Make Yourself at Home With Local Food: Discovering the Flavor of Your New Hometown

We all have our well-worn strategies for making connections and becoming part of our new community after a military move. Perhaps it’s through kids’ schools, church, sports, a new job, or by joining a neighborhood organization. But what about the farmers market, the pick-your-own strawberry patch, or the local brewery? Places like this play a vital, vibrant role in communities everywhere, and they’re perfect places to start new friendships, make a connection with your new neighborhood and—a bonus!—find healthy, local food for you and your family.

So once you’ve nailed down the basics, like how to get to the hardware store and where the best coffee shop is, finding these resources is a terrific way to get to know your new city. You don’t have to be a foodie to want the best-tasting honey in town, or delicious, fresh apples grown in your region. Who doesn’t want food that tastes great, after all? But along with the reward of a terrific local brew or a source for goat milk, there’s the conversations you have with your new neighbors and local merchants as you track these things down, conversations that can reveal shared interests that bloom into new friendships.

So where do you start? How do you begin to find these local treasures? The investigation and discovery is half the fun, so let’s get started.

Fun Food Excursions for Kids

Getting to know the fun places to buy food in your new community can be big fun for the kids, too! Including them in your exploratory missions gives them the opportunity to learn about good food and eating, and just as importantly, pick-your-own farms, state fairs and farmers markets are often organized with families in mind, with play areas, places for adults to gather and chat and opportunities to learn new skills like arts and crafts, pumpkin carving or potato stamps.  Not only do the kids make new friends, you can connect with local parents who care about food and who can suggest other fun activities and resources.

Looking for an easy, food-related kid activity you can do any time? Alison Olt Kerr, a navy spouse living in Tacoma, Washington, suggests a food treasure hunt. Choose a favorite food and after the kids do an internet search, vote on the top three contenders and help with the mapping. Then, grab your printed map and head out for an afternoon on the hunt! You’re sure to not only find a terrific spot to sample your new favorite cup of chili, or the best falafel in town, you’ll likely find a terrific bakery, greengrocer, butcher shop or other fabulous local resource while you’re walking or driving around. Heck, you can’t miss finding non-food shops you’ll love as well!

Or how about throwing yourself a housewarming party? Ricki’s makes wonderful, inexpensive cheese kits for kids—a tasty use for your local milk. Invite the neighborhood kids and parents over and spend an afternoon making cheese together! It’s fun, easy, and relatively fast, and you can use the results to make homemade pizza. For the price of a birthday cake and some decorations, you can make and enjoy a big batch of mozzarella and roll a healthy dinner into the fun.

Reaching out to your new neighbors and doing a pre-move online reconnaissance can really pay dividends. Kerri Leigh Grady, a navy spouse living in Norfolk, Virginia, finds that these connections are about more than food. “It pays to reach out and find others in the community who share my interests. Through these contacts, I learn about the amazing opportunities in my new community, and I make connections to folks I might never have met otherwise.”

How You Can Get Involved

Many communities across the US have created space for a community garden. Though your new home may have ample space for your own herb and vegetable garden, community gardens offer companionship, help, volunteer opportunities, community events and often even educational programs for gardeners, and many of these offerings are open to kids as well. Whether you’re a veteran gardener or you’re not even clear on how to plant a seed, there are opportunities-a-plenty at your local garden. All you have to worry about is what you’ll do with all that produce!

And once you find or grow a bounty of fresh produce, you’ll be glad to know there’s a real resurgence of interest recently in skills our grandparents and great-grandparents took for granted—things like canning, preserving, bread baking and maybe even cheese making. Happily, these are all skills that people love to share, and the folks you meet at the farmers market or at the co-op are likely to be able to tell you who these local experts are. Canning parties and exchanges are great ways to get to know people while you learn this useful and simple skill, so break out the Ball jars and use ’em to make friends! After a few hours in the kitchen with the family, you’ll have jelly to trade for tomatoes, or pickles to trade for mustard. You’ve not only learned something wonderful, you’ve cultivated relationships with your fellow canners. Everybody wins!

Another idea? Cooking classes. Often offered by a local culinary store or community college, one-day classes on bread baking, brining, making infused liquors or baking a pie are more than just learning opportunities. People tend to be chatty and open to new ideas at classes like these, and working together provides a perfect backdrop for getting to know each other.

If you’ve got the time to give, volunteering at your local farmers’ market is a great way to get involved in your community while you meet people. You’d be amazed at the warm reception you’ll get, and there’s almost always plenty to do. And what better way to get to know your local food producers? Alison Olt Kerr, a navy spouse living in Tacoma, Washington, started volunteering at her local farmers market this spring, and now she’s hooked. “I met a whole new group of great folks—staff, farmers and other shoppers—and really, there is nothing more inspirational to me than being surrounded by a group of folks passionate about food!”

Why Getting Involved Matters

Another terrific benefit to the time you spend finding these producers and retailers is the health boost you’ll get by buying and eating whole, recognizable ingredients. You don’t have to go to a big chain store and pay premium prices to get your hands on fresh, gorgeous produce, organic herbs, artisan honey, all-natural skin care products or grass-fed beef. These things are often available from small retailers at much saner prices, and they’re normally from your area to boot. Plus you’re supporting nearby businesses, decreasing your carbon footprint and giving your money directly to farmers rather than big food distributors and retailers. It really is a win-win. Another bonus? Your kids will learn by example, and discover for themselves the joy of a blueberry tart made with berries from a local farm, flour from the mill they love to visit and butter they made themselves from milk from the farmers market. There’s really nothing like it.

So once you’ve got those boxes unpacked, reach out to your new neighborhood through local food. You’ll fill your belly and your social calendar!

Common resources:

  • Farmers Markets
  • Co-ops
  • CSA
  • Pick-your-own farms and plots
  • ONLINE! Google, Facebook, Twitter
  • Bulletin boards at co-ops, health food stores, churches, community centers, public library
  • The local paper (online or paper)

Online resources:

  • Cheesemaking.com
  • PickYourOwn.org
  • BrewersAssociation.org
  • HoneyLocator.com
  • CommunityGarden.org
  • LocalHarvest.org (comprehensive resource with location-specific results)
  • RealMilk.com
  • CoopDirectory.org

Food-related field trips for kids!

  • Pick-your-own
  • Cooking classes/food camps
  • International grocery stores
  • Farmers Markets
  • Local farms
  • Pumpkin patches/Corn mazes
  • Local and state fairs

Published in Military Spouse Magazine in March, 2012