Free-range chicken and eggs. Raw milk. Grass-fed beef and other meats. Locally grown, pesticide-free lettuce and other vegetables. Organically sourced, non-GMO apples and other fruits. There’s a movement among foodies and families alike to forage for the freshest, healthiest foods available. It’s called “eating wild.” We explored just what makes something “wild,” and what’s available in Central Pennsylvania.
First, let’s visit a mainstay. Sonnewald Natural Foods of Spring Grove, York County, has been in the ‘wild’ market since 1955. Will Lafever, co-owner, says his farm has never used chemicals, and they’ve been around so long, he “grew up on organic food before organic certification even existed.” In the last six decades, Sonnewald has transformed from a farm market to a fully stocked grocery store, and supporting the local, organic and wild movement is in his bones.
One thing Lafever hopes people learn about the movement that’s been part of his whole life is that while it might be “slightly more expensive” to eat local, organic food, it’s “an investment in long-term good health.” That lesson is crucial for parents who are feeding their young children. “Taste buds,” he says, “are conditioned by what we expose them to; if children grow up with very healthy, wild food, they’ll prefer it their whole life.”
Newer to the market is Kristin Messner-Baker, owner of The Vegetable Hunter, an upstart, upscale vegetarian and vegan restaurant and boutique brewery in Harrisburg. Since opening three years ago, Messner-Baker has made it her mission to “make homemade food with whole ingredients that are nutrient-dense rather than purchasing processed foods that have little nutritional value and high calories.” This dedication has paid dividends, as her eatery won Harrisburg Magazine’s 2016 Simply the Best Vegetarian Restaurant as well as our own Central Penn Parent’s 2016 Best Vegetarian Restaurant. [Editor’s note: We did not include that category in our 2017 poll.]
Where they’re running wild
One location raising grass-fed beef and pastured poultry is Thousand Hills Grazing, located in Ickesburg, Perry County. Owners Ben and Cassie Seppanen, who are just beginning their wild foods journey, are renting 25 acres to fulfill their “desire to farm simply.” They wanted to provide an alternative to what they call the “mechanization of farming.” In places like idyllic Thousand Hills, the Sappanens see the wild food movement having the potential to bring back small farms and farmers who can make a decent living selling to their local area. They love the idea that customers can come to their farm and ask questions about the food that will one day find it way to their plate.
Lil’ Ponderosa Enterprises in Carlisle has been in the game a bit longer. Here grass-fed beef and pastured poultry is joined by “practically all protein items with the exception of seafood,” says chef and owner Sean Cavanaugh. This includes creek-raised duck and pastured-pork, lamb and red deer.
Cavanaugh is also the owner of national Open Table Diner’s Choice 2016 Award-Winning John J. Jeffries Restaurant in downtown Lancaster. In addition to chartering the full farm-to-table movement, Chef Cavanaugh is a fierce advocate of eating wild right here in Central Pennsylvania.
When I asked Cavanaugh about what problems he sees in the organic and local food industry, he noted two distinct things that he’d love to see changed: First, he thinks “we’ve been ‘greenwashed’ into believing that anything labeled ‘organic’ is good for you. Organic-processed food is still junk food.” Second, he’d love to see the elimination of the “smoke and mirrors” in the agriculture industry, namely the “elimination of Confined Agricultural Feeding Operations” where one would find the “needless suffering and environmental impact of livestock” instead of getting to know “their local farmers” who are raising food the right way.
Another one of those local farmers is Dave Brown, third-generation owner and operator of Brown’s Orchards & Farm Market in Seven Valleys, York County. Brown’s has been growing 25 varieties of apples as well as peaches, apricots, plums, plouts, berries, and cherries for nearly 70 years. Though they are not organic, their orchard echoes Thousand Hills’ eat wild transparency. The orchard is open for regular touring, as they continually seek to be “ambassadors of local produce and local business.”
For Brown’s Orchard & Farm Market, the tie to the local land is as old as their establishment, and they look toward the future. Brown says that he understands “that children are growing up in an age where produce is brought in from far away.” Part of his mission is to “educate the children of the benefits of enjoying fruit grown at the peak of freshness locally.” To that end, Brown’s has an education coordinator, Sarah Lehman, who is part of a busy staff tasked with bringing to the wildness of their produce to the mouths of their customers, no matter their age. To help with this, the market hosts a slew of events throughout the summer, including storytimes, gardening camps, concerts, sip and dips, and much more.
Some tame with the wild?
Organic matters not to Dr. Jennifer Franceschelli Hosterman, Director of Nutrition and Weight Management at Geisinger Holy Spirit. “Local does not mean organic and vice versa,” she tells me. “Eating a well-balanced diet packed with healthy foods allows people to truly feel better.” She simply wants to have people eat wild more. That even permits people a place in their diet for foods treated with chemical pesticides. She’d rather see us eating fresh, local food than organic food sitting in the back of a truck for a week.
The growing eat wild movement has permeated its way to grocery food shelves as well. Holly Doan, In-Store Nutritionist at the Enola GIANT, said that “local produce is an exciting offering at GIANT food stores.” As the consumers become more educated, Doan states, they “want to know where their food is coming from.” While organic and local food accounts for less than 10 percent of total U.S. food sales, the eating wild industry “shows exponential growth.”
Still, Doan supports Cavanaugh’s idea that eating organic isn’t a solve-all. She believes it’s most important to “eat a diet rich and varied in fruits and vegetables, regardless of whether it has been grown locally, organically or conventionally.” No matter the source of the food, she warns all of us to spend some time washing our food at the sink before plating it. [see below.]
While Dr. Franceschelli Hosterman prefers pasteurized milk over raw milk, as raw dairy products could contain harmful bacteria like E. coli and Listeria — warning that babies, young children, pregnant mothers, seniors, and those with weakened immune systems should stay away — there’s room for raw milk in some palettes.
Oyler’s Organic Farms & Market in Biglerville, Adams County is one of the many locations to fill that demand. Offering raw milk and dairy in addition to certified organic fruits, eggs, vegetables, and grass-fed and pastured livestock, Oyler’s is on a mission to eat wild “In an ideal world,” notes Mary Ann Olyler, both “farmers would acknowledge that there is more than one way to produce food” as consumers also “become the bedrock of communities of food for generations to come.”
As parents look to turn away from agriculture that’s missing its “culture,” the “eat wild” alternative is very much alive and well, and very much in our own backyards.
Jake Miller is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Central Penn Parent. He is also a history teacher based in Mechanicsburg and the father of a toddler son.