Backstage Heroes: Local Foods Wheel Creators on Love and Locavores

Local Foods Wheel creators, from L to R: Jessica Prentice, Maggie Gosselin, and Sarah Klein. (Dianne Jones)

Bay Area culture has its unsung corners -- even in its much-touted food scene. Sometimes important work isn’t splashy, viral-marketed, or all over the blogs. Sometimes, it’s just two pieces of lightweight paperboard with a metal rivet in the center.

The Local Foods Wheel isn’t famous, exactly, but you’ll find one inside the home of anyone who likes food, tacked to the wall or magnetically attached to the refrigerator. It does the simple job of showing which foods are in season, month by month. The concentric circles, covered with tiny hand-drawn renderings of regional products, are a vital tool for the kitchen and shopping list of alert eaters around the Bay Area: The smaller top layer shows what items are available year-round, such as honey or radishes, while the bottom layer, revealed by the window in the top one, shows the fava beans, Dungeness crab, or tomatoes that only appear for a short time each year.

The SoCal local foods wheel.
The SoCal local foods wheel.

Because of the wheel's design, it's simple enough for a child to understand -- yet beautiful enough to be welcome in the most artful places. It’s well appreciated by the Bay Area, for example, at the Alice-Waters-helmed Edible Schoolyard Project. "The Local Foods Wheel is a wonderful tool for edible education," Director of Partnerships and Engagement Liza Siegler, "illustrating for students in a fun and clever way how to eat with the seasons wherever you live."

Ten years and 25,000-plus units into this project, six different regional Local Foods Wheels now exist: they cover the Bay Area, Southern California in both English and Spanish, the Upper Midwest, the Northeast, and recently, the Northwest, thanks to three women: illustrator Sarah Klein, designer Maggie Gosselin, and food expert/researcher Jessica Prentice.

Maggie Gosselin’s Mission District apartment is a marvel of cool light and gentle order. Gosselin welcomes me on a recent morning and offers coffee and fruit -- seasonal, of course. She tells me putting together a fruit plate is one of her favorite things to do as she tends to a high-octane pourover. Unsurprisingly, she’s also quite skilled at putting together a fruit plate. The green and fuchsia kadota figs, in particular, are consternatingly good. I can’t understand why they taste so exactly like honey.

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She might say it’s because they’re “at their peak,” meaning, in the ideal spot in their season. And whether it’s how to compose sweet plants on vintage porcelain, or when to look for kadota figs at Bi-Rite, Gosselin should know: Her background includes five years of work at the food mecca of the Ferry Building, a Masters' degree in Food Policy from Tufts, and five years working at the USDA. Keep in mind she’s only one-third of this project, and you’ll start to understand why the wheel is such a deceptively simple plethora of information.

The Local Foods Wheel creators in action.
The Local Foods Wheel creators in action. ( Dianne Jones)

Gosselin tells me the idea for the Wheel germinated in the Ferry Building, where she and Prentice both worked for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, which runs the Ferry Building farmers’ market (and many others), from 2003 to ’05, and realized consumers were somewhat undereducated where in-season foods were concerned.

I spoke with researcher and foodie star Prentice by phone the following day, and the two women's often-similar answers to my questions showed a collaboration fueled by a healthy love of food, but something with deeper roots, as well. As Prentice put it, “To eat asparagus in spring is meaningful. It feeds my need for meaning.”

“As the as the education director, it kind of drove me crazy,” Prentice tells me of their time at CUESA. “Because people would come up and ask ‘Where are the mangoes?’ Or they’d come in winter and say ‘Are there any blueberries?’ And I was like 'No, blueberries don’t grow in winter!'” Both women remember a seasonal-foods chart they made during that time, a linear, spreadsheet-based thing.

Gosselin says they were never satisfied with that chart, although they knew it was needed. “It didn’t convey the cyclical nature of the seasons. So Jessica had this idea to make something with moving parts.”

Prentice, meanwhile, first coined the term “locavore,” which she invented in 2005. She says that oddly enough, the term called out its own necessity. When she created the neologism, “There was a lot of press around it, and it really became clear that a lot of people just don’t know what’s local, and have a limited view of what local foods are and can be.” She looped in Gosselin and animator-illustrator Klein, who was then part of the kitchen of the Headlands Center for the Arts , another Bay Area food focal point -- and the Wheel was born.

In the ensuing 10 years, over 70 stores have stocked it, new items have been added, and the three have grown in their awareness of what local foods are and can be. The imminent new edit of the Bay Area Wheel, for example, will include bay nuts and elderberries, among other foraged goods.

When I suggest the project must really rake in money, Gosselin nearly chokes on a slice of Asian pear (Allard Farms, Castro Farmers’ Market). “Tens of dollars a year!” she laughs; Prentice affirms the accuracy of this estimate. When asked why they do it, then, Gosselin uses the word “love” twice in four seconds, while Prentice uses it four times in two seconds.

“It’s a labor of love,” Gosselin says, explaining that she intends to keep working on the Local Foods Wheels for as long as she can, just for the joy of working with her partners, because “I love them!”

Prentice, once again, on the echo: “Partly it’s because we just love it. And people who love it, really love it. And we all love each other, too.” The public loves the Local Foods Wheel for other reasons, of course, and the three co-creators are well aware. “It feels like we’re making a contribution. Something that’s needed.”

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