Creating Sustainable Communities with Craft Food

During an interview with NPR, Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business Center reflects, “I think that food really connects people.” Concurrent with the rise of the craft food movement, one finds communities gathering around a shared affinity to locally sourced food. Some focus on promoting sustainable farming or educating children about creating environmentally sound food. Others are about moving beyond a tourist attraction toward forming a community hub or forming festivals to promote local bounty and raise awareness about childhood hunger. Here's a rundown of a few of these communities:

Learn more about farming in big cities, watch the Sustainable Urban Farming episode of "Big Cities."

Supporting Local Farms through Community Meals

According to Tyla Nattress, co-owner of restaurant-in-a-farm Orchard Kitchen on Whidbey Island, WA, communal dinners can help re-establish the sense of community lost in this current digital culture. “When people go to restaurants, they’re so focused on their iPhones that they don’t connect. But because we have people seated at community tables, if their partner goes up to use the restroom, they don't get on their phone. Instead, the conversation continues.”

Nattress observes a physical change in people when they sit down. “Over the course of the meal, I can see them relax. Their gesticulations become greater. By the end of the evening, they exchange emails and continue the conversation.”

Upon initial glance, these community meals possess a rarified air, with a dinner costing over a hundred dollars per person. Tyla explains this high price point. “Supporting farmers and artisanal food producers shouldn’t be inexpensive. The fast food system has subsidized farmers and is not a sustainable way of feeding ourselves, and thus not supporting our farmers.” A small independent farm offers organic products free from the pesticides, GMOs and other substances used by commercial farms connected with Big Ag. However, as these farms are not subsidized, their products cost more than products produced by farm that has been subsidized by Big Ag.  Natresses seek to educate those who come to their dinners about the need to value quality over quantity by supporting small independent farms.

Orchard Kitchen | Courtesy of Orchard Kitchen
Orchard Kitchen | Courtesy of Orchard Kitchen

The Nattresses observe how the community being created by their dinners tend to comprise three types of people. The first are very affluent individuals who have summer homes on the island. They serve as the largest contributors to their fundraisers, as well as offering financial support to ventures that keep the local farms sustainable. Local Whidbey residents come for a special celebration like a birthdays or anniversary. For them, the meal is a big splurge, and the Natresses try to enable them to experience the best Whidbey Island has to offer. The third group are tourists looking for a chance to explore Whidbey and connect with people they would not meet otherwise.

Her husband Vincent, who serves as chef and co-owner of Orchard Kitchen, views these dinners as a means to support sustainability, as well as other missions. He serves on the board of the local food bank, Good Cheer, which serves as the beneficiary of some of Orchard Kitchen’s fundraisers. With a fifth of the population of South Whidbey accessing this food bank at least once a year, these proceeds directly benefit local residents in need.

Vincent strives to preserves small farms such as his. “If we want to keep land in agriculture, we have to make it economically viable to maintain a small 5-acre farm like ours.” He notes that one cannot sustain a small farm like this just by growing food. “This model with the added component of the restaurant and the space to use for other events and education creates the income that can keep a small farm like this sustainable so it doesn’t become yet another housing development.”

Hosting Free Community Dinners

Aspen Tree dinner | Courtesy of Aspen Tree
Aspen Tree dinner | Courtesy of Aspen Tree

For the past ten years, Eden Vardy, Executive Director and Founder of Aspen Tree, has hosted an annual free community dinner. Currently, 236 volunteers work to bring together over 1,500 people from all socioeconomic backgrounds for a meal that exemplifies the organization’s mission to empower youth and adults around healthy food systems. During one of their dinners, it’s not unusual to see a local executive sharing a meal with street person, as these meals bring together the entire community. Their first meal was prepared using produce gleaned from local farms with subsequent dinners made with locally sourced produce.

Vardey based this dinner on the state run cafes he observed in Brazil that provided food access to the poor. “The act of people eating meals together served to break down the social barriers that existed in Brazilian culture. Also, they had the ripple effects of supporting local farms and businesses.” Fishbach would concur with Vardey‘s observations.“To eat the same food suggests that we are both willing to bring the same thing into our bodies. People just feel closer to people who are eating the same food as they do. And then trust, cooperation, these are just consequences of feeling close to someone.”

Giving Back to the Community  

Watch how communal dining brings people together in "The Migrant Kitchen" episode featuring Logmeh L.A.

While Pike Market in Seattle represents a major tourist draw, this waterfront market also serves as a community hub supporting their local neighbors in need. Established in 1982, the Pike Market Foundation has granted more than $26 million to provide housing, healthcare, healthy food, childcare, and a community of support to their most vulnerable neighbors living and working by or in the market. This community ethos permeates those businesses who operate in and around the market. For example, Pike Brewing Company donates the proceeds from their Pike Place Ale to support the Pike Place Market Foundation. They also built and maintain a small community garden at Post Alley so that the people living in the low income housing next to the market can have a place where they can rest.

Once a year, Pike Place Producers, a volunteer non-profit organization that supports the artists, craftspeople and local farmers who operate small businesses in the North Arcade Daystalls at the Market, joins forces with the Market Foundation to produce Behind the Table: Meet the Producers. The evening features a silent auction replete with local artisans, musical entertainment, and a community meal. The majority of the dishes served are donated by market businesses. All proceeds from this event directly fund The Market Community Safety Net, a discretionary fund distributed by The Market Foundation available to anyone living or working in Pike Place Market at a time of great need.

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Think Local, Go Global

Now entering it‘s seventh year, Feast Portland, a large-scale food festival with more than 80 food vendors present, takes the community concept to a broader level. They seek to celebrate and engage Oregon’s community of chefs and food businesses on a larger scale while also donating a portion of their proceeds to fight childhood hunger in Oregon. Feast Portland raised more than $300,000 for hunger-relief charities in its first five years of operation.

With over half of the Feast’s participants returning, some events sell out the day ticket sales get released. A community has arisen among those who return every year to partake of the local bounty offered at this festival. Most attendees are local, but the festival attracts foodies from around the world. For those who cannot afford the high ticket prices, Feast Portland works with partners like local grocery store chain New Seasons to create free in-store events open to all. Volunteers can attend an event in exchange for time. Portland comes alive with all sorts of activities leading up to and during Feast Portland.

From free locally sourced community meals to high end fundraisers, these food focused gatherings all share a desire to celebrate the local bounty available in their regions. They strive in their own ways towards a sustainable future. In doing so, they feed the community in more ways than one. 

Top Image: Behind the Table food event | John Wiley


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