The day started with a mix of politics and policy, with food-oriented stump speeches delivered by everyone from Illinois Lt. Governor Sheila Simon to the USDA’s Ann Wright. These were followed by break-out sessions on aspects of school food provisioning and quality. As Rochelle Davis, of the Healthy Schools, stated, “Bad school food should not be a right of childhood passage.”
The Family Farmed Expo’s trade show also opened in the morning, with farmers and producers offering samples of their wares in the hopes of being picked up for distribution. Everything from cheese, micro-greens and jelly was for sale, and food co-ops and CSAs were on hand to sign people up for their services. The trade show continues today.
Interesting questions were raised and discussed in the afternoon session, The Farm to Restaurant Connection. Are consumers willing to pay for a meal that is truly organic, with sustainably provisioned ingredients and locally sourced from farmers and producers? What are the logistics and considerations involved in building and maintaining a system that can provide all of that to local restaurants and ultimately, to consumers?
Local restauranteur, Dan Rosenthal, talked about switching to grass-fed beef for burgers at his restaurant, Poag Mahone. The biggest initial problem was finding a consistent supply of beef that was independently certified, reasonably priced, consistently provisioned, and met his standards for taste and quality. Ultimately, he had to make several compromises to get what he wanted — working with local farms on price and cuts of meat, patty-ing the meat himself, making smaller burgers, and raising the price of his popular burger. It’s the kiss of death in most restaurants, but he feels his customers appreciate enjoying a better product.
Marc Bernard of Big Bowl restaurants agreed, but also shared that it was important for restaurants to become more efficient operationally rather than pass on food costs directly. At his price point, customers would not be as understanding. Bruce Sherman of North Pond Restaurant shared that as a special occasion restaurant he had fewer price considerations, but would switch ingredients and cuts of meat to keep his price in check.
Managing meal size was another issue raised by all three restauranteurs, who agreed that restaurants over-served. As Rosenthall stated, “We’re all in business to satisfy our customers. This is the most abusive industry in the world when it comes to portioning.” Sherman also shared that organic/local/sustainable was not a guarantee small farmers would get business, “Bring the product in and let us taste it, if you’re doing the job right then your product will speak for itself. You might consider a different market if you’re looking to get it in there on the basis of philosophy.”
The afternoon continued with Scaling Up Urban Agriculture for Wholesale Markets, where representatives from Growing Power, Detroit Eastern Market, Resource Center Chicago, and Washington Park Consortium discussed opportunities and challenges for urban agriculture to supply local communities and become economically viable businesses. The bottom line was stressed repeatedly — these are not people who want to run operations charitably, they want these enterprises to be sources of income and stability. Being able to raise and feed a community is also a source of security. As one of the panelists noted, the city of Chicago can only feed itself for two days. The ability to grow food and be independent if distribution lines are cut is actually a national security issue.
Brandon Johnson from the Washington Park Consortium was the most vocal member of the panel when it came to discussing food production as an issue of equality, “All the brown and black people have the land, all the people downtown who don’t look like us have the money.” Members of a community, particularly low-income and under-priveledged people, need to have ownership in food solutions and not be subject to second-hand choices like off-brands and second-run vegetables at Save-A-Lot. “When you grow up eating red pop, then your tastes buds are raised that way.”
The only free session of the Family Farmed Expo, So You Want to Be a Farmer focused on job training programs and mentor-ships that addressed the four main issues starting a career in agriculture: tech assistance, access to land, financing, and market development.
Panelists all agreed that farming was hard work with up to five years of education and on-farm training in order to become successful. Those who enjoy challenges will take to the work well, but people from all economic backgrounds and demographics are choosing to go back to farming. What the panelists did not agree on was the amount of money that could be earned from land. Nothing was agreed upon, but despite differences they remained optimistic about farming as a career.
The day ended with the Localicious food event.