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Eat Your Greens

Microgreens, a costly garnish in gourmet restaurants, are in their element at a gala fundraising feast of local, organic food.

Not so much at a homeless shelter across town. But a small, start-up farmer in Medford, with help from government and nonprofit grants, is bringing diminutive versions of nutrient-dense greens to local food banks and community-meal programs.

"Maybe because they're precious and typically used as a garnish, they're not necessary conceived as a food source," says Kahty Chen Milstead, owner of Salad Days.

Offering little in the way of calories, microgreens are nevertheless rich in vitamins and minerals. Pea shoots, which Milstead delivers weekly to the Salvation Army's Hope House, contain seven times the vitamin C in blueberries and four times the vitamin A in tomatoes, according to the British website www.peashoots.com. And microgreens, says Milstead, require few resources to produce and little water.

"They're really good on sandwiches," says Milstead, adding that she also eats them in salads or on top of crackers with goat cheese.

Milstead's microgreens have been a mainstay of Hope House's salad bar for the past two months since Salad Days was awarded grants from the U.S Department of Agriculture and Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation. Residents of the transitional shelter have been largely appreciative of the pea and sunflower shoots, says kitchen manager Kelly Berggren.

"It kind of reminds me of a leaf outside in the woods," says 24-year-old Stephanie Lounsbury, "like a juicy leaf."

Shelter manager Debra Hobbs skipped the salad bar's browning iceberg lettuce mix and mounded her bowl solely with the greens.

"I eat 'em all the time; I like 'em," says Hobbs. "They're a lot fresher — a nice crunch to 'em."

The greens will keep for about a week, says Milstead. If Hope House residents don't consume them all fresh, says Berggren, they go in stir-frys. Salad Days' microgreens have been available since June through the online farmers market Rogue Valley Local Foods.

"It's just fun and different," says Wendy Siporen, executive director of the economic-development and food-advocacy group THRIVE, which operates Rogue Valley Local Foods as a nonprofit program.

"I'm thrilled we have a variety," says Siporen. "The staples sometimes can be boring."

The online market largely comprises staples, all from local farms and specialty food businesses that must source ingredients within the 100-mile radius of Medford. Based on a Eugene venture, Rogue Valley Local Foods was conceived earlier this year as a sales platform for participants in the Southern Oregon Farmer Incubator program, a collaboration between THRIVE and Oregon State University Extension.

Produce from Incubator participants, as well as other family farms, will have a place of prominence in this year's Rogue Flavor Dinner, THRIVE's main fundraising effort for the year, coinciding with its annual Eat Local Challenge week, Sept. 10-19. Some 100 guests will eat courses composed entirely of local ingredients prepared by local chefs. Previous years' events have raised $7,500 to $10,000 for THRIVE.

New this year, business sponsorship for each course ensures cash reimbursement for farmers' products instead of only recognition as donors. Featured foods, in addition to Salad Days microgreens, are pork from Ashland's Willow-Witt Ranch, produce from Applegate's Kurth Family Farms, chicken and rabbit from Wimer's Bradford Family Farm and peaches from Central Point's Old Stage Farm.

"It's sort of a culmination ... or a slice of everything we do as an organization," says Siporen.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.