No Small Feat: How a Local Food Conference Drives Big Change
SPINS finds inspiration all over the country in artisanal makers, culinary champions, and food activists, but it’s a special treat to find this experience near our headquarters in Chicago. Last month, our neighbors and partners at Family Farmed exhibited the 12th annual Good Food Festival and Conference, a three day affair showcasing and promoting the growth of local sustainable food from the Heartland.
SPINS’ CEO Tony Olson spoke on good food trends in Thursday’s Financing and Innovation session, which helps to connect sustainable start-ups to potential investors. Friday’s programs focused on food policy, school food, and trade, while Saturday’s festival featured a variety of demonstrations, DIY workshops, and informative talks to empower the public with food knowledge and new skills.
At SPINS, our mission is to increase the accessibility of quality foods that contribute to healthy and more vibrant living. In that spirit, we’re glad to share two powerful stories from the Good Food Festival and Conference that start small but grow into big impacts.
The New Way of Old Fashioned Grain
In the context of retail markets, the perception of food service as lower volume and therefore lower in impact is not altogether uncommon. But Family Farmed doesn’t see it that way. They put early adopter, high profile chefs and their farmer partners front and center in the conversation about sustainable change.
One such session featured local farmers, millers, and prominent bakers discussing scale in grain production. They examined the many challenges and nuances of nurturing high quality grain for artisan bread, linking even minute changes in soil chemistry to resulting aromas and flavors in flour. The boisterous panel of experts clamored through the hour with hardly a pause, exchanging sincere appreciation for one another’s work between questions.
One grower shared his particularly exciting story of scale, which started in Italy, landed in New York, and spread to Illinois. As Eataly planned to open its first American store in New York, buyers remembered meeting Don Lewis of Wild Hive Farm years before. They tested, loved, and began purchasing his old world grains for their vast selection of rustic breads.
Over the span of only six years, Lewis’s original 80 acres increased to an astonishing 600 acres of production, with a unique model of financial support from the hybrid restaurant-retail customer driving the growth.
When the Italian company prepared to open its second stateside location, this time in Chicago, buyers looked to Lewis once again. Lewis, ever the advocate of regional food systems, reached out to colleagues in the Midwest.
Today he helps Central Illinois growers understand Eataly’s specifications and meet its considerable demand for grain. As the unusual success story unfolded, palpable excitement filled the room, not least of all from the supportive community of growers and Lewis’s fellow panelists.
What Saving Seeds Means Today
As recently as 2014, the time-honored landscapes of community gardens, heirloom seed varieties, and local biodiversity felt the ground beneath them shift. Certain states, including Illinois, began to apply federal laws concerning seed exchanges and testing to small local seed libraries.
The legislation’s demands, designed for commercial enterprises trading in patented seed varieties, could force many community seed libraries to close. But these community groups aren’t cashing in on protected plants. Rather they facilitate the exchange of heirloom, open-pollinated, and unpatented seeds among neighbors, helping to preserve local food heritage since pre-war periods.
At the conference, community gardeners, environmental policy activists, and legislators convened on a panel aptly named “Our Seeds Are in Need.” The discussion raised a theme that is prevalent in so many contemporary food policy conversations – the need for scale-appropriate regulation.
Acknowledging this common obstacle, Illinois State Representative Will Guzzardi outlined a few steps to locate and engage those Congressional leaders most amenable to the cause. While affecting policy change can be daunting, he recognized, starting with a small manageable group such as the agriculture subcommittee can help advocates find a foothold more easily.
Citizens in Minnesota, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania succeeded in halting this legislation’s impact on their states’ seed libraries. Now the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, with a streamlined and tech-savvy call to action, empowers individuals with turnkey messaging and automatic electronic access to their local representatives.
The panel, a mix of government, growers, and policy leaders, cooperatively harnessed the power of individual and community channels into grassroots activism. Its focus was on saving seeds, but it also represents the ingenuity of this particular conference on the whole.
The concept of convening likeminded sustainable food advocates is simple, yet the Good Food Festival and Conference’s execution is masterful for the breadth of perspectives it brings together. Local food may start small, but the connections and collaborations forged at this gathering evolve into dynamic, impactful progress right before our eyes.