Saturday, March 23, 2013
I am one of the many Seattleites trying to reshape the way I purchase food to support the sustainable locavore food model. Yet despite the fact that Seattle is such a major center for this movement, my fiance and I had to travel all the way to Chicago to find a conference truly dedicated to the movement. Over St. Patrick's Day weekend, Chicago held its annual Good Food Festival and Conference, where “food patriots”— a term coined by Chicago filmmaker Jeff Spitz—share how they are revitalizing local food production. Through a weekend of speaker panels, workshops, food tastings, and farmer exhibition booths, members of Chicago's sustainable food movement demonstrated every possible facet of engaged local food production. From making kombucha and craft beers at home to starting food co-ops and creating new models of land tenure, Chicagoans are leading the way in creating a strong, empowering connection between urban areas and nearby farms. The weekend kicked off with a trade show that was more like a gigantic indoor farmers market. Farmers, food producers, and food co-op owners from Illinois and neighboring parts of Wisconsin set up booths to educate the public about what they do, as well as to sell some excellent cheeses, yogurts, kombucha, salamis, and hot sauces. Many of these food makers later hosted workshops on everything from sausage making to herb drying. On the first evening of the conference, restaurants set up booths for the Localicious food tasting. Over 40 Chicago restaurants, craft brewers, and spirit makers served some of the most amazing food and drink I have ever tasted. From gluten-free ravioli made of roasted beets to fizzy kombucha cocktails, Chicago foodies ate and drank their way around the trade show room to the music of Chicago's outstanding Sunnyside Up bluegrass string band. The two key words on everyone's lips as they savored the amazing flavors were “purchasing power”. Businesses and organizations all over Illinois are taking a more active, conscious approach to how their food purchasing power is used. Chicago's public schools, which serve more food than all the restaurants in Chicago combined, are creating demand for local farm products in the form of millions of school lunch dollars. Chicago's McCormick Place Convention Center, America's largest convention center, is utilizing its purchasing power to showcase organic local food at every conference and party it hosts. Even Illinois WalMart stores are now selling produce grown by local farmers. These are excellent examples of how preexisting organizations and businesses can be used to reshape America's way of producing food. Smaller community groups in Chicago are also working with existing businesses to bring change in poor neighborhoods suffering disproportionately from the obesity epidemic. These neighborhoods tend to be“food deserts”, where the nearest grocery stores are too far away for most residents to travel to. In wealthier neighborhoods, residents might address this issue by starting a food co-op, but poorer neighborhoods lack the financial resources to get a co-op off the ground. This is why groups like the Healthy Corner Store Project (HCSP) are working to bring fresh produce in to the neighborhood in alternative ways. HCSP provides neighborhood convenience stores with grants of $2500 to buy the shelving and refrigeration units they need to sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Another group, the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, persuades grocery stores in poor neighborhoods to start carrying healthy food products, such as quinoa. In-store cooking demonstrations teach customers how to integrate these new foods into daily meals. One of the most fascinating solutions Chicago neighborhoods have come up with are mobile produce markets, which convert buses into produce-stores-on-wheels. These mobile groceries park in strategic areas of food deserts, giving residents a place to buy locally grown healthy food. Illinois has also become a leader in using the sustainable food movement to address local economic challenges. Currently, 46 billion food consumption dollars leave Illinois every year, while only $2 billion are spent on food grown within the state. The increase of local farms over the past few years aims to reverse that flow of dollars to keep money inside Illinois. This creates economic stimulation at all levels of the food supply chain. Vacant lots converted to urban farm plots are providing extra jobs here and there for poor communities suffering disproportionately high unemployment. At the retail level, the rise of farmers markets, food co-ops, and lots converted to green spaces has a stimulating effect on neighboring businesses. Farmers markets bring in “sticky dollars”, since customers also do shopping at neighboring businesses while the farmers market is in session. A similar effect is seen when food co-ops are formed. For every $1000 customers spend at a food co-op, an additional $1600 is generated as the co-op purchases supplies and infrastructure material from local businesses. Even just the creation of a new green space or a healthy food store causes property values to go up for the entire neighborhood. According to Jason Navota of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Chicago is expecting a 25% population growth by 2040. This means that Illinois farmers will be competing with developers for access to land. As large Illinois soybean and corn farmers parcel off land to sell, a unique opportunity also arises for aspiring farmers to buy small plots. This is one unexpected benefit of land parcelling; large, expensive pieces of land that currently grow soy and corn to feed livestock can be converted into smaller, more affordable units for growing fresh produce for humans. However, competing with developers for even a small land purchase is still a major challenge for new farmers, so organizations such as the Liberty Prairie Foundation, the American Farmland Trust, and Open Lands have stepped forward to fill the gap. These organizations are able to purchase land parcels and hold them until ownership rights can be purchased by local governments or farmers. These organizations have the money and time to negotiate land deals on behalf of small farmers, and are able to develop strategies for stripping away land development rights to create permanently protected farmland. Once land is secured, there is the challenge of helping new farmers finance infrastructure, Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certifications, and produce transport to markets. Groups such as the Kane County Farmland Protection Program are helping farmers organize co-ops, apply for government funding, or find private sector partners, such as Whole Foods, to meet these needs. Alongside all this talk on food and farming policy, there were plenty of people at the conference demonstrating how individuals can change the food system from their own kitchens and communities. Founders of the Dill Pickle Co-op and The Sugar Beet Co-op spoke on how to start a neighborhood co-op. NessAlla Kombucha gave a witty and playful workshop on making kombucha at home. The country's most renowned fermentation master, Sandor Katz, demonstrated how to make sauerkraut at home using the old European tradition of salt, vegetables, and naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria, with no canning or vinegar involved. He dispelled the myth that all bacteria is dangerous or undesirable, and urged the audience to help end the blind, uniformed “war on bacteria” that is doing us more harm than good in this age of hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soaps. The conference also featured two film screenings. Food Patriots is Chicago filmmaker Jeff Spitz's humorous tale of how his family brought empowered food production to their own backyard, and how this led them to start building connections with local urban farmers, composters, community organizers, nutritionally astute football coaches, and others involved in the sustainable food movement. The second film, Genetic Roulette, directed by Jeffrey Smith of the Institute for Responsible Technology, is an exposé of how genetically modified foods affect human health. The film features interviews with scientists from the Union of Concerned Scientists, many of whom had their careers threatened when they alerted the American public of what profit and political motives are doing to our food system. Despite the alarming content of the second film, I left the conference feeling more hopeful than I have in years for the future of food and agriculture in this country. Although there is still so much to change, none of us is alone in doing so. Food Patriots from Seattle to Chicago are uniting on the delicious journey to sustainable, healthy, meaningful local food.