Lenny Russo on Why the Farm Bill Is All F*cked Up

In an article about Charles Billington, a University of Minnesota endocrinologist who also happens to be one of the nation’s leading obesity researchers, I mention that when Billington himself dines out, he goes mostly to Heartland, the little storefront bistro on St. Clair Avenue in St. Paul.

Why? Because Heartland’s gourmet Midwestern fare embodies just about every healthful practice he can name: the portions are appropriate; the food is wholesome, minimally processed, and varied; the slow-cooking methods tend to seal in nutrients (or leave them alone); and low-density foods such as vegetables often are the "star" of the meal.

After talking to the doctor, I went to visit Lenny Russo, owner and head chef at Heartland, to tell him what Billington had told me. There was a pause. Then an evil grin.

"Well, no shit," Russo says.

For five years, including an 11-month stint at Cue, Russo’s been beating the drum for locally raised and grown food, refusing to serve anything (with the exceptions of coffee, chocolate, and some spices) from outside a 250-mile radius of the Twin Cities. You’ll get elk, rabbit, bullfrog legs, root vegetables, trout, berries, mushrooms, and wild rice at Heartland. You will never eat salmon, lobster, pineapple, or macadamia nuts there. This way, Russo provides patrons with food that’s fresher and closer to the source while supporting the region’s growers and small family farms.

What’s more, everything he uses is produced according to organic or equivalent standards. In other words, Russo’s not so concerned about state certification; but he does care how the farmers treat their food. For instance, he won’t buy barn-fed beef.

"They take a cow and pull it out of the pasture where it’s been grazing on grass so its flesh has a perfect balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids," Russo explains. "Then they put it into a barn and feed it nothing but #2 corn and all the omega-3’s go away and what’s left is just a shitload of omega-6. Eating that kind of crap is what makes people unhealthy and fat."

Russo admits, however, that only a small segment of the population can afford to eat at his restaurant, where dinner tabs run about $60 per. That’s why he’s involved in several initiatives devoted to making the food supply better, purer, and healthier for everyone.

For the past year, Russo has been trying to establish a local food clearinghouse, where producers could bring their wares for sale to restaurants, grocery stores, and even private citizens. He supports family farmers and speaks and writes on the topic, preaching to people about the necessity of crop rotation and food-based growing. He was a vocal opponent of ethanol and commodity crops (particularly corn) long before the position was in vogue. And Russo is especially outspoken when it comes to policies that promote packaged, preservative-laden junk over whole foods.

"People on the lower end of the economic ladder who don’t have transportation have certain limitations as to what they can buy," he says. "They’re going to the convenience store on the corner and filling up their shopping carts with piles of cheap calories produced with high-fructose corn syrup and a bunch of ingredients you’d have to be a food chemist to understand."

It is, Russo believes, the fault of the government, and the Farm Bill in particular, that the economics of food has become so twisted and people are starving for nourishment inside bodies bloated with Twinkies, Doritos, and Coke.

"If the federal government cared about people or the land, they wouldn’t force us into all this commercialized agriculture so our food gets all fucked up." Russo — the grandson of a New Jersey boxer who speaks like Winston Churchill with a little Chris Rock thrown in — leans his beefy forearms on the table and glares.

"The farm bill is about who’s going to get a hand-out and that’s wrong. Supply side economics should not be about giving more money to the rich motherfuckers who already have enough. It should be about giving money to people on the lower end of the economic sector because they’re not going to invest it overseas, they’re going to spend it on clothes and food and pump it right back into the economy where it belongs."