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Want more local food? Then start making demands. Gathered around our picnic table in the fading sun, family and friends swoon over a late summer meal. Deviled eggs with garlic chives, pickled okra, crab cakes, sliced tomatoes with sea salt and basil, sweet corn on the cob, blueberry-peach cobbler. With each savory bite, I love divulging where I’d foraged these seasonal, local foods. “Foraged” being the key word.

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Finding local items can be a curse for foodies. Manteo Farmer’s Market swears you won’t go home hungry. PHOTO: Crystal Polston

The eggs? Bartered with a chicken-raising friend for teaching her yoga. The crab meat? Freshly picked in the waterside shack at Daniels Crab House. The okra got pickled at the Brine & Bottle. I plucked the peaches off a farm in Elizabeth City, purchased the blueberries at Tarheel Too and pulled the corn from the Manteo Farmers Market. My husband grew the herbs and tomatoes from seed. Even the Atlantic sea salt was hand-culled at Outer Banks Epicurean.

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I believe every meal tells a story. My favorites begin with some neighbor gathering delicious fare from our ocean, sounds and soil. It enjoys a short, sweet life before dying happy on some plate a few miles from its birthplace. Unfortunately, it’s that ending that often proves difficult. Most people don’t have hours to canvass produce stands, farmers markets, seafood stores and specialty shops; it’s simpler and cheaper to stop once at the grocery store. Even with the buying power of owning a restaurant, getting homegrown goods isn’t easy.

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“Lots of farmers are doing awesome things around us,” says Andrew Donovan of the Brine & Bottle restaurant in Nags Head. “But we can’t get it here; shipping costs are so prohibitive.”

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As a result, he and partner Ashley Whitfield must constantly hunt for organic local meats and produce at prices customers can afford. Donovan drives to Wanchese for freshly caught seafood, which would otherwise be shipped away for processing before returning to the beach.

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And they need all the help they can get, as food items follow strict regulations that are surprisingly prohibitive. “The county has not made it easy,” says Joanne Throne of Coastal Harvesters of Hatteras Island, a group devoted to bringing fresh produce to southern islanders. “We’re the only county in North Carolina that cannot sell fish at a farmers market.”

Every meal tells a story. The best TALES begin in our neighboring ocean, sounds and soil.

Meanwhile, the laws surrounding organic certification are so restricting and costly that farmers like John Wright of Sanctuary Vineyards will often follow organic practices — but forgo trying to become “certified organic.”

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“Until I opened a restaurant, I didn’t realize how hard it is to get local seafood and produce,” agrees Amy Huggins of Outer Banks Epicurean. “Every chance I get I’m online trying to find product or build relationships. We need to help farmers and fishermen get their products to us.”

Which brings us to the real culprit. Cost. No matter how far it travels — despite the added dollars in gas and refrigeration — it’s still less expensive to buy from big suppliers. (That’s why your chilled grapes started in Chile; it’s also why so much foreign seafood invades our own waterfront restaurants.) Still, cheap food comes at a price. “That shrimp from Thailand may be only $3.99 a pound,” notes Huggins, “but it’s been soaked in a bleaching solution and pumped up with chemicals. And while 85 percent of seafood Americans consume is imported, only 2 percent of that is inspected.” Clearly, buying fresh is better for you. But it’s also healthier for the Outer Banks. Supporting area fishermen supports our economy; buying from nearby farms maintains green spaces. Both strengthen community relationships. But it does take a little extra effort. And it takes staying informed. So, if you don’t know where your next meal came from, ask. Ask at the produce stand. Ask at the farmers market. Definitely ask at the seafood store. (That’s the whole reason behind Outer Banks Catch.) Tell restaurateurs and retailers that local food matters. Because change won’t happen unless consumers demand it. “You need to make friends with your vendors,” says Ivy Ingram, a dedicated localvore. “Talk to them. Let them know you’re interested in buying local.” The good news? Interest is growing as chefs and shops tap native sources, and fresh produce signs pop up everywhere. Nicole Spruill’s Coastal Farmers Co-Op works with 12 regional farmers, offering veggie boxes at drop-off points in Elizabeth City, Kitty Hawk, Ocracoke and Hatteras. Her take? “The demand has definitely been overwhelming.” Lucky for residents, demand drops as visitors finish summer vacations — prime time for produce and seafood. So go take advantage of the local bounty. Then go beyond. Eat in restaurants that focus on local fare. Drink locally made beer and wine. Grill regional beef. Lick a locally made Zen Pop. Drizzle local honey. Enjoy knowing the full life story of every meal from beginning to end — then go tell the stories of where these goods came from. — Molly Harrison

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