The locally grown food movement now has strong roots in the Columbus dining scene, something that's important for the consumer, farmer and restaurateur.

The locally grown food movement now has strong roots in the Columbus dining scene, something that's important for the consumer, farmer and restaurateur.

Supporters say they like to keep their dollars in the region, establish personal relationships with growers and reduce the environmental impact when foods are transported from faraway places.

Oh, yeah, and the food tastes good.

While the relationship between farmer and consumer is improving, it's far from perfect.

Northstar Café, founded in 2004, was one of the early pioneers of the local slow-food society. Kevin Malhame, who opened the restaurant with his wife, Katy, said they've been working hard to establish relationships with as many local growers as possible.

The couple, who now own three Northstars and Third and Hollywood, maintains dozens of relationships with local farmers, getting turkey from Bowman Landes farm in New Carlisle and eggs from Green Field Farms in New Fredericksburg. Malhame estimates that roughly 25 percent of his ingredients come from Ohio soil – a high number, comparatively speaking, he said.

However, while procuring regional goods has "always been a very high priority," it's not the only consideration, he said.

"We're more concerned with how food is being produced than where it's being produced," he said.

Yet, it's not always easy for independent businesses to establish and maintain those connections, Malhame said.

"When you're working with a lot of different purveyors, (rather) than when you're working with one, it is challenging," he said.

Sometimes the products, understandably, just aren't available locally.

"We like to serve organic juice and we love to cook with olive oil and those are not Ohio agricultural products," Malhame said.

Several more organizations have formed to strengthen the relationships between farmers and the public. One is Local Matters, a nonprofit organization in downtown Columbus that focuses on education, access and engagement in the local food realm.

Michael Jones, executive director and co-founder of the organization, said community-supported agriculture, also known as a CSA, is an effective way of getting fresh food in the hands of local consumers. A CSA, in essence, is a direct-sales mechanism between farms and customers, who pay in advance and get a certain amount of produce every week.

"Certainly, one of the issues we all are working on right now is how do we increase the supply of local food?" said Jones, who also owns the Green Grocer in the North Market. "As the amount of local food increases, we're hoping other parts of the distribution system get better as a reflection of that."

Farmers markets are another important step in introducing independent growers to an important customer base. The Clintonville Farmers Market, for example, started in 2003 with six vendors and ran for six weeks. At the end of last year, the market had 76 producers over the season – about 50 spots open per day - and ran for 28 weeks.

"The Clintonville area community is a good match for a farmers market, market manager Laura Zimmerman said. "There's a lot of interest in local food a lot of support for local food."

Part of its success, Zimmerman said, has been programming, including education and special activities, and bringing in personalities, such as chefs, to the market.

"This year we will offer taste education again, putting customers in touch with heritage foods and endangered foods that are native to Ohio.
"We really are about making connections," she said. "You can find local food at local places but it's only at local places can you meet the farmers who grow your food."