Kansas Eats | Civil Eats

Kansas Eats

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Growing up in Kansas, I was surrounded by wheat and corn fields. Driving from my hometown of Wichita to visit my grandmother in Kansas City, I waved and shouted hello to the cows along the freeway. I never gave much thought to where my food came from because when I looked around, all I saw were farms. No one talked about food miles or supporting local farmers. I had a romanticized notion of big red barns, farmers getting up at five a.m. to plow the fields with their dog by their side and sitting down to dinner each night with food from their garden. I had no idea that most of the farms in my home state grew rows and rows of genetically modified wheat, corn and soy. It saddens me when I think about all the times I drove past, waving to the cows because I now realize that those were confined feeding animal operations (CAFOs). Ironically, it took my move to the San Francisco Bay Area to develop an interest and passion for sustainable agriculture. When I was asked to write about the local food scene in Kansas, I wondered if anything had changed. In a state were Monsanto reigns, does anyone care about local food?

Last summer, I went back to Lawrence, (home of my Alma matter University of Kansas- Rock Chalk Jayhawk!) for a wedding. I was headed to a hair appointment when I saw a sign that said “Local Burger.” I immediately pulled over and jumped out to see the menu. I felt like I was in desert and had seen a mirage. Was it possible I had found a restaurant serving a sustainable, organic meal in the middle of Kansas? For nearly four years, Local Burger has been serving college students and local residents’ elk, buffalo, beef, turkey and pork burgers. All of which are raised from nearby family farms using sustainable and humane practices, free of hormones and antibiotics. For the herbivores, a housemade veggie burger and tofu filet. The prices are inexpensive – $6 burgers to $12 for combo meals – perfect for college students on a tight budget. A few days later, I went back with my mom to have my first Local Burger and it was delicious.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a progressive restaurant concept like Local Burger. Lawrence has always been a proponent of keeping its dollars local and protesting the presence of large corporations on its historic Massachusetts Street in downtown. There are several other restaurants that have been creating traditional and artisan products for years: Wheatfield’s, Free State Brewing Company, a farmer’s market and Community Mercantile, a co-op providing organic and locally-produced food to its residents.

An hour east of Lawrence is the Greater Kansas City Area, a fifteen county area bordering the Kansas and Missouri state lines with nearly two million people.

For more than 12 years, Kansas City Food Circle has been connecting consumers to farmers and ranchers who meet its standards for organic produce and free-range animals. Membership is open to anyone and includes newsletters, a directory of farmers and what they produce, biannual membership meetings to meet the farmers and educational meetings which provide a forum for food issues. At its annual event, Expo, participants can sign up for a CSA (community supported agriculture), buy seedlings, free-range meats, canned goods and flour. This year it will be held Saturday, March 28 and Saturday, April 5. For more information, please click here.

To meet the growing demand for local products, expand existing farms and educate the next generation of growers, K-State Research and Extension, University of Missouri Research and Extension, the Kansas City Food Circle and the Kansas Rural Center collaborated to establish Growing Growers of Kansas City. The organization has a variety of educational and networking events, monthly workshops and a farm apprenticeship geared towards novice farmers. During the two-year apprenticeship, participants spend the first year learning basic skills and the second year learning advanced farm management skills. There is also an email listserv open to anyone and connects area growers, restaurateurs, grocery stores and others interested in locally produced food.

And in the state capital, Collective Brands, Inc. (formerly known as Payless Shoe Source) choose the on-site food service company, Bon Appétit Management Company), to feed its 1,000 employees at the company’s headquarters. For more than 20 years, Bon Appétit has been committed to serving fresh, great tasting food to corporations, universities and colleges and specialty venues. Unlike other foodservice companies, its chefs prepare seasonal menus which reflect the region and when possible, source local produce from nearby farms. Meats are produced without the use of antibiotics or hormones, eggs are cage-free, salmon is wild caught and seafood is purchased fresh when available locally. No trans fats or MSG are allowed in these kitchen. At Collective Brands, its café, Harvest Café, has eight different concepts: American Grill- sandwiches, grilled entrees, Cucina- wood-burning stones oven turning out individual pizzas and Italian food, Global- meat and vegetarian entrées with an international flare, Taqueria, a bakery and coffee bar, deli and salad bar. Chef Jeff Leahy and his team serve breakfast and lunch with the option of picking up a prepared dinner to go. Now, for those people who’ve never been to Topeka, food choices are limited to major fast food and quick service restaurant chains. I am filled with hope and excitement to know that people who are usually bound to the closest drive-thru burger joint are being exposed to fresh, seasonal meals year-round.

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I have to admit, when I was first asked to write about locally-produced food in Kansas, I didn’t think I would meet an 800-word minimum. I love my home state for many things, but other than BBQ, I do not associate Kansas with good food. However, I think it’s time I changed my opinion. There is a food revolution happening all over the country. This is not a movement that is limited to those of us in California. Alice Waters may have initiated the idea from her infamous Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse but we are all starting to ask the same question “where does my food come from?”

Look around in your town to see how you can support your local economy. There are web sites and organizations such as Eat Wild, Slow Food USA and Local Harvest which can help you find nearby family farms and producers.

For the Kansans and Missourians reading, visit Kansas City CSA Coalition, Kansas City Community Gardens or Homegrown Kansas to learn more about your food community.

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Layla Azimi worked as the Communication Coordinator for Slow Food Nation, the first event of its kind, which drew 85,000 people to San Francisco in hopes of building a healthier, more sustainable food system. Co-founder of Kitchen Table Talks, she lives in Napa Valley where she is learning to perfect her marmalade and jam-making skills and planting her first vegetable garden. Read more >

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  1. I agree, Layla - there is a wake up call going across America and people are finally beginning to ask where their food is coming from. Another fairly new resource is Find the Farmer, recently written about in the NYTimes http://bit.ly/Ef76Q . It's a start, but I think you will be seeing more sites like this who help you learn more about your food and how it was produced.
  2. Layla,
    Thank you so much for doing such a comprehensive blog on the sustainable food scene in North East Kansas. If we can make it fly in the heartland I think this movement has the strong wings it needs for the long trip ahead.
  3. tim baron
    This is a very interesting, well researched article. It is an eye opening piece of literature.

    We all think that organic meals only exist on the west coast, not in middle America where no one has heard of Whole Foods. But this article points out that it does and even thrives.

    thanks for the vast wealth of information.
  4. Excellent article, and hopefully read widely. We need more people to speak up about local food issues - land appropriations, resource management, food labeling... it all applies, and it is all at risk unless we voice our concerns.

    If you have ways to reach out to many who feel as you do, please read up on the Farm Bill, the anti-consumer labeling actions (Kansas, Ohio... pro-CAFO, pro-rBST/rBGH), and other legislation brought on by BIG FARM and BIG OIL. We need your attention and input, and so do your state representatives.

    Protect your local food resources - get informed and speak your mind.

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