The newest item on the menu of 1776 Restaurant in Crystal Lake is a living salad.
It starts with trays lined with still-growing greens shipped from the Loyola University Retreat and Ecology Center in Woodstock. The culinary staff snip each ingredient as the salad’s ordered, sending it to the table shortly after.
“We use radish sprouts, green pea shoots and Russian red kale,” owner Andy Andresky said. “We have three different greens that when you make a salad they cut those shoots right from the ground. I think that’s the future of food.”
Although some barriers remain for getting McHenry County-grown food onto local tables, business owners, farmers and officials say they have made strides to increase the availability of locally grown food.
The phrase “locally sourced food” appears in the mission statement of 1776, at 397 W. Virginia St. What that means is patrons can expect to eat food grown or raised in the region. By USDA standards, anything that is grown within 400 miles is considered local.
Andresky said the restaurant is up to 85 percent local food in peak growing season from April through November. But offering local fare does come with some restrictions, which is why local food often ends up as a special or seasonal dish.
“It never works 100 percent, especially in this climate,” Andresky said. “There are some hydroponic places that will provide us with spinach year-round. We are never going to be like California where you can do it 100 percent.”
That’s a lesson Troy Edmonds, who runs Edmonds Acres in Marengo, is learning alongside local restaurants he has started supplying. About 90 percent of Edmond’s metric tons of fruit and vegetable sales come from the Woodstock Farmers Market, but he decided this year also to partner with local eateries.
“It’s timing. It’s meshing what’s wanted with what’s available so it can be gathered and washed and prepared properly,” Edmonds said.
He’s sent out garlic, shallots and rhubarb so far, and will provide more as summer progresses. Chefs have told him what they want so he can plant it on some of his 17 acres and have it ready for harvest in a couple months, he said.
“I’m not big enough to gamble and plant three acres of radishes for them to use in their specials for two months,” Edmonds said.
It’s difficult to measure how much local food residents eat, said Kim Kolner, a senior planner with McHenry County and the staff liaison for the Agricultural Conservation Easement and Farmland Protection Commission.
A local food assessment study presented by the commission in early 2014 showed in a survey of nearly 250 county residents, 50 percent of respondents said they do not know where the food they purchase is grown, and two-thirds said they do not know whether their grocer offers local food.
That number might have changed, but the commission hasn’t measured it, Kolner said. The commission is at the outset of another project that could help local farmers by eliminating some of the negotiation process. McHenry and Kane counties have partnered on a feasibility study for a food hub, a place where local food is prepared, distributed and marketed or stored.
Another outlet in the local food movement that’s gaining momentum is the Food Shed Co-op, a grocery store of sorts where shareholders would decide what to sell. Board Presidents Doug Close said so far nearly 320 people have purchased shares. It will take 500 owners before the group can get serious about selecting a site and 1,000 owners before they consider opening, Close said.
“We’re in the process of surveying local producers,” Close said. “So we make sure we’re working with local farmers to bring their products to market as successfully as we can.”