February 24th, 2009 By William Powers
Omaha is a quintessential Midwestern metropolis. It is a bustling city nestled among a sprawling rural landscape. However, if you look you will find something changing and growing. It is the local food movement!
Early in 2005, Michael Braunstein had an itch. He wanted to provide West Omaha access to healthy, safe and humanely-raised local food. He made contact with several area farmers, and soon West Omaha had its own market at the Village Pointe Shopping Center. But would it be successful? Would people literally “buy” into this local food scene for the benefits of health and stewardship?
The Village Pointe Farmer’s Market was established to elevate community awareness of the importance of sustainable, local, family-owned farms, the wholesome food that comes from them, and its importance to our social, environmental and personal health. You won’t find any arts and crafts, and the vendors, while not required to be organic, are encouraged to practice natural, chemical-free, non-GMO and sustainable agriculture.
On opening day in 2006, farmers displayed their fresh produce and all-natural meats. With an estimated 35,000 vehicles entering the Village Pointe Shopping area on Saturdays, the customers soon would be there. Slowly and purposefully, shoppers trickled in to see what was happening. For one young mother, that purpose was to “buy healthful foods and to meet the farmers.” Another remarked, “Now I don’t have to drive so far to get awesome food! Locally grown foods are fresher, more nutritious—and you learn about the food from the person who grows it. When you shop at a real Farmers Market, you are getting the best food you can for your table.”
Braunstein believes that the food chain starts with sustainable, family-owned farms and that leads to healthy people and a healthy planet. He is a backyard gardener and is proud that, for many meals on his table, he can name the farmer that provided each item on the plate.
One of the vendors, Beulahland Farm, is a small family farm located near the town of Lyons, Nebraska. A major component of the farm is the Certified Naturally Grown process. An alternative to the USDA Certified Organic Program, it is only open to family farmers who market and sell their products to local areas. Certified Naturally Grown is recognized nationally and internationally by environmental groups, health organizations, and agricultural groups.
Victor Novak is the owner of Beulahland Farms. The farm produces a variety of fruits and vegetables and Novak is proud of the eco-friendly, diversified, sustainable agriculture on the farm. The livestock are on his farm are raised using no medicated feeds, antibiotics or growth hormones. Novak is also contented that his land is farmed with family labor.
Beulahland Farm sells their products to the Nebraska Food Coop, Wild Oats Market and Village Pointe Farmers Market. Through the years, they have seen the demand for locally and sustainably produced foods grow in Omaha. “Access and demand have contributed to the movement, and it is gratifying to see the movement grow and expand,” said Novak.
Brian O’Malley is a chef-instructor at the Institute for the Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College. As President of the Heartland Chapter of the American Culinary Federation, Coach of the Junior Culinary Competition Team, Board Member of the Nebraska Food Cooperative and the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society (NSAS), father of two, and muse extraordinaire for the Institute for the Culinary Arts’s student bistro, called Sage, O’Malley spreads his passion for local and sustainable cuisine liberally throughout the Omaha community.
I first met Chef O’Malley at the annual Healthy Farms conference, held February 2008 at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha. He was frantically setting up the meals for the conference while also conducting several breakout sessions on food and specifically on making cheese. I found it utterly amazing that, in the middle of all this, a food delivery from a farmer showed up and Chef O’Malley stopped everything to chat with him for over 10 minutes. I asked him about it later, and he simply said, “He is my farmer and he cares passionately about his product.” When asked why he prefers local sustainable foods over processed, O’Malley simply says, “It is just better: better quality a better product and better for your health.”
The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society was founded more than 30 years ago by a group of organic farmers who recognized the need to foster and facilitate growth in both sustainable and organic agriculture. NSAS is active in collaborative projects that support rural communities and the environment. These projects offer mentoring opportunities for beginning and experienced farmers, and opportunities for on-farm research, demonstration and education. NSAS offers opportunities for non-farmers to participate in a food system and network with sustainable Nebraska farmers as well as attend workshops and link with all our projects. It is through NSAS that these three stories intersect.
Michael Braunstein approached NSAS to gather information, research potential farmers and network with current markets and businesses interested in growing the local foods movement in Omaha. One of the first farmers to commit to the Village Pointe Farmers Market was Victor Novak, who also is a member of the Board of Directors for NSAS. Chef O’Malley has seen the quality of the food he prepares increase as a direct result of buying locally sustained products from farmers such as Novak. All three are active participants in a swelling food movement in the heartland of the United States. They have seen the demand and the opportunities increase as more and more residents of Omaha are recognizing the difference and the choice they have in selecting the very best food Nebraska has to offer. They have realized that food comes from sustainable family farms.
It is the result of these collaborative efforts that are enabling the local foods movement in Omaha to gain a foothold. The intersection of the consumer, the chef and, most importantly, the producer is vital. NSAS has played a pivotal role in bridging this gap through programs such as Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska, Slow Food Nebraska, the Nebraska Food Coop, and the Nebraska Local Foods Network.
Photo: farmer Victor Novak