Buying and Eating Local – the Columbus Food Scene

15 Jun

The food in Columbus is outstanding. It’s probably not on many people’s lists of great food towns in the United States, but it certainly is on mine.

When we first moved here, like many judgmental big city transplants, I was skeptical about the food scene. Could it really be as good as New York, or Chicago, or Atlanta? Doubtful.

Consider myself mistaken. Columbus food isn’t just delicious – it is an excellent example of how a sustainable food chain could be. Restaurants, at all price levels, sincerely abide by the idea of ‘farm to table’. They wear Ohio on their sleeves and confidently design their menus around local ingredients. Chefs don’t seem to be worried about fame – they just focus on quality and let word of mouth do the rest. Importantly, there is a sense of community and pride in pushing out messages about local Ohio foods. Non-profits, businesses, government are all involved in organizing and marketing campaigns – eating, growing and buying local is a collective effort.

So keeping this in mind, I’ve listed three examples of how Columbus is a good example of a strong food chain. There is probably a dark underbelly to what I as a newcomer see on the surface, but it’s safe to say that they are making a strong dent in an otherwise grossly inequitable system.

Local Matters

Local Matters is probably the best example of how Columbus is reinvigorating its food system. It is a local NGO that brings together food businesses, farmers, schools and community members through programming at each level of the system – growing, buying and cooking.

The program that I’m most familiar with is the Veggie Van, where I’ve spent some time volunteering with their team. The idea behind the Van is to take produce (from local farmers whenever possible) and sell it at a subsidized rate (an extremely affordable price) to low-income households across Columbus. They also provide a recipe and cooking demo for folks so that they have some new ideas for how to prepare the foods. Here are some pictures of the team at work –

This program tackles a key problem, access, in a truly unique and sustainable way. They work with volunteers to bag the produce and use resources from a for-profit partner, the Greener Grocer, to fund the program. I can only hope that more cities across the U.S. adopt this model.

North Market

Sigh. The North Market might be my favorite place in Columbus. A lot of towns have a version of the North Market – a collection of vendors (35 in this case) selling everything from Indian food to ice cream to groceries. They have a farmers market a couple of times a week, and liven things up with festivals and other food-related events throughout the year.

What makes North Market special is once again, the deep pride that folks there seem to have about Ohio and Ohio-sourced goods. Which brings me to another point, which is the visibility of farmers’ markets all over Columbus. I went to one today, Pearl Market, and was thrilled to see the personal connection that folks had with farmers and vendors.

Jeni’s, Knead and other delicious food establishments

My favorite thing about Columbus restaurants is that they don’t try too hard to please – they just make delicious food and let folks come to their own conclusions. And those conclusions are almost always positive.

After trying Jeni’s, most people will admit that it’s the best ice cream they ever had. After sampling a majority of their main stays and seasonal flavors, I heartily agree. Jeni’s is a great example of how folks in Columbus use local ingredients to design their menus. Dairy from local producers, fruit from nearby farms, all of it goes into their ice cream. They are also an example of an extremely successful small business that prioritizes quality and sustainability over anything else.

I have tons of other favorites, but the one I’ll mention is Knead, a superb sandwich shop on the main stretch of downtown Columbus, High Street. Knead is a simple joint with an ever changing menu depending on what is available in terms of meats, poultry, dairy and produce. They probably made the best breakfast sandwich that I’ve ever had. If you’re swinging by Columbus, check out this place.

A food system is not an abstract concept – this is something that I’ve learnt while in Columbus. I have never felt more connected to where my food comes from, and that is entirely due to a collective effort from farmers, chefs, civil society and small businesses in the area. The possibilities are endless if this kind of energy spread to other cities.

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