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Restaurants eager to meet demand for local food


Local food markets account for a small but growing share of total U.S. agricultural sales. According to “Local Food Systems,” compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and released in May 2010:

The number of farmers’ markets rose to 5,274 in 2009, up from 2,756 in 1998 and 1,755 in 1994, according to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

In 2005, there were 1,144 community-supported agriculture organizations (CSAs) in operation, up from 400 in 2001 and 2 in 1986. In early 2010, estimates exceeded 1,400, but the number could be much larger, according to a study by the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

The number of farm to school programs, which use local farms as food suppliers for school meal programs, increased to 2,095 in 2009, up from 400 in 2004 and 2 in the 1996-97 school year, according to the National Farm to School Network.

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Teibel’s Family Restaurant in Schererville has a long tradition of getting its food supply in the region, one that stretches back throughout the family-owned restaurant’s history.

The restaurant has purchased its chickens from a Remington farm in White County for its entire existence, said Paul Teibel, the facility’s owner, adding the farm sold chickens to his great-grandfather.

Ice cream comes from Valpo Velvet in Valparaiso, including a house peppermint, and 75 percent of the restaurant’s produce is local, including cabbage from Elzinga Farms in Dyer.

“The No. 1 priority is obviously the quality for the restaurant, and keeping our quality where it needs to be,” Teibel said. “Right behind that, when you support your people, they support you back.”

Teibel’s is ahead of a growing trend toward local food, one that’s been on the scene nationally for several years and is beginning to catch on in Northwest Indiana.

The move makes sense, its supporters add, promoting fresher produce without added transportation costs, and supporting local growers, which helps the region’s economy. Local food is also a way to connect with the community.

An increasing number of communities are looking at ways to source food locally, said Laura Hormuth, a public health nutritionist with the Indiana State Department of Health.

Indianapolis, Bloomington and Batesville, in the southeast corner of the state, have local food growers associations, and several areas of the state are working on different projects, including the establishment of food cooperatives and community gardens.

Efforts include getting hospitals, schools and businesses to purchase locally produced food, or putting together a local food network, said Hormuth, adding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided funding for 25 states, including Indiana, to come up with a plan to increase access to fresh produce, among other goals. Here, the effort is dubbed the Indiana Healthy Weight Initiative.

“When people eat local food and are eating seasonally, they are getting a variety of fruits and vegetables,” Hormuth said.

Connecting farmers, businesses

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission received a grant in the fall for a local foods study. The commission put together a group of 40 stakeholders, including growers, processors and distributors, to examine the issue. Their report is due out in October.

NIRPC’s 2040 regional comprehensive plan also will include a small section on local food, said Kevin Garcia, project manager for the local foods study.

The study is examining all aspects of local food production in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. One of the goals of the study, Garcia said, is to figure out what the region needs and look at what’s missing.

“It will identify what’s needed in the region, and then it’s a matter of what we have to do,” he said, adding the study also will determine “the next logical steps to build a local food economy.”

The region has a strong agricultural history, one that is going by the wayside as land is developed and food comes from farther and farther away.

“It’s nice to connect to the land and connect with a farmer. It’s something that people really enjoy and it’s missing,” Garcia said.

A March 21 meeting at the Porter County Expo Center, sponsored by the Porter County Extension Office, brought together more than 50 farmers, restaurant owners and school food service directors to discuss local foods and network for future relationships.

Supporters of the local food movement also admit it has its challenges, particularly in this area. Andy Vasquez, who owns JNJ Organics in Kouts with his wife, Gail, attended the meeting at the Expo Center and is involved in the NIRPC study. He also has been active in farmers’ markets in the region.

His farm has worked with local restaurants off and on, but one of the challenges is the short growing season here, he said, adding that even if the region’s small growers provided to local restaurants during the season, they could offer fresher produce and reduce the burden of transporting goods from across the country or the border.

“Plus, you put local people to work. The money stays here, and the restaurants save money on transportation to bring food here,” he said.

Jan Black, food services director for the Portage Township School Corp., is well aware of how difficult it can be to source food locally.

Some of the corporation’s suppliers buy locally, but since the schools serve 7,500 breakfast and lunch meals a day, sheer volume is a problem when working with local growers.

She would love to provide local produce when it’s in season, but said it’s going to take a lot of communication to make that happen.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for both sides, if we can work it out,” she said.

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