkets.
Experts acknowledge the problem. "In many ways, it's a food security issue," says REAP's Grunes. "Not only should people who have the lowest incomes have opportunities for healthy food, period, but they should have the opportunities for delicious, locally grown food."
There are signs of progress. MACSAC, the community supported agriculture network, has started the Partner Shares program, which pays part of the cost for fresh food deliveries to low-income customers.
Another effort is Market Basket, which distributes weekly shares of fresh fruit and vegetables to urban consumers. Some of the produce is local, and the program accepts food stamps.
"We're targeting low income with it, but it's affordable for everybody," says organizer Robert Pierce. "I call it the poor man's CSA."
Pierce, a Dane County farmer who grows okra, mustard greens and "15 varieties of potatoes," has organized the South Madison Farmers' Market, which in summer operates three times weekly at Park Street locations. Pierce is sensitive to the needs of his customers, many of whom are low-income. "We try to give a fair market price for the vegetables we sell," he says.
A second problem the movement faces is scale. Without more organization, small farmers simply can't supply food in the large quantities dispensed by giant distributors like Sysco. That's a barrier to landing lucrative arrangements with institutional customers like schools, hospitals and corporate cafeterias, much less restaurants. One organization effort is Home Grown Wisconsin, a cooperative that distributes Dairyland food to restaurants in Illinois and Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, REAP organizers are implementing the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program to put local food on school lunchroom tables in the area.
The program's pilot efforts have been well received, says Grunes, but "It's hard, and it's going to be hard." One difficulty is that the Madison school district's food is prepared at a single facility on Pflaum Road, and it requires quantities so vast only large distributors can deliver them.
Other Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch efforts have succeeded, though, including field trips to farms and the Chefs in the Classroom events, which bring top local cooks to schools. And REAP is working on placing locally produced food in the lunchrooms of smaller districts.
Which is why, at 7:20 on a recent Wednesday morning, I found myself in the cavernous lunchroom of Monona Grove High School. REAP workers Doug Wubben and Brittney Stretsbury were conducting a tasting of yogurt produced by Sugar River Dairy, near Albany. The purpose was to promote the yogurt, which is sold regularly from the lunchroom's coolers.
As the pair set out survey cards and tiny cups of yogurt - peach, blueberry, strawberry - high-schoolers resplendent in hoodies looked on with glum curiosity.
A few shambled up to the table, then stared at the yogurt. Wubben and Stretsbury murmured encouragingly. Some students dutifully ate the product and filled out survey cards, but few had much to say about the experience.
I asked one girl if it was meaningful to her that the yogurt came from Wisconsin. "Uh-huh," she said. A few students dropped off survey cards. One shaggy-headed youth comically rubbed his stomach and said, archly, "It's deliciously yum-yum."
Monona Grove nutrition director Barb Waara looked on. "There's some interest," she said, hopefully. But, she noted of the Sugar River yogurt in the coolers, "It hasn't been a big mover."
It was hard to tell whether the students realized that, in eating locally produced yogurt, they were part of a movement. It was hard to tell what the students were thinking, period.
Even so, the tasting was a fascinating scene in what could be a great transformation. Watching it, I realized that although throngs seek out fresh, local food from farmers' markets, grocery stores and CSAs, some people will only eat local food if it is put in front of them.
And they will only eat if it is deliciously yum-yum. Fortunately, it is.
Next week: local farmers pitch packaged fare.