Are they ahead of us? Are we in a better position for the future than them? Whatever, this is a great read on the one of the most vital topics facing our cities as we transition to a low energy, local future
We Are What We Eat: A Look at Our Local Food Ecosystem
Last week, Soapbox partnered with the UC Niehoff Urban Studio and the Urbanists to kick off the first edition of a four part speaker series designed to address urban sustainability issues. Our first entrée? Fittingly, food.
We started off with a simple, basic premise – Homegrown food is good for you. But its value and power transcend basic nutrition. As urban cities experienced decline in the 20th century, access to fresh, local produce, and simply prepared food gave way to unhealthy fast food and corner markets with scant a vegetable in sight. We wanted to know what it takes to re-create a culture of fresh, healthy food. And how do we as urbanists help to ensure it’s a sustainable enterprise?
To lead the discussion we invited some local thought leaders on food. Thomas Acito, owner of Cafe de Wheels and member of the Cincinnati Food Truck Alliance, Joanne Drilling, the new executive chef at Murphin Ridge Inn, Matt Ewer, owner of Farm Fresh Delivery, and Karen Kahle, Resource Development Director, Corporation for Findlay Market gathered to share their thoughts and answer our questions. Mary Stagaman, Associate Vice President, External Relations at the University of Cincinnati, served as our guide.
Stagaman began the discussion asking about the importance of a food ecosystem. Sounds complex, but a food eco-system isn’t as contrived as it might sound. Drilling said it could be the simplest, aggregate of things revolving around ‘community.’
“A neighborhood where a whole bunch of different things are happening. Farmers growing, greenhouses, chef owned restaurants, wine bars, farmers markets and all the citizens who are eating there.”
Ewer said an ecosystem is all about access. “Systems that allow local food to get in the community to connect,” he said. In Cincinnati’s ecosystem, Ewers considers top soil “our greatest resource.” Ewer is the owner of Farm Fresh Delivery, an online home delivery service that provides organic produce and natural groceries to its members. For a healthy ecosystem Ewer said, “it comes down to family farms.”
Another important role in a food eco-system is the food consumer. Kahle, Resource Development Director of Findlay Market, grew up in Northwestern Ohio and was the granddaughter of farmers. She pointed out the food is more than just nutrition.
“We all eat and since it’s something we all do, it brings people together and it’s something we can all enjoy,” Kahle said.
So how do we create that community in our urban neighborhoods? Drilling, who trained with local celebrated chef Jean Robert de Cavel, and previously helmed the kitchens at Lavomatic and Slims, is now decidedly out in the country as the new executive chef at a popular Adams County bed and breakfast, Murphin Ridge Inn. However she said similar lessons about an urban food ecosystem can be learned from the small Amish community where Murphin Ridge is located.
“Murphin Ridge is in the middle of an Amish community called Unity. Their lifestyle lends itself to a really close community. We get great dairy products and eggs, every kind of vegetable and food imaginable. They’re reinvesting in their community,” she said.
Once we recognized our community components, all agreed that education of where our food comes from is an important part of understanding how we eat and what we eat.
Ewer remarked that there’s an old adage, “Heat doesn’t come from the furnace and food doesn’t come from the grocery store,” that exemplifies how little we all know about where our food comes from today. All agreed that getting your hands a little dirty or at least seeing a little dirt with your produce is important.
Acito, who grew up in New York, came about his appreciation for fresh produce somewhat organically.
“I was always used to bad food in the winter – it was hard to get produce. So I got into gardening and got into greenhouses. I always enjoyed growing things,” Acito said. That ‘homegrown’ education lent itself to a more simplified sense of food preparation for Acito. It didn’t have to be complex, just fresh.
Acito practices what he preaches, literally by bringing food back to urban inner city streets. His popular Café de Wheels food truck was inspired by his time in Los Angeles working in the film industry.
“Food trucks were a large part of the culture I worked in. They were originally designed to feed cast and crew on location. I wanted a restaurant but it was out of my reach and a food truck wasn’t. Now we do everything fresh, everything local. We shop a lot and often.”
Creating an appreciation of food through education is one thing. Another part of the discussion is about access. So how do we bring farm fresh produce to urban communities? Greater Cincinnati hosts a handful of farmer’s markets in addition to Findlay Market’s routine hours. Kahle noted that five years ago Findlay had a farmers market one time a week with 17 growers. Now the market routinely works with 60 growers five days a week. Kahle says farmer’s markets might be the greatest conduit for attracting better food consumers and the best way to improve the daily lives of urban dwellers.
“It’s an extraordinary time for public markets. They’re catalysts for affecting regional health and build community. They also create opportunities for economic development.”
Furthering the thought of an interdependent ecosystem, Ewers said that the markets and family farms need consistent consumers to sustain themselves. Fresh, locally grown produce is not inexpensive, making it a challenging choice for local restaurants, who form a symbiotic relationship with local farms. “The farms won’t be here without the restaurants,” Ewer said.
The panel agreed that another important part of the ecosystem and the ability to bring farm fresh produce to urban communities is education.
“In the toughest neighborhoods there is no one organizing a farmers market so we have the problem where restaurants are important but we need to feed people good, sustainable food,” according to Drilling.
Ewer agreed. “In our urban communities we’ve grown further and further away from organic food. There is a disconnect.”
Kahle noted that last year only $1,500 subsidized dollars were spent at the Market, sending a clear signal that some inner city residents were not spending their food dollars on fresh produce. Kahle said the Market created a new program called Snap Plus with funding from the P&G Foundation. Snap Plus provides incentives for lower income residents to shop in the market by matching five dollars for every five dollars spent.
“We have a two tiered system of food where folks of low income can only afford processed food and don’t have the access and opportunity. We hope to add to the nutrition and health to those who can’t afford to buy local food,” Kahle said. “We’re showing them how to cook, store and buy. We hope through the incentive that they’ll realize it tastes better and makes them feel better.”
Acito said passing on information about how to cook fresh, local food is equally important.
“Teaching people how to cook is a great thing. I grew up in an Italian neighborhood and we made pizza, I never ate fast food. Most of the stuff sold in foodie stores chefs never use. It’s a myth, you just need basics and you need to teach them how to use them. “
Part of the plan is Findlay’s Urban Garden at the corner of Elm and Liberty which not only provides fresh produce for the market, but teaches inner city residents the basics of growing and selling produce. And Kahle thinks there’s even a more important lesson for the future.
“People have lost that connection between where their food comes from. The eco garden is doing a good job of teaching them about growing food and selling food. We have to be a partner with them. To the extent kids can be reconnected they’ll be some of our future farmers and driving the changes in the infrastructure around us.”