Note: This summary is from my newest post on The Snap Blog, where I will be blogging going forward.
When I blur my eyes, I see sustainable food on every kitchen table. The ramifications of this vision are tremendous, which is why pursing it is not for the faint of heart or timid. The obstacles are equally substantial, starting with an entrenched and massive industrial food system.
I’m guessing by now that at least some of you may have thought I fell off the face of the earth. Close.
Instead, about six months ago I jumped feet first into my own ProFood venture – Sugarsnap located in Burlington, Vermont’s Intervale. Candidly, I had no idea how consuming this transition was going to be and expected to continue writing on a regular basis.
Well, after putting together a comprehensive business plan and private placement memorandum, I am happy to report that we have nearly completed our initial fund raising, and will soon accelerate our expansion plans. These changes are allowing me to start breathing again about the critical issues addressed at Every Kitchen Table.
The exciting part is that I am now partnering with some great people that have their own stories to tell. So, with this post I am formally merging Every Kitchen Table into The Snap Blog, the official blog of Sugarsnap.
You will once again see me posting on a regular basis, and will get the added benefit of reading the well-informed thoughts of my Sugarsnap partners. It may take us a couple months to hit our stride, but rest assured we will and the content will be great.
Like any good entrepreneur, I believe there are always better ways to do something. In this particular case, I have identified five ways to improve Eat Local Challenges to ensure they best achieve their desired objectives. Before sharing those suggestions, let’s make sure we’re on the same page regarding why such challenges exist in the first place.
Ask 10 people why they eat local and you’re bound to get 10 or more different answers. In Burlington, Vermont, where my family just completed its weeklong “eating local” adventure, the reason for the challenge was loosely described as:
“Help keep your community thriving by being becoming a Localvore! We love Vermont and want to keep as much business as possible in our wonderful home! Anytime you buy locally grown or produced products, you keep money and jobs in Vermont.”
In the Mad River Valley of Vermont, where its localvore chapter is well known, its Eat Local Challenge the week before Burlington’s had the following objective:
“The Eat Local Challenge is an event where participants pledge to eat only locally grown and produced foods. Participants will have the option of choosing to pledge by the meal (one or more meals), by the day (one or more days), or for the entire week.”
Notice a pattern?
Perhaps it’s unique to Vermont, but it seems that the primary reason for participating in an Eat Local Challenge is because it’s a good thing or the right thing to do for your community and the regional economy. Not bad, but after spending a week in the trenches with my family, I’m convinced we need a better objective. Here’s my suggestion:
To fundamentally change the region’s food system – from seed to plate – to ensure locally grown, raised and processed food is widely available and easy for consumers to find and purchase from regionally-owned retailers.
Think about that for a minute.
Rather than simply joining a challenge to feel good, shouldn’t we be doing so with the intent of demanding change and reinforcing those demands with our actions and dollars? If everyone involved, from the farmer to the processor to the family of six is thinking “fundamental change”, then that is what they will be talking about, brainstorming about and working toward.
With that objective in mind, here are the five things I believe must change or be improved to make every Eat Local Challenge successful in driving permanent change in our regional food systems.
Season-Long Challenge – In today’s hectic, go-go world, people need time to ease into new ideas. That is why I’m recommending that Eat Local Challenges begin when school gets out and go through the autumn harvest. Giving people the chance to get their feet wet, try new foods, try growing and preserving their own food, etc. will go a long way in winning their hearts, minds, pocketbooks and, most important, ongoing commitment to local foods.
Food System Coordination – With a longer window to positively impact behaviors, it will be critical that more food chain businesses participate and promote the Challenge to keep in front and center in people’s minds. Farmers markets and CSA programs are two great places to reinforce the Challenge, as are restaurants and food retailers (thinking weekly Challenge Specials). The point is that by aligning the Challenge with most of the growing season, we make eating local a bigger, more visible part of everyday life.
Shades of Local Labeling – Possibly my biggest frustration with eating local is finding local food, beyond produce, which at times can be a little challenging as well. My suggestion is to develop a Challenge labeling structure that allows farms, processors and retailers to help direct consumers to foods containing all or some local ingredients that were partially or completely processed within the Challenge radius (typically 100 miles). The highest marks and “most attractive” label would go to products that were 100 percent grown/raised and processed (if applicable) in the region and sold by a retailer that is 100 percent regionally owned. You could throw “organic” or some other sustainable criteria on top for good measure. You would also provide labels for “Shades of Local,” which would allow products with greater than 50 percent local traits to be considered the next best alternative.
Peak Week Celebrations – Rather than have the Challenge be a single week, where by the time it is over most people are just getting their legs under them, why not have the season-long challenge culminate in a Peak (Harvest) Week celebration? Participating consumers would go for the 100 percent local diet during this week, which they would hit in stride, with the added bonus of people coming together to celebrate the Challenge, food producers, retailers and each other.
School District Involvement – Given our kids will likely be back in school when the Peak Week hits, and given my kids first-hand experience with school lunch hours, it will be ideal to have the region’s school dialed in on the challenge. While they may not be able to alter their lunch menus much, they like retailers could draw attention to the “localness” of menu items. In addition, they could actively promote the Challenge and encourage teachers and students to do their part to raise awareness and increase consumption of local foods.
Now imagine this happening every year and capturing more participants from all walks each time around. The real, measurable impact in every region employing such an approach will make it all worthwhile, especially as permanent, year-round, regional food options become more available. Think of it as an upwardly spiraling regional food economy. Get the picture?
Of course there is one problem my regions will face in trying to implement these suggestions – lack of resources.
That is why I am recommending that local food retailers drive this more advanced version of Eat Local Challenges based on its potential to serve their bottom line interests, while equally benefiting the regional food economy.
To be clear, when I say “local food retailers” I’m talking about locally-owned stores, not your “friendly” national-owned, 50,000-square-foot, 45,000-item supermarket just around the corner. Such businesses need not apply.
While the purpose of the Eat Local Challenge in Burlington, Vermont seems clear enough – help support our local food economy, the commitment asked for is somewhat open to interpretation. Each individual decides his or her comfort level of becoming a “localvore” for a day, the week or longer.
As I mentioned yesterday, how one approaches an eat local challenge will have a big impact on what they take away from it, which is why I think it is important to jump fully in so that the individual or family participating will grow their appreciation for what needs to be done to increase the consumption of local foods.
Having said that, I also talked yesterday about easing into this sort of effort, since the last thing any of us wants is for someone to be discouraged by their efforts. As the week progresses, I can see how that might happen, so I have yet another suggestion for the organizers to consider.
One of the difficulties in eating local is finding local products to substitute for non-local foods people are accustom to eating. Primarily, I’m talking about processed and preserved foods within the perishable perimeter of conventional food stores. Assuming such local products are available, which may not be the case as often as us “localvores” might like, how do you find the products? How can you tell whether the ingredients inside are local?
You can’t, generally speaking, unless the food producer or food retailer brings that to your attention using product or shelf labels. More important, even if you did find such labels, how often would such products be 100 percent local? I doubt often.
What we need to consider are “Shades of Local” determined using three locally beneficial components of any food product: Where it was grown/raised, processed and sold. The ideal product would be grown, processed and sold in Vermont by Vermont owned businesses, AND would be (certified) organic. Next best, and not far behind, would be the same product that is not certified organic. At the other end of the spectrum would be the minimum requirements for a product to be considered “acceptable” for the challenge.
While I’m not exactly sure what those requirements should be, intuitively I would say it’s 100 percent of one of the three criteria (e.g., sold by 100 percent Vermont owned business) and greater than 50 percent of the other two (e.g., locally grown or raised and/or processed). After all, for a regional food economy to succeed, all elements of the food chain need to be healthy and growing.
For this to work, the organizers of the Eat Local Challenge will need to work closely with local farms, dairies, food processors and retailers to ensure visual cues are present where people buy their food. This special labeling doesn’t have to be permanent, although that would be ideal, which should make it more manageable. Perhaps the organizers could get a grant to cover the administrative and material costs.
For an example of how this might look and work, we need to look no further than Burlington’s own City Market/Onion River Co-op‘s produce section, which includes color-coded labels for Local, Organic and Conventional. While it takes extra effort and tighter logistics, my family for one found it very helpful.
One of my favorite times of the year is upon us – The Harvest Season.
This weekend, my family will trek out to the Wellspring Harvest Fest – A good ol’ hoe down and celebration of the season! Wellspring Farm is the community supported agriculture (CSA) program we have supported for the last four years, and the Fest is an incredible celebration of the season’s bounty, where the Wellspring CSA community gathers to eat incredible food, avoid rotten tomato on our faces in the infamous tomato toss (might need to renamed the “late blight” toss this year), tour the farm on a hay ride and add our own painted touches to the farm’s annual Harvest Fest sign.
In a couple more weeks, we will be joining many people throughout Vermont and I believe the country in an “Eat Local” challenge, where for one week my family will commit to eating as much locally grown or raised food as possible.
These celebrations, while wonderful opportunities to connect with our local/regional food community, also make me think about what we will do over the remaining 50 weeks of the year. Will conventional food thinking settle back in? It seems likely for most people, making the challenge of building up regional food economies all the more difficult.
Does it have to be that way? Are there things we can do to support regional food throughout the year, especially in regions where the growing season is short and/or the breadth of products grown and raised are narrow?
There is one thing that immediately jumps to mind. Raise the importance of “Buy Local” to the same level afforded “Eat Local,” since without a thriving farm-gate-to-your-plate regional food infrastructure, progress toward more sustainable food systems will be slow going. Seems easy enough…on the surface, but rebuilding and strengthen regional food economies will be the farthest thing from “easy.”
Over the last 50 years, America’s food landscape has changed considerably, especially in terms of how power and control over the food we eat has concentrated in the hands of large-scale, and often global corporate interests. Here’s a snap shot that I’m betting most people haven’t seen before:
Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta. And while most of Monsanto’s press is about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the company has quietly bought up a large number of seed companies to gain access to a rapidly expanding seed patent portfolio. Dupont is following suit.
Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2 percent of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67 percent. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.” What is especially problematic with this trend is that farms in the middle have all but disappeared, which are the types of farms that will be needed to support regional food systems.
Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of over 80% of the country’s beef and three of these same four companies (along with an additional fourth) process over 60% of the country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide over half of the country’s chicken supply. Same for turkey meat. Large scale meat packing operations don’t do regional well (prefer CAFOs) or local at all.
Food Processors: Euromonitor International reports that the packaged food industry is worth almost $1.6 trillion. While there’s some debate about how accurate that number is, consider that the Top 50 U.S. processors alone accounted for $326 billion or nearly 25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs (which Kraft is attempting to gain control of in a $16.7 billion takeover), Danone and others, and you fast approach a majority of the market. Leaves little room on food retailers’ shelves for local or regional processed foods.
Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at the top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On a global scale, the USDA reports that “The top 15 global supermarket companies account for more than 30 percent of world supermarket sales.” Serious concentration that is buying up or crushing regional food chains and killing off mom-and-pop stores left and right.
With this in mind, take a couple minutes to consider your local food retail landscape.
How many locally or regionally-owned food stores or member-owned food cooperatives are there? If any, how much impact do you think they have on your region’s food economy? In other words, do they represent enough demand to support regional farmers, distribution, processing, etc.? Check out their shelves next time you shop there (or make a special trip if you haven’t shopped there before). Where do you think that food is coming from?
As each of gets a clearer picture, which may seem bleak at first, you should also see tremendous opportunities to change how consumers interface with the food they eat.
For example, imaging developing innovative, regional food retail formats open every day (v. once-a-week farmers markets and CSA programs) that provide consumers with real choices in the food they buy. Such choices, financed by our three votes per day (i.e., breakfast, lunch and dinner), will empower every one of us to buy more of the food we eat from local sources. This increasing demand for regionally grown, raised and processed food, as well as other sustainable foods, will justify increased investments in the infrastructure needed to provide more regional foods to consumers every day. Instead of spiraling down, as is the case with the industrialized food system, we will be spiraling up.
Ultimately, the choice of how we spend our food dollars is up to us. But until we have more convenient (e.g., open seven days a week), transparent (e.g., origin labeling) food retail options to choose from, do we really have a choice? Not as much choice as we deserve, so let’s get started in changing that.
Your first task – after finishing your successful “Eat Local” challenge this harvest season, assuming you participated – is to increase your financial support (i.e., spending our food dollars) of local and regional food retailers.
And if you can’t find one, then maybe you or someone you know should consider opening one yourself.
This post is the first in a series supporting the Eat Local Challenge 2009 from City Market/Onion River Co-op in Burlington, Vermont. The Challenge is the week of September 21, 2009.
Local food. 100-mile radius. Seasonal eating. All great ideas, but why would anyone commit to abide by such rules for an entire week in a place like Vermont? That’s what City Market is asking its customers to do as part of the Eat Local Challenge 2009 the week of September 21. My family has enthusiastically agreed to take their challenge, as well as write about our experience. This initial post should give you a flavor of what to expect.
According to the Mad River Valley Locavore Project, an organization with an outstanding local food track record, the Eat Local Challenge “is an event where participants pledge to eat only locally grown and produced foods. Participants will have the option of choosing to pledge by the meal (one or more meals), by the day (one or more days), or for the entire week.”
By challenging ourselves in such ways, we will increase our awareness of the food we eat, where it comes from, how it was grown, who grew it and more. Regardless of how far any of us has already come, there is always room to learn more, but given the complexity of today’s industrial food system and large-scale conventional supermarkets, increasing our understanding of food can be very challenging. Thankfully, in Burlington and communities throughout Vermont we have food cooperatives, farmers markets and community-support agriculture (CSA) farms that allow us to get much closer to local foods.
The fact is most Americans take their food for granted. Cheap, convenient food is everywhere, and is often treated as an accessory in today’s fast-paced lifestyles. The problem is much of what we consume today isn’t really food; it is highly processed calories made to resemble food. Sophisticated marketers wrap those calories up in slick packaging and push them into the marketplace with large marketing budgets. And what appears cheap at the register is made so through taxpayer-funded crop subsidies, industry-friendly regulations and deferred costs related to our health, the environment and regional economies.
As you might imagine, tracing ingredients in such processed foods back to their sources is nearly impossible, since doing so would expose the inner workings of industrial food’s “black box”, which brings me back to the importance of locally grown and/or processed foods.
Over the next several weeks leading up to the challenge, I will be sharing more on why supporting local foods is important. Being 100% local in a place like Vermont for one week will be tough. Doing so year round nearly impossible, except for the most committed. But making such efforts is exactly what consumers – who have grown accustom to having whatever foods they want, whenever they want them – must do in order to reclaim control over the food we eat.
Sur La Table, which in French means “On the Table,” was founded in Seattle’s Pike Place Market (the oldest continuously operated farmers market in the United States) in 1972 to offer hard-to-find kitchenware imported from France. From these humble roots, the company has expanded to 74 stores nationwide, with over 20 stores offering in-store culinary programs, which the company began offering in 1996.
The Original Sur La Table
Recently, I met Carol Blonder after she commented on the “Dear Julia Child, We Need You!” post on the Every Kitchen Table (EKT) blog. Carol is the Culinary Coordinator at Sur La Table’s Keirland Commons, Scottsdale AZ store. Carol’s Culinary Program is the first for Sur La Table to form a relationship with a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, so I contacted Carol to learn more about this innovative program and how Sur La Table is helping to put Sustainable Food on Every Kitchen Table™.
EKT: At Every Kitchen Table, we believe that building a thriving, rapidly growing sustainable food system requires getting people back in their kitchens where they can live great food experiences that fully engage their senses. What do you think will help get more people cooking at home again?
Carol: I think motivation to cook at home comes from many sources. People need to overcome their fears and feelings of inadequacy in the kitchen. The best way to do that is to start to cook. Learning to shop for groceries, learning simple knife techniques, and taking a few classes is a good start and can change people’s feelings about cooking at home. So many chefs say that having the right tools and using the highest quality ingredients available is the key to great dishes. This is something anyone can create in their home and make part of their repertoire.
I also think the current economic atmosphere and concerns over our health and the health of the food supply are other motivations to cook and eat at home.
People need to recognize that feeding ourselves can be an act of nurturing families, our friends and ourselves. Being mindful of shopping for food, cooking and the act of eating is not something we think about when we are eating in restaurants or picking up packaged prepared foods, so it is great to see people come to class, learn new techniques or recipe ideas, and engage in cooking in a new way.
Finally, we need to include children as much as possible since they are also interested in cooking, often because they watch the food shows and want to learn to cook. At a recent Mom & Me class, the kids thought it was so cool to make their own marinara sauce and pica de gallo, and the moms were impressed that these simple sauces could be made fresh at home.
EKT: You mentioned helping someone “learn to shop for groceries.” What’s involved in that?
Carol: During the introduction to each class we review the recipe packet for the class. We cover ingredient information, which is a perfect segue to a conversation about how we shop for food. There are usually questions about organic versus conventional approaches, especially regarding produce and poultry. In addition, customers want information about where to find specific ethnic products (e.g., Asian markets, Italian imports). Customers are paying attention to the news about our food supply, and most are interested in making healthy choices.
EKT: What’s Sur La Table’s vision for its culinary program?
Carol: The culinary program was part of the first Sur La Table store, near Pike’s Place Market, in Seattle Washington and is viewed as a key component in Sur La Table’s vision to “be the premier retailer for creative cooking and artful entertaining.” The culinary program offers customers the opportunity to learn cooking techniques, from the basics to advanced methods in a variety of demonstration and hands on class experiences. Customers also have the opportunity to try out culinary tools and equipment in the classroom that will enhance their cooking experiences at home.
SLT Web: “Sur La Table’s cooking class program started in 1996. Today it is one of the largest nationwide, avocational cooking class programs in America. Most classes are hands-on and focus on seasonal cuisine and technique-oriented courses; skill levels range from beginner to advanced, with special courses devoted just to kids and teens. Private cooking lessons are available in all programs.”
EKT: Can you describe the facilities used in your culinary program, as well as how those facilities link to the kitchen tools and equipment offered in the store?
Carol: Our kitchens are fully equipped, and we have a comprehensive range of tools and equipment to use in our classes, everything from a wooden spoon to a top of the line espresso maker. Everything we use is offered for sale in the store.
We work with the customer individually, make recommendations and offer a personalized shopping service built around a specific customer’s needs. We have products that speak to the needs of the beginner and products that would be of interest to the aficionado.
For example, in our knife skills class, we teach customers about knife construction, how to choose a knife, knife care, sharpening, and different types of knives and their usage. This is in addition to the basic knife cuts they are taught and practiced in class. We sell a variety of knives at multiple price points and give customers the opportunity to try different brands in class, which helps them determine which knives they need for their home. One customer may choose the basics: a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a honing tool, another customer may come in having read about a specific knife brand and construction and buy a whole set and an electric sharpening.
EKT: Are the kitchens used for the culinary program located in stores?
Carol: The Culinary Kitchen’s are located inside the store. The Culinary program utilizes the kitchen for classes, as seen on our monthly calendars. We also book private event cooking classes, which can be hands on or demonstration, team building events for business groups, and private cooking lessons for parties of one to four people. Business groups and individuals book the private cooking events for bridal showers, birthday parties and team building events as well as a way to get together. We have 16 spots for hands on classes. Demonstration classes can accommodate up to 32 customers. The facilities can also be rented.
EKT: What drove the Scottsdale store’s decision to collaborate with a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm?
Carol: Lori Hunter, our store manager, believes in building relationships in the local community. Part of the Sur La Table mission is to give back to the communities where we live and work. Lori saw involvement with a CSA farm as way to be involved in the local food movement, support the community, and bring people to the store are interested in what we do.
Lori and I were aware that one of the challenges for CSA subscribers is what to do with produce that arrives weekly during a season [see Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough]. As a retailer focused on cooking and entertaining, with a culinary program, we can provide that information through our knowledgeable staff and by offering classes that focus on use of local seasonal ingredients.
EKT: Did someone have a relationship with Desert Roots Farm? Have there been any surprises?
Carol: Research was done to determine a good fit for the CSA program. We knew of Desert Roots but did not have a previous relationship. There have not been any surprises, working with our CSA farm, Desert Roots Farm, has been smooth. Kelly Saxer, Desert Roots farmer, has been doing this a long time, and has her program down to a system.
EKT: Is the CSA concept something Sur La Table is considering in its other stores?
Carol: We are the pilot for this partnership, and I believe this is something other store managers and Culinary Coordinators would like to put into place.
EKT: Is Sur La Table partnering with food or related companies to support its culinary courses?
Carol: The relationships with food retailers changes during the calendar year, depending on customer demands and suppliers. We have had for example a relationship with Academia Barilla, featuring their products and offering a series of classes from their recipe library on regional Italian cooking. Sur La Table also had a successful culinary tour to Italy and Academia Barilla’s culinary school last fall, with another trip planned. Another current example is a relationship with Guittard Chocolates, whose products are featured in our classes.
EKT: What kitchen tools & equipment would you recommend for an aspiring home cook?
Carol: Here is a list of Basic Kitchen Essentials:
Tools: Measuring Spoons and Cups, Whisks, Spatulas-variety including a fish spatula and grill spatula, Spoons (wooden and metal) with Long Handles, Tongs, Colander and Strainer, Instant Read Thermometer, Peeler, Mixing Bowls-various sizes, Grater and Rasp, Ladles, Juicer, Can Opener, Pastry Brush, Bench Scraper, Sheet pans (rimmed) and silpat mats or parchment paper, Baking Sheets, Pepper mill,
Small Appliances: Blender, Food Processor, Hand Mixer, Immersion Blender, Toaster, Coffemaker, Electric Grinder for spices, Stand Mixer
Cookware: Saucepans-variety of sizes, Saute or Saucier pan, Roasting pan, Skillet, Dutch Oven, Stockpots, Baking Dishes, Steamer Basket, Cast Iron grill pan
A cookbook that focuses on cooking technique
For more information on these and other products, please visit Sur La Table.