Chef Julie Frans has a message for Miami chefs, restaurateurs, and diners: slow down.
Local chefs and nonprofits are trying to bring the green, clean food movement to South Florida. As the vice president of Slow Food Miami, the local chapter of a global grassroots movement that wants to disrupt the fast food and fast life prevalent in today’s society, she’s one of the ones leading the charge, helping restaurants source food locally and maintain higher standards.
Frans, a chef herself, moved to Miami from California and was surprised to find that we don’t demand clean, locally sourced food as much as they do in the West Coast. In fact, she noticed, we rarely question where our food is coming from. She’s out to change that.
Changing the system
Miami’s local sourcing initiative has gained traction in the last decade with the arrival of chefs like Michael Schwartz and Michelle Bernstein, who’ve set the stage for modern, American, made-from-scratch, farm fresh food. Their commitment is catching on with local diners.
Frans is contributing by working with sustainability-minded organizations like Seed Food and Wine Festival, Jugofresh and Della Test Kitchen in Wynwood Yard. Part of her role in Slow Food Miami is leading the Snail of Approval Program, a resource for the public to discover which local businesses are maintaining clean, fair standards.
In order to qualify for the Snail of Approval program, a restaurant must have two local food sources for several dishes on their menu. Frans, who interviews and visits each restaurant, recognizes it’s no easy task to source 100 percent locally. Awards are thus given on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s not always possible,” said Frans. “It could be that a restaurant is not sourcing local produce, but they are 100 percent committed to putting lionfish on the menu because it’s something endangering our reefs…”
For each restaurant that does not meet the criteria for a Snail of Approval, Frans created the Chef Alliance program, a series of workshops, farm tours and other educational initiatives to teach restaurateurs how they can work towards being cleaner and locally sourced.
“Miami is all about baby steps,” said Frans. “You can’t draw hard lines or it turns the community off. Many local restaurants want to adhere to these higher standards but don’t know how.”
Restaurants who want to go all in and source 100 percent locally can look to farms in Homestead, West Palm Beach and as far up as North Florida. The process involves working with multiple farms, delivery policies and seasonal constraints. It can be a fractured process that often leads to headaches for chefs. Slow Food Miami encourages restaurants to commit to featuring just a few local ingredients and working their way up.
Start ’em young
Another strategy gaining momentum is gardening in schools. Slow Food Miami works with more than 50 local schools to create community gardens. The goal: educate kids from a young age to have a better relationship with their food.
“Kids don’t know how it [food] happens,” said Frans. “Once you show them how, you’ve changed a life.”
Part of the criteria to implement a garden is to have teachers and staff willing to keep it active year-round. Volunteers help plant the garden and work with educators to design a curriculum around it. This way, children have the opportunity to learn the science of food from seed to sprout to plant.
Another local nonprofit, The Education Fund, is capitalizing on the movement through its Edible Garden Program. The mission is to get kids, teachers and cafeteria staff excited about growing their own food. The all-inclusive initiative takes it a step further by sending a team leader to work with teachers and kids throughout the year.
Recently, they’ve implemented more ambitious food forests into the program. These larger plots have a variety of plants and produce that work together as a mini ecosystem. Kids plant everything from bananas to mushroom plants on school property, which are then used in the cafeteria regularly.
“We have begun creating hyper local food systems at half of our schools,” said Eddie Recinos, Senior Program Manager. “The food forests work as edible landscapes sourcing meals for the cafeteria while children and teachers learn from and maintain the gardens.”
Education is another hallmark of school-run gardens. In addition to improving nutrition, gardening is a strong tool for hands-on learning. Children are stimulated when they get to explore and hold what they’re learning about. These gardens provide a wealth of firsthand experience cementing the curriculum in a way no classroom lesson could.
Recinos is a former teacher who worked with The Education Fund from the other side before joining them.
“It all started as a social experiment for me,” he laughs recalling a younger version of himself. “About 20 years ago I wanted to see if I could grow all of my food. And it turns out I could. We all can. It’s 100 percent possible.”
Through a lengthy and largely self taught process, Recinos has experimented with different produce combinations, working with Miami’s climate to plant and grow subtropical and tropical food crops. He says the right combination of locally grown food can provide a holistic diet.
According to Recinos, rethinking our staples is the first step. In the Tropics, we should be consuming root starches like boniato, sweet potato, malanga, yucca and plantains instead of potatoes. These can be supplemented with leafy vegetables like moringa, hummingbird tree or okinawa spinach rather than traditional lettuce.
Many of these crops are found in the gardens and food forests The Education Fund establishes.
“You see teachers, students and cafeteria chefs working with each other and it’s great. I worked in the school system,” said Recinos. “They would never have a reason to interact and now they’re working side-by-side.”
While there is a myriad of reasons that make the farm-to-table movement a standard worth working towards, both Recinos and Frans agree that deepening Miami’s sense of community is at the top of their list.
“We have a small group that’s extremely collaborative and they’re all interested in the same thing,” said Frans. “You slowly expand your bullseye by just living. When you are the way you are, it affects other people and that’s how movements grow. You create your own community.”