With the "eat local" bandwagon rapidly accelerating, a nonprofit business coalition is encouraging Rogue Valley residents to do more than just count "food miles."

With the "eat local" bandwagon rapidly accelerating, a nonprofit business coalition is encouraging Rogue Valley residents to do more than just count "food miles."

Starting Friday, the Eat Local Challenge offers dozens of events designed to showcase the region's growing food industry and, more importantly, the people behind it.

"It's about building community," says Wendy Siporen, executive director of THRIVE, the economic-development group behind Eat Local Challenge. "We're rebuilding the whole food system here."

Part of that mission entails educating children, not only to nurture the next generation's interest in farming, Siporen says, but to promote better consumer choices. While most challenge events are kid-friendly, several new ones at Medford's Kid Time! Discovery Space were crafted this year with children in mind.

The third-annual challenge also has expanded to many more venues in Grants Pass where, along with numerous locations in Jackson County, participants can sample local food products, take in free cooking demonstrations and attend fee-based classes. Kicking off with Friday's screening of "King Corn," a documentary decrying the effects of a corn-based food industry, the Eat Local Challenge runs through Sept. 14, wrapping up with the Rogue Flavor dinner and auction at RoxyAnn winery.

"I think there's just an increased awareness of localism that's really exciting," says Tracy Harding, manager of Saturday's session of the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in downtown Ashland.

The market's new Ashland presence provides another means for purchasing local food from 22 vendors, Harding says. Its July debut coincided with the market's addition of debit and credit machines, which come with a $1.50 service charge but allow shoppers the flexibility of using $5 tokens instead of cash, says Mary Ellen DeLuca, manager of Tuesday and Thursday markets.

Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market also honors Oregon Trail credits and exchanges them for $2 tokens that can be applied to items approved by the state's food-stamp program, including plants that produce food.

All three market sessions will host an event that Siporen says epitomizes the Eat Local Challenge. The Tomato Taste-Off invites market-goers to sample a variety of cherry, heirloom, hybrid and paste tomatoes. Gardeners can enter their produce to vie for the titles of tastiest, biggest and ugliest home-grown tomatoes. Winners will receive market gift certificates.

"The tomato is really symbolic of all the issues surrounding local food," Siporen says, adding that the fruit was among the first industrialized crops to undergo genetic engineering and is often shipped thousands of miles, both in and out of season.

"When you're eating locally, you're eating in season," Siporen adds.

Try peak-season tomatoes in the accompanying recipes judged as winners in The Washington Post's 2008 Top Tomato recipe contest, as well as recipes the Post solicited from professional chefs.

To choose tomatoes, look for depth and richness of color, not necessarily red (heirloom varieties, for example, could be pink, yellow or even green). Ripe tomatoes are usually heavy for their size and have a certain give, particularly low on the fruit; they'll also have that fresh tomato smell.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.