Slow Food Tampa Bay Brings Local Farms Home

Do you know where your food comes from? Who tended to the livestock, planted the seeds, watered and tended them before you held the final product in your hands?

If you're looking for a closer connection to what you eat, the newly formed Slow Food Tampa Bay can help you ease into the process.

The Slow Food movement began in 1980 with a group of wine lovers who called themselves the Libera e Benemerita Associazione Amici del Barolo (Free and Meritorious Association of Friends of Barolo wine). By 1986 the group, led by Carlo Petrini, had morphed into ARCIGOLA. They rallied for change when food supplies were threatened with chemical treatments and when they believed fast food giants were imposing on their traditions. Slow Food International, a nonprofit organization, was founded three years later.

Fast forward 21 years to today and Slow Food has spread its influence to more than 100,000 members on six continents, including Slow Food Sarasota and the newly formed Slow Food Tampa Bay.

"Just this past spring, people starting talking about getting the right group of people together -- chefs, farmers, people who've lived their life in the movement and people who are new to it, like me," says Slow Food Tampa Bay Bookkeeper Lianne Mcdonnell-Kruger.

Mcdonnell-Kruger came to Slow Food the way many of its members do -- when her lifestyle demanded change.

"I was 27 (years old), 30 pounds heavier with high cholesterol and I started to look at the world around me and what I was eating," she recalls. "I got it in my head that we needed a chapter here in my area and I wanted to be a part of it."

Combatting a food mindset that doesn't know when tomatoes are grown in Florida and still thinks drive-through dollar burgers are lighter on their wallet is also an integral part of the Slow Food movement.

"When people look at how they're spending their money, is it really more expensive to buy ground beef -- organic or not -- and make the burgers themselves?" she asks.

Putting On Your Aprons

Getting people back in their own kitchens using locally sourced ingredients is one of the movement's objectives.

"It's about using local, organic, ethically sourced food and preserving a tradition of cooking that doesn't involve eating out of a fast food carton," says Katie Machol, Food and Green Community Editor for Creative Loafing Tampa.

Fortunately, the Tampa Bay area is brimming with local growers.

Gateway Organic Farm in Clearwater, for instance, is situated on a quaint 3.5 acre lot surrounded by High Point Village Mobile Home Park. The garden is 100 feet wide and nearly a quarter of a mile long. An array of 250 pots filled with mint, basil, oregano, lemongrass and sage line the fences. Honey is supplied by the farm's dozen bee hives.

Hank and Pamela Sindlinger, co-founders of Slow Food Tampa Bay, tend to their herd of boxer dogs and chickens every morning, and from there the day is a blur of events.

There are greenhouses to check, trades of bok choy, lettuce and vegetables to transplant, equipment maintenance, planning events for Slow Food, farm tours, and, of course, weeding. Lots of it.

It's quite a change of pace from the engineering and psychology degrees in the Sindlingers' backgrounds, but one they felt was necessary to impart on their two grandchildren, Steven and Stephanie, whom they raise and homeschool.

Upon purchasing the farm, a former landscaper's greenhouse that dried up with the building boom, Pamela attended an organic certification workshop at the University of Florida. It was there she first learned about Community Supported Agriculture from Rick Martinez, executive director of Sweetwater Organic Farm.

Community Supported Agriculture tightens the bond between farmer and consumer as paid members reap the benefits of whatever seasonal delights thrive and share the disappointment of what falters.

"As much as we'd like to say a certain plant will be ready by this date, it's out of our hands," says Sindlinger. "But if something's not working, we plow it under and start again."

Shedding The Corporate Life

A Full Share membership at Gateway Organics is $900 and includes weekly produce from November through May. A weekly take feeds up to a family of four or a vegetarian couple, according to Gateway's website.

And it's not just families waiting for a share. Several Tampa Bay restaurants are among the chorus of CSA members.

Seminole Heights' The Refinery, West Tampa's NoHo Bistro and Carrollwood's Toasted Pheasant are a few local hot spots that've been supplied by Urban Oasis Hydroponic Farm.

About a year ago Dave Hume, a longtime self-employed lawn maintenance worker, decided he'd had his fill of cutting 45 lawns a week. His wife Cathy was eager to free herself of the regimented corporate life she'd grown accustomed to.

A four-minute news segment on hydroponic strawberry farming in Hillsborough County piqued their interest.

Hydroponics entails produce grown in a series of stacked boxes, replacing the traditional groundwork associated with a farm.

"It seemed like a great opportunity for the two of us," she says. "I was ready not to be stuck in an office for 50 hours a week."

So the Humes got to work on a piece of overgrown property nestled among the bustling Northwest Tampa neighborhoods of Town N Country, Citrus Park and Westchase.

The 3/4 of an acre plot at 5416 West Linebaugh Ave. is utilized to the fullest. Dave estimates they've been able to plant the equivalent of a five-acre farm thanks to the stacking method.

Urban Oasis employs an automated drip system that waters and feeds the plants daily, which has its benefits for the environment as well. Hume estimates the system uses one-tenth the amount of water typically used in ground farming.

"We would've never been able to plant anything on this property," says Dave. "It would've required hundreds of yards of compost to soil the plants in."

Instead, Dave spends his days harvesting crops standing up -- he claims its the easy part of running the farm. Cathy handles the guided tours, marketing and the farmers market open to the public on Friday and Saturday.

Savoring The Flavors

The Humes realize they attract a younger consumer than a traditional farm, but suspect that will change as skepticism over hydroponics wears off.

"I think we've been lulled into this notion that if it's sold out of the back of a pickup truck, it must be fresh and local," she says, "and that's not always the case."

And while Dave and Cathy know their approach to produce isn't for everybody, they know one thing that is -- the taste.

"We're used to going to the store and buying items from all different countries," says Dave, "but I'm blown away by how good the produce tastes now."

Savoring the taste is, after all, what Slow Food is all about.

"To be perfectly honest, it's something I still struggle with," Mcdonnell-Kruger admits, "but if you can wait, a tomato tastes so much better in season."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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