Without it, even the freshest, most flavorful foods can taste flat.

Without it, even the freshest, most flavorful foods can taste flat.

Salt is as essential to cooking and eating as the main ingredients it seasons, but for anyone looking to procure their entire pantry from local sources, this staple mineral can be frustratingly out of reach.

"There are so many little things that have become convenience foods, and that's one of 'em," says Mary Shaw, culinary educator for Ashland Food Co-op. "There really isn't anything else that does what salt does."

The necessity of salt has been only too apparent to past participants in the Eat Local Challenge, which kicks off Friday. More than a week of events are planned to promote locally grown and produced foods and to educate consumers, some of whom will swear off all foods — salt included — that didn't originate within a 200-mile radius of the Rogue Valley.

"It's been challenging for people," says Wendy Siporen, executive director of THRIVE, a nonprofit coalition of local businesses that initiated the challenge four years ago.

"In past years, we've left people a little bit more on their own."

But this year, in collaboration with Ashland Food Co-op, event organizers are rewarding everyone who takes the challenge with a token gift of salt, distilled from sea water collected near Port Orford. Fishermen have ferried the liquid to the Co-op, where Shaw and other staff extracted its essence.

"We are within 200 miles of one of the best sources of salt there is — the Pacific Ocean," Shaw says.

She volunteered to boil down more than 30 gallons of sea water to show the Co-op's support for challenge participants, particularly "purists" who agree to eat only from sources inside the local radius for the event's 10-day duration. In addition to about two tablespoons of salt, purists receive care packages of local wine and apple-cider vinegars, as well as dried herbs from Shaw's own garden, menu plans and recipes. There is no cost to take the pledge.

Anyone who participates at the "idealist" and "optimist" levels also receives a small envelope of salt, while supplies last. Idealists eat one meal per day made entirely from local foods while optimists aim for two of the week's meals to meet the mileage criteria. About 80 people had signed on for the challenge last Wednesday, the largest number in event history, says Siporen.

"We're riding this wave of interest in local food."

Although the number of events scheduled for the Eat Local Challenge has doubled to more than 50 within the past two years, personal pledges to take the challenge has decreased, a fact Siporen blames on inadequate exposure through the Internet and other media. This year, the Co-op's increased involvement included launching an online sign-up form and canvassing local farmers markets. Participants will be recognized at Saturday's Eat Local Festival at the Co-op's North First Street building in Ashland.

"There have been many years of effort to get where we are for this Eat Local week," says Annie Hoy, Co-op outreach manager.

The 38-year-old Co-op is marrying the Eat Local Challenge with its role in the nationwide Eat Local America, a promotion conceived by the National Cooperative Grocers Association. The local focus happened to coincide with Organically Grown in Oregon Week, designated by Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski as Sept. 14-20. The Co-op will be honored as "organic retailer of the year" at a Portland lunch with the governor, Hoy says.

"It's just one giant celebration for an entire week."

Yet organizers hope Eat Local participants take away an elevated consciousness about food and the local economy without becoming "absolutist or extreme," says Siporen.

"The point is, we can do it, and maybe it's not as hard as we think."

Participant Sooney Viani, 59, of Ashland, anticipates difficulties obtaining her cheese and meats from local producers and — as a "purist — has already come to terms with swearing off coffee, chocolate, capers and olives for the week. But the abundance of her own garden and larger growers' seasonal produce, Viani says, gives her hope for success.

"I don't think I'm gonna starve."

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