Farm to Table | SLOW FOOD

Farm to Table | SLOW FOOD

As vice-chair for Slow Food Greater Olympia, Emily Dunn-Wilder plans fundraisers for food-related events in the community. A quick Internet search will reveal that Slow Food is a big player in the farm-to-table movement. An international movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986, it questions the feckless uniformity of fast-food culture. By challenging the globalization of agricultural products, Slow Food promotes the value of regional cuisine and the use of ingredients sourced from local ecosystems.

Emily was raised vegetarian. Although the noble upbringing inspired a health-minded idealism, a sugar addiction led to an eating disorder in high school. Her extreme eating habits caused her to question what a healthy diet is. It’s not enough to abstain from animal products if there are other challenges with your diet.

Trying to feed herself properly, she looked everywhere for answers, but — rather poignantly — only found rules. Eventually Emily had to ditch the beaten path of others in order to create her own healthy living philosophy. Looking back at the struggle, she reflects that she “got caught up in rules — which is not a fun way to approach food”.

Slow Food doesn’t distribute food, but they do distribute information. Connecting with the community through low-cost workshops and potluck dinners permits them the opportunity to help educate the public face-to-face. Part of the education emphasizes the importance of preserving a variety of vegetables: those in danger of not being available anymore — i.e., those on the brink of extinction due to infrequency of use. Their so-called ‘Ark of Taste’ is a perfectly phrased vessel for the idea that the most effective way to save your favorite food is simply to eat it. They encourage people, therefore, to buy and use seeds and food products in order to ensure the continuance of a wide range of plant species.

Emily admires what Pigman’s Organic Produce Patch farm in Nisqually Valley, WA stand for. Pigman’s has been farming the land for 27 years using organic practices: they maintain soil fertility through the use of natural fertilizers and crop rotation. Since they share similar values, Pigman’s allows Slow Food to host fundraising events on their farm. These events create visibility for the organization, the farm, and the chef that makes the dinner.

Slow Food’s most recent event on the Pigman’s farm, held on July 18, showcased the work of chef Joel Hart from Hart’s Mesa. All the produce came from Pigman’s own farm, the dairy came from local creameries, and the cookies from The Bread Peddler downtown. Even the alcohol was all locally sourced. Emily feels that: “It’s really nice to be challenged in that way. There’s this idea that it’s enough if it’s organic; a lot of farm-to-table dinners are not nearly as strict with local sourcing as ours was”.

The realization of farm-to-table values, however, is not as simple as its practitioners’ high-gloss rhetoric implies. Principles don’t ever come pre-packaged for our convenience; there are always cracks that occur whenever a doctrine is enacted. “Just because a product is labeled organic”, Emily warns us, “doesn’t mean that the animals were treated well, that the workers were paid minimum wage, or that the food was locally sourced”.

Emily tenders a refreshing proposition instead: “It’s about making choices and prioritizing what’s most important to you. It sometimes comes down to letting go and just celebrating”. Like a guru in a sanatorium, her words are mature beyond her years, bringing much needed latitude to our tight-fisted convictions. And she’s right: there’s a danger in worrying ourselves ragged that our food must meet every facet of a movement’s prescribed criteria — organic, fair-trade, local, etc. – when it’s simply not possible, or at least is highly unlikely. Even the noblest of intentions can lead us to a loony bin if we lose ourselves in oughts and nots.

Instead of fretting about the rules that parent our principles, we should encourage reasonable responsibility while respecting the balance of freedom within moderation. “Survival and celebration have been the driving forces of food choices for millennia”, she explains. “As long as humans have been alive we’ve been trying to celebrate while surviving. But it’s easy to get caught up in the judgments”. Because there are no clear answers in life — no certainty, no perfection – celebration is essential for health and happiness. If there’s an underlying motto here it might read something like: strive to celebrate the progress that you make towards reaching your own goals, rather than judging yourself for falling short of the rules imposed by others.

Emily believes that this message needs to be shared more often within the sustainable food movement. She feels that the farm-to-table movement is slightly less strict, comparatively speaking, and does leave more room for celebration. She also suggests that the farm-to-table movement tends to do more to emphasize the value of locally sourced food. Each movement, however, stresses certain values at the expense of others, just like each consumer.

When I asked Emily what the average person can do to make a change, she encourages people to improve their food purchasing decisions: purchase only what’s in line with your beliefs. But just like the farm-to-table movement is in danger of becoming stale, Emily feels that the recent push to empower the role of consumers at the checkout stand is overstated, bordering on a worn-out platitude.

The goal, Emily notes, should be offering accessible ways of improving an individual’s purchasing decisions. But part of accessibility comes from modifying your outlook. The approach Emily advocates involves taking small steps within measure rather than overwhelming consumers with the big task of “check marking all facets”. She notes, in total honesty, that not everyone can afford to partake as strictly as they’d like to the dictates of their favorite food-related movement. Even those who are fully immersed in them can’t always adhere to every facet, i.e. ensuring that everything they buy and consume satisfies the criteria of good, clean, and fair (the basis for the Slow Food movement). As Emily so thoughtfully reminds us, perhaps we all need to begin by “recognizing the privilege that’s in the farm-to-table movement”.

Although the average consumer does have a role in the life of the movement, Emily maintains that food service providers and restaurants have the power to make the biggest shift in the sustainable food movement. The opportunity to influence change for providers and restaurants, however, comes with the responsibility to purchase the highest quality products possible. Emily would like to see local food options appear more often on menus at local restaurants. She would also like to see ethically responsible options included in meal-plans at school cafeterias.

Emily explains that since the 1990s big companies have really begun dominating the organic food industry by purchasing smaller organic companies and loosening regulations. We’re living in a bona fide Foodopoly, Emily proclaims; the business behind the meat, vegetable, grain, and milk industry is a little frightening. Big chains, like Walmart, have a lot of influence over food producers. They may be pushing organic products, which reflect the changing values of our food-minded culture, but they’re assuredly profiting from it – not to mention altering the products in the process. Revolutionizing the food industry and restoring life back into the local economy involves more than just personal choice: it necessitates a change in the very infrastructure of the industry itself.

Meanwhile, while we await a revolution, individual consumers still have the privilege to make choices at the checkout stand. With an eye for human contradiction, Emily sides with moderation in an age of extremism: “If local food doesn’t meet our standards, then why eat it? Just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s organic, etc.” Everyday life for Emily is inseparably enmeshed with her passion for food. After graduating from Evergreen in Spring 2016, Emily plans on pursuing a career in food marketing. She would like to focus on the connection between food producers and consumers while pursuing a Master in Food Culture and Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. Wherever she goes though, at the end of the day, Emily Dunn-Wilder is sure to find a reason to celebrate. Maybe we supermarket vigilantes, guardians of the planet, and 9 to 5 survivors should do the same.


By Todd B. Gruel