Locally grown grows

Take even a fairly brief trip through any supermarket and the geographic gulf that has developed between shoppers and the source of much of the food they eat becomes readily apparent. Grocery store shelves are stocked with Central and South American fruit, Asian fish and shellfish, Canadian potatoes, Midwestern and Western meat and poultry, to name just a few examples. Then there are the myriads of canned and boxed foods chock full of ingredients from around the globe and accompanied by a host of chemicals and preservatives.

Consumers rightfully are becoming more wary of some of these foods, fueling a growing demand for fresher, healthier local foods grown or raised by friends and neighbors close to home. This so-called locavore movement even has helped spur an increase in the number of Connecticut farms. The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture census found the number of farms nationwide declined by 4 percent between 2007 and 2012, but here in the Nutmeg State the number of farms created since 2007 increased 22 percent.

With this in mind, any project that further bolsters the benefits of eating local and buying local deserves accolades. Three local towns - Bozrah, Essex and East Lyme - for example, recently received Connecticut Agriculture Department grants to promote and market their farmers markets. And in East Lyme, where an estimated 80 small farms produce a wide array of foods, residents are quietly taking many small steps to support and promote local farming.

The town's Agri-Business Committee, while tiny with just three members, is busy. The group was instrumental in ensuring the town has regulations that give greater latitude for residents - hungry for fresh eggs - to raise a limited number of backyard chickens. These regulations served as the model for similar rules recently adopted in Stonington.

Also, like their peers in Waterford, East Lyme Middle School students are raising vegetables at a school garden, with the assistance of an Agri-Business Committee member. Nancy Kalal, one committee member, also noted it can be a challenge to keep up with the number of local children eager to join an agriculturally focused 4-H Club.

In New London, the Fiddleheads Natural Foods Cooperative offers the urban community a member-owned, full-service market. Its focus is offering wholesome natural foods, organic, and locally fresh produce

While healthy eating remains the prime reason for further strengthening and supporting local agriculture, benefits extend far beyond this central cause. Many local farmers contribute food to local food banks. The Niantic Farmers Market is certified to accept Women, Infants and Children supplemental food vouchers, serves as a social gathering spot and also is frequented by senior citizens who can walk to the market, but can access no supermarket via foot.

The Niantic Farmers Market, which will get a marketing boost from the $5,000 state grant recently announced, produced a video last summer asking shoppers a single question: What do you love about the farmers market? While fresh, healthy food was a frequent refrain - supporting local farmers, celebrating community, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, also figured prominently among the answers. Said one shopper: it's where we come together.

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