Taking the Temperature of the Local Food Movement

by | Jun 21, 2017

No longer just a trend among counter-culture enthusiasts, the local food movement now has a firm grip on mainstream society and is steadily picking up speed. It’s never been easier to adopt a plant-based diet or learn about raw foods and juicing, get one-on-one instructions for creating healthy meals using local produce and flavorful seasonings, join a community garden or find community supported agriculture programs or farmers’ markets that vend local, organic produce. Hydroponics and aquaponics are no longer foreign concepts and finding local restaurants that feature vegetarian and vegan entrées prepared from local ingredients is not that difficult. Southwest Florida is no exception. From increased attention to population health by large employers such as Lee Memorial Health Care Systems and the Collier and Lee county health departments to the enthusiasm of professionally trained health coaches and personal chefs, as well as vegan and raw foods meet-up groups, awareness of the need to build the foundation of our health outside of the industrial food system has come into clear focus.

Population Health

Deborah Chesna, a health educator and program consultant at the Collier County Health Department, is tasked with reducing the incidence of obesity, other chronic diseases and inactivity. “Some of the tools I use to promote healthy lifestyles, in addition to the Friday farmers’ market, are a newsletter that includes health tips and recipes, a user-friendly HealthyCollier.org website and smart growth principles that can provide for a healthier, more livable and sustainable infrastructure,” says Chesna. Since 2010, Lee Memorial Health System, in Fort Myers, one of the largest in Florida, has been investing in the creation of a wellness culture focused on prevention. Dr. Sal Lacagnina, vice president of health and wellness, points out several significant steps the organization has taken. “Our voluntary wellness exams have had priceless returns—detection of serious undiagnosed health issues such as early stages of cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. The changes in our cafeteria and café menu now reflect better nutrition,” he says. The latest program, Savor the Flavor, is intended to raise awareness of the benefits of a plant-based diet as identified in The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-Term Health. Additionally, lunch-and-learn programs, wellness coaches and educational seminars on nutrition are aspects of programs designed to educate employees on how to become consumers of healthier food.


Formed prior to 2006, the Naples Living Foods Group, a raw foods meet-up of more than 500 enthusiasts, gathers monthly to enjoy potlucks, listen to speakers or view and discuss documentaries, such as Fat Sick & Nearly Dead, The World According to Monsanto, and Vanishing of the Bees. “We also host lectures given by individuals such as Dr. Brian Clement, director of the Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach [Florida], Dr. Craig Sommers, author of The Raw Foods Bible, and Brenda Cobb, founder of the Living Foods Institute, in Atlanta, Georgia. We frequently partner with the Fort Myers Living Foods Group, which has about 300 members,” says Lisa Tomasi, event organizer for the Naples group. Linda Berson’s Green Scene Vegans meet-up group includes 98 health seekers, the majority of which also belong to the Fort Myers Living Foods Group. The group’s guide is Berson’s book, The Green Scene Diet, which is based on plant-based nutrition and cuisine. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr. M.D., T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., and Neal Barnard, M.D., president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, endorse the book. Each makes an appearance in Forks Over Knives, a documentary about preventing and reversing disease with a whole-food, plant-based diet. “Once a month we have a potluck of raw, vegan and vegetarian foods,” explains Berson. “We learn about nutrition, cooking and living the plant-based lifestyle that my husband and I enjoy.”

Eating Out

“Our most recent meet-up was at Naples’ newest restaurant, The Local, with farm and sea-to-table cuisine,” enthuses Berson, who like Tomasi, is always in search of healthy items on restaurant menus. “We challenged Chef Brian to prepare us a meal consisting of whole and plant-based foods with no oil. The results were outstanding.” Food & Thought’s organic café, in Naples, and Chef Brooke’s Natural Café, in Fort Myers, are first choices that both Berson and Tomasi enjoy. At The Mercato, in Naples, AZN’s Azian Cuizine is a favorite, as well as Brio Tuscan Grille at The Waterside Shops, in Pelican Bay, and the Yabba Island Grill, in downtown Naples. Other local options include the Happiness Healthy Café, in Fort Myers, as well as Truly Organic Pizza, Whole Foods Market, Earth Origins Market and Loving Hut—all in Naples. Brooke, whose restaurant specializes in organic comfort food with healthy options, teaches weekly wheat-free, gluten-free cooking classes and raw food classes. The one-hour demonstration includes six to eight recipes that people eat family-style. “I only have 11 tables and the customers typically sign up for the next class. People are hungry to learn and absorb as much information as they can,” says Brooke.

Hydroponics and Aquaponics

Robert Furhman, owner of Green Thumb, in Fort Myers, retails hydroponics systems. At least once a day someone calls his store to inquire if he sells aquaponic systems like the one used in the sustainability curriculum of Island Coast High School, in Cape Coral, which is meeting the need for industry-specific certifications and training for jobs that create a sustainable future. “I see the interest in these systems as the result of a growing concern about GMO foods and toxic pesticides, which are subjects that all of my customers talk about,” says Furhman.

Educational Opportunities

Arlo Simonds and Jessi Drummond are service learning coordinators for Florida Gulf Coast University’s one-half-acre Food Forest. Since May 2011, 15 to 20 students have gathered twice a week for five hours to work in the food forest and learn about sustainable agriculture and permaculture principles. The plot grows 48 different tropical and sub-tropical fruit species, root crops, legumes and several native species. The food forest also serves as a living classroom for the university’s Permaculture Design certification course. A healthy lifestyle focused around nutrition-based prevention is what Sayer Ji, the creator of the GreenMedInfo.com website, emphasizes in his local EATomology workshops. “Hippocrates said more than 2,000 years ago, ‘Let food be thy medicine,’ and it’s obvious today from our healthy local food movement that many of us are only embracing this truth, but also exploring how we can make it work in our lives,” says Ji.


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