When an experience inspires you to see that dream again, motivates you to a place you haven’t felt in a long time, and adds a monstrous log to the fire in your soul, what do you call it? Heaven? For me, it was the 2011 Edible Institute. For 20 hours, over two days, I listened, absorbed, brainstormed, smiled, scribbled, tweeted (#EI2011), consumed, and connected.

If you are not familiar with Edible, they are beautiful magazines filled with everything food-related local to that area, or as they say,  Award Winning Magazines That Celebrate Local Foods, Season by Season. When you so much as glance at an Edible magazine, you know that  it is something unique. The first thing you’ll see is the stunning cover. When you pick it up, the luxuriously thick pages beckon to be flipped and the sumptuous photographs visually devoured. There are almost 70 Edible magazines and publishers flew in from all over the United States and Canada this past Wednesday to attend a publishers’ conference. Starting at 7:30am Saturday, the Edible Institute ignited bringing publishers together with food writers, farmers, activists, artisans, cookbook authors, winemakers, bloggers, and little old me.

Rise and Shine with Joan

I’m fairly new to the who’s who of the food world and I was blown away by opening keynote speaker, Dr. Joan Dye Gussow. Dubbed by the New York Times as the “nutritionist and matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement,” this petite woman went  to the podium and gave us a rundown of the food movement of the past 40 years.  While depressing at times, these were her messages that stuck with me:

Get closer to nature
Hope is the lesson nature keeps teaching us
At some point people have to look up from their plate and stand up for social and economic justice

No matter how educated one is on a certain topic, there is nothing like hearing the story from someone who has lived it and breathed it their entire adult life.  I’m now a fan. What a great way to start the day.

The L Word has Replaced the O Word

Image: Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester via Flickr

The title for the first panel was, Will Urban Ag Change the Way We Eat? After hearing Ashley Atkinson, Director of  The Greening of Detroit speak, I’d say the answer is, “if we have more Ashleys, absolutely!” This woman is helping lead the charge of turning open space in the very economically depressed city of Detroit into food-producing gardens. She says the city has so much vacant, city-owned land, that Detroit could grow 75% of their vegetables and 40% of fruit needs on vacant lots.  The project has been so successful at integrating the community that, today, roughly 1 in 50 residents of Detroit are involved in the gardening network. The really crazy part? Everything she is doing: gardening, farming, beekeeping, chicken keeping, on vacant lots is ILLEGAL in Detroit!

When Annie Novak walked to the podium, I couldn’t help but think, she was the last person I would picture a farmer. Standing at almost 6 feet tall, this slim, young, beautiful and stylish, woman blows the socks off the “farmer” stereotype. After doing a quick Google search, it is apparent I’m not the only one with this opinion as she is featured in Huffington Post’s Hottest and Cutest Organic Farmers of 2009.  This beauty showed us wonderful pictures of her Growing Chefs program and her Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in  Brooklyn. With all the flat commercial rooftops in my own town, I kept thinking, why isn’t this happening everywhere? Wicked cool.

The buzz word these days is local.” The L (local) word has replaced the O (organic) word,” says David Cleveland, last panelist. Even Walmart is getting in on the action prompting Cleveland to point out that, “…it isn’t local if you buy it from a non-local store.”  A professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Cleveland presented his work on how much food is grown locally in relation to how many hungry people there are in this town. He is challenging the notion of food miles as localization and instead asking, “How do we get local food to the people who need it?” Santa Barbara, as an example, grows over 2 billion (yes billion with a “B”) pounds of food each year and still, has thousands of hungry residents. Why? My town grows an incredible amount of fruit, nuts, wine and vegetables for the rest of the country, but how much is actually consumed by the locals is virtually unknown since nobody tracks this data.

The panel discussion ended with a question from the audience: how does one maneuver around city and state government to get urban agriculture programs like this started? My favorite panel answer came from Ashley Atkinson – the best way to do urban agriculture where its illegal? “Just do it. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” Ya, it was one of those, You Go Girl, moments.

Activists & Advocacy

On the Friday before the conference, I happened to be reading a Grist article about the USDA greenlighting Monstanto’s GMO alfalfa. Amidst my frustration and dismay of this tragic headline, I perked up when I came to the part where the author said he was getting on a plane in a few hours heading to Santa Barbara for the Edible Institute. What? The same guy who wrote the article is going to be in the same room with me? Very exciting stuff.  Guess who was sitting two seats away from me on Saturday morning? None other than farmer and Grist’s Senior Food Editor, Tom Philpott (who was rocking his newsboy cap).

Philpott moderated the second panel, Activists and Advocacy: SOLE Food’s Message for Change. First up was Debra Eschmeyer, Marketing and Media Manager of the National Farm to School Network. This woman holds the distinction of being a 5th generation Ohioan farmer and the former project director at the National Family Farm Coalition in Washington, DC. Eschmeyer reminded us how even small changes can have huge financial implications, but then brought hope to the conversation by highlighting some of the policy changes that have already occurred. Modeled after the peace corps, this powerhouse is spearheading a project called, Food Corps. She played the recruitment video and I must say, I was ready to join.

The vision for FoodCorps is to recruit young adults for a yearlong term of public service in school food systems. Once stationed, FoodCorps members will build Farm to School supply chains, expand food system and nutrition education programs, and build and tend school food gardens.

FoodCorps.org Vision Statement

Johns Hopkins Healthy Monday Project Director,  Ralph Loglisci, to the audience: “Stop preaching to the choir. Talk to those in the middle. Everyone wants to eat good food.” What a great reminder. Sometimes it’s just easier to talk to those who think the same way you do. This made me stop and ponder, how do my bro and I get out the Be Food Smart message to those NOT paying attention? Hmmm…still working on the answer (I welcome suggestions!). As someone with experience in marketing and communication, Loglisci points to the Meatless Monday campaign as an example of a simple message that works. Can you believe that something like 30% of Americans are aware of this campaign? Pretty amazing success for such a simple directive. To really change human behavior, you have to start with baby-steps.

Author of  renowned book, Food Fight, Dan Imhoff discussed the state of our current farm policy. As he says, “Please, let’s de-link nutrition from the farm bill…No subsidization without social obligation…If we give industrial ag (agriculture) so much money, we should at least be getting something back.” I was amazed to hear what passes for conservation these days garnering huge conservation and subsidization dollars for corporations running CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Check out the stunning photos from Imhoff’s CAFO book here. Is it sick that I really want this book for my coffee table?

The second panel completely absorbed me and it wasn’t until the applause that I realized how hungry I was for for actual caloric nourishment. I’d continue with my recap, but my word count just exceeded 1300. If I know anything about today’s reader, it’s that very few people will even get this far down the page. Stay tuned for part 2 and part 3 of the conference download tomorrow.