Food for Thought: The Case for a Local, Farm-Fresh Diet

Oral health is health. That’s a phrase that we repeat often at Delta Dental of Arizona because it’s true. Toothbrushing, exercising and eating right, they all affect our overall health. That’s why we’re kicking off a new blog series, Food for Thought, where we sit down with local chefs and foodies around the Valley to talk about mouth-healthy ingredients and the rock-star things they’re doing for our local Arizona communities.

First up is Patty Emmert, director for Slow Food Phoenix and the community relations and marketing manager for Duncan Family Farms, a certified organic farm specializing in leafy greens and veggies. Patty joined the farm in 2010 when owners Kathleen and Arnott were getting ready to reinvent their brand. Realizing that people didn’t know where their food came from, they wanted to combine their passion for farming and education to reach the community in a whole new way. Enter Patty. Since joining the farm, she’s worked to increase the brand’s identity, develop marketing for the farm’s community outreach programs and help launch a Duncan Family Farms brand of herbs that will hit retail shelves in Arizona soon.

To sum it up, Patty is a busy woman. When we arrive at the farm, Patty is talking with co-workers about new shirts they’re ordering for the staff. Head counts, logo design…it’s obvious that she wears a lot of hats around the office. 

“We’ve launched a whole health and wellness initiative for our employees,” Patty excitedly tells me. “We have on-site dentists come in and last year we focused on healthy eating habits. “This year is all about moving and exercise. We’ve worked with a nutritionist who is bilingual and does a lot with the Hispanic community. She can speak across both communities we have on staff.” 

As busy as Patty is working with employees and on community outreach, she’s warm and inviting and eager to talk about her love of food and why local farms are “great community builders.”

JA: How did you come to work with food? What led you down this career path?

PE: Food has always been my passion. As a young girl, as soon as I could read, I’d sit on the kitchen counter and read cookbooks. I had a catering business for 20 years and I’ve always been involved in food in one way or another. But once I got involved in the growing side of things, I never looked back because it’s challenging and rewarding. It’s always changing. It’s never the same. And everybody has to eat.

JA: Could you talk a little bit about why you and Duncan Family Farms believe in producing “healthy, life-giving food?”

PE: Our culture is what sets up apart. We have a really good team of people, and it’s truly a triple bottom line company. Taking care of our communities and the environment are just as important as the actual bottom line. And when I say “communities” I mean our team members, our customers, the community we farm in, everybody that we touch we really do have a personal relationship with.

JA: Can you tell me more about the community initiatives that are important to the farm?

PE: It’s so important for people of all economic backgrounds to have access to quality food. At the very basic level, it’s making sure people have access to foods that are healthy and will make them feel good. Arizona has one of the worst food insecurity challenges in the nation. How can children go to school and focus and learn when they are hungry? It’s a basic human right. So, one thing we’ve always done is work hand in hand with food banks.

JA: What trends are you noticing in restaurants and in the way people are eating now?

PE: The biggest change we’re seeing is in the plant-based diets where fruits and veggies are becoming the center of the plate. Health is driving a lot of that. People are much more in tune to their health. This is driving a higher consumption of fruits and veggies. People thought local production would be a passing fad, but local has become a hard trend. People want to see more variety or foods that are indigenous to their local area. Learning to eat with the cadence of the seasons brings you a higher flavor profile. So local equals better nutrient content. And people have really expanded their pallets now because they’re exposed to various cuisines.

JA: What’s your favorite cuisine to cook?

PE: Salads! I like making different kinds of salads where you utilize grains or beans.

JA: What’s your favorite healthy ingredient to cook with in Springtime?

PE: I love fennel because it’s basically available year-round and it has a really nice licorice flavor to it. I’ll take really thinly sliced fennel with citrus and make a salad using lemon juice and a really good olive oil and salt and pepper. Then I’ll top it with shaved watermelon radishes. I love it because it’s a clean dish and I’ll make that for breakfast or lunch or even a side dish. When you have that color and visual presentation, it just makes you want to eat it.

JA: Dark leafy greens like those grown on the farm are very mouth-healthy because they contain a lot of calcium, which builds your teeth’s enamel. How do you like to cook with them?

PE: I like finding ways to bring them into breakfast dishes. I’m not a big sweets person for breakfast. When you look at other cultures, their breakfast dishes are very savory. So sometimes I’ll make a breakfast salad using eggs.

JA: What a cool way to use more greens! Who do you admire in your industry that’s doing something unique as well?

PE: Alice Waters. She’s made such an impact on food in America. But I also look at people like Dan Barber, who is really changing things through his books and activism. They’re trying to look at how a farmer can be productive and have an income year-round. They’re looking at how you bring a rotation of all usable and edible plants into the system.

JA: Are you from Arizona? If so, what do you love about our state?

PE: I’ve been here pretty much my entire life. I love the diversity that we have in our state. You can go up north and be in the mountains in two hours. But the desert is also just beautiful.

JA: Is there any one thing a home cook can do to up their game?

PE: It boils down to buying or finding sources of food that are local and in season. Because when you buy quality product that is local, and I don’t mean that quality has to equal expensive, you get a super high flavor profile and then you really don’t need to do a lot to your food at all. For example, I picked up some fresh green beans from a local farm down the road and cooked them up last night. I steamed them and ate them right from the steamer. They were sweet and nothing like what you would find from a can. Understanding what is seasonal is the best thing a home cook can do.

JA: What does eating healthy mean to you? Why is it important?

PE: To me, it’s not about a particular diet or restricting calories, it’s about moderation. It’s about incorporating more fruits and veggies. I’m not somebody that wants to subscribe to being too restrictive. Eat mostly lean proteins, fruits, veggies and whole grains.

Patty’s Recipe for Shaved Fennel and Citrus Salad

Ingredients:

  • large fennel bulb
  • 1 cup of arugula or spring mix greens
  • 1 watermelon radish, sliced thinly
  • 2 oranges
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper

Instructions:

  1. Shave the fennel with a very sharp knife and combine with arugula or spring mix in a serving bowl.
  2. Cut one orange into segments and combine with the fennel and greens.
  3. Slice the watermelon radish into thin rounds and add to the fennel and greens.
  4. Zest and juice the other orange into a bowl and whisk in the olive oil, salt and pepper until well combined.
  5. Pour the dressing over the salad mixture and toss together.
  6. Serve and enjoy!

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