Hundreds flocked to Larimer Square in LoDo this past weekend for the annual Slow Food Nations festival. This is the second year that the Italian-born movement has been held in the US, as well as the second opportunity that Denver, the only city in the US to host the event, was able to take the reins on this food-conscious, food-educating, food-fill event. The culinary marathon lasted three days and was filled to the brim with over 50 food-related or food-focused workshops, illuminating panels featuring esteemed guests. The lineup included Massimo Bottura, Alex Seidel, Alon Shaya, Paul Reilly and Katherine Miller to name a few. Discussions on various topics impacting our food ecosystem, and a plethora of meals and food samples made up the rest of the three-day event.
While a part of the event was open to the public — the Taste Market (exhibiting food and beverage booths), cooking exhibitions, a pop-up food hall hosted by some Denver favorites — Root Down, El Five, and Vital Root — and panelist talks, several of the events were only exclusive to press, chefs and speakers. We ate, mingled, and schooled ourselves around the three-day festival to bring you some of the important highlights from this year. Here were some of the overarching takeaways.
#1. To Reduce Our Food Waste, We Must Change Our Vocabulary
At a panel talk on Saturday the 14th, entitled, “Food Waste 101,” audience members were brought up to date on where some of the biggest sources of food waste exist — and a shocker for most listeners — it’s not all the big corporations that are to blame. The panel was joined by Paul C. Reilly, executive chef of Beast + Bottle and Coperta, Michael Hurwitz of GrowNYC, a non-profit organization that educates people on food sustainability, Andrea Spacht who works with the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) focusing on creating a sustainable food system that is efficient and equitable and Nancy Painter, the Executive Director of the Edible Communities magazines.
Spacht highlighted that while yes, big corporations and restaurants are responsible for a significant amount of food waste, the culprits may also be closer to home than many of us think. The waste that we as consumers expend, she noted, “adds up to 40 percent of the problem.” Shocking. So how can we help to cut back? Check date labels when purchasing food, only buy the food you need — and do so by planning meals in advance, using and sticking to shopping lists and finding ways to use “scraps” — canning and freezing foods are just some of the ways. Even composting at home or your community garden is another alternative.
Hurwitz also emphasized the importance of learning to use the leftovers that most people tend to throw away — learn to pickle the ends of carrots or cucumbers, use the fat or bones of chicken for broths, even grow your own celery from the base of the stalk that is normally tossed. He noted that he’s come to learn that a lot of people may want to do such things but just don’t know how; so his organization provides resources to educate people on such topics at GrowNYC.com. Hurwtiz also noted that it’s not just the ends and “trims” of food items that are thrown away — perfectly good produce gets thrown away just for its appearance. “There is nothing I hate more than the term, ‘ugly food,’” he said. He gave the example of a pair of carrots that has grown and twisted together, an item he has commonly thrown away for its appearance, as being “one of the most people things” he’s seen.
Another way to conserve? Rewire our thinking and change our vocabulary. Reilly, executive chef of Denver’s beloved Beast + Bottle and Coperta explained how a lot the items discussed were often disregarded at restaurants because such restaurants only use the “prettier” pieces of food — a center cut of salmon for example — items like “kale stems” are “just not so appealing to customers” he explained as a culprit reason. One of the things he felt needed to be changed was our vocabulary — let’s not call them “scraps,” which give a connotation of less-valued excess — but “trim.” He said the responsibility to change this does not only lie with the restaurants and how they view their own food but with the diners as well. So next time you’re eating out, opt for that “kale stem” salad alternative instead, or, encourage your local restaurant to get involved with programs who are utilizing the leftover food trim for community gardens as compost or other endeavors. Denver based company “Scraps Mile High” is a perfect example of one of those programs, a “pedal-powered” company that bikes directly to consumers and restaurants collecting excess food to reuse for various compost and eco-centric projects.
#2. Food is Political: Keep an Eye on the 2018 Farm Bill
While politics is always a hot topic in the news, the food side of the sector may run under the radar for most. But a huge bill is coming up that could vastly change the landscape of food — from those who grow it and sell it, right back down to those of us consuming it. In April of earlier this year, Mike Conway, a US Representative, unveiled the 2018 farm bill. This is a piece of legislature that is revisited every five years and affects funding to farms and farmers as well as nutrition programs such as “SNAP,” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known to most of us as “food stamps.”
If you think that laws or programs like this do not affect you, think again. For while it may take most of us some time to see the effects trickle down to our everyday food consumption, it’s affecting many of our struggling neighbors and farmers right now in two major ways — families or can’t feed themselves and farms who are trying to feed everyone.
Currently, the average low-income family is trying to sustain itself on less than $55 a week for food. Katherine Miller, founding executive director of the Chef Action Network (CAN) and Senior Director of Food Policy Advocacy at the James Beard Foundation, explained to us how the SNAP program benefits not just families in this situation, but the farmers and the local economy as well. The program started matching $1 for every dollar the program provided (with a max of $130 per pay period) to spend with participating farms and farmers markets. In the second year, there were over 5,000 beneficiaries using the program with over 470 farmers benefiting from the grant as well. SNAP users spent $22 million dollars at the farmers market or with farmers last year, in 2009 it was $4 million. “People want to eat healthy, but don’t think they can afford it,” Miller continued, this program fixes that.
The program is also monumental in reducing food waste, as it allows for farmers to sell remaining produce items that grocery stores and chains did not take, (if they do not satisfy a visually pleasing element for example).
In addition to the House version of the bill cutting or “repurposing” funding with the SNAP program, it also compromises the funding for another vital program called, the “Conservation Stewardship Program” (CSP) which provides financial support to sustainable agriculture practices and research programs for farmers. The CSP gives grant money to new farmers starting out to help out with some of the significant costs, such as those associated with buying plowing or harvesting equipment. It is because of this program that there are now tools that allow farmers to check the pH and chemical levels in their soil, the density and water content for example, in order to understand what may be affecting crops. As a listening farmer in the crowd commented an important factor, “you either marry into a farm or you inherit it,” without this funding, many new farmers won’t be able to financially sustain themselves. Co-panelist Reana Kovalcik, Associate Director of Communications and Development at the NSAC (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for policy reform surrounding food systems and sustainable resources), emphasized the importance of fighting for the Senate version of the bill to go through, asking how we can talk about sustainability if “we gut programs that don’t allow everyone to be a part of society.”
So, how can you help and get involved? Get active and reach out to the state officials. But don’t just email or text your state elected official, call them. Kovalcik stressed how now is a great time to become active. “It’s a perfect time to go bother them,” she said, explaining how the House is in recess until September 3 and the Senate is from August 6 to the 10, meaning members are currently at home not working, so they are there to hear your voice on the matter. Miller furthered, better yet, “send them a handwritten note. Handwritten notes shock people and [Colorado’s US Senator] Gardner responded to a note.”
#3. Educate Yourself and Meet Your Makers
Organic, Certified Naturally Grown, Fair Trade, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, Non-GMO Project Verified, Grass-fed — the list goes on. And understanding the difference between some — “Organic” and “All Natural” for example, (as a hint, “All Natural” is not actually a certified label) — is quite confusing for most.
While some of us, especially being in highly eco-and environmentally-conscious environments like Denver and Colorado, already feel that we are doing what we can to contribute — buying locally, buying organic, non-GMO and cruelty-free foods and products — unfortunately, we live in a world where we cannot believe everything we read. In the panel, “Becoming Conscious Carnivores,” attendees were enlightened to just how much the FDA regulations can get away without telling consumers.
Panelist, Kate Cox, editor of The New Food Economy, asked the audience how many of them buy locally. Next, she asked, “what is your definition of local?” There seemed to be a varying array of answers to which she concluded, “Exactly. Local is subjective,” it relates to the supply chain. While many of us assume if we are buying locally we are getting produce or proteins from somewhere in the state of Colorado, preferably within 50 to 100 miles, states like California — Southern California specifically — have more loose definitions of what constitutes local. “Within 400 miles” is their limit, Cox tells us. “Does that seem very local to you?” Probably not. This raises the question, “What are we actually getting when we buy those local foods from our neighborhood grocer, and what about labels like non-GMO or organic?” How do we know what’s authentic and what’s not if there is so much disparity in our government’s definitions?
Even the label, “organic” raises some flags, especially considering our meat. “Organic,” according to FDA terms, constitutes that the animals were “raised outside.” So what does that mean? They could be raised outside part of the time then shoved back into crowded spaces, they could be raised outside just the first year of their life then enclosed. A solution that came up to ensure that those extra dollars you spend to get humanely raised, organic meat are actually well spent, was the “GAP” program, or the “Global Animal Partnership.” The program was started by Whole Foods and rates meat off a 5 level step system, with a scale that considers animals from most captive to least captive environments and how the animals are treated in terms of “natural living, health and productivity, and emotional well-being.” The program recommends buying meat that is a rating of two or above, with one being animals who are the most captive and having the least emotional-well-being fostering environments. The ASPCA also has some great resources for those looking to learn more.
How can you ensure you are buying being conscious carnivores? The easiest way is to first reduce consumption, swap out animal proteins for plant-based ones, or abstain from eating meat one day a week. Dana Smith, Campaign Director of “Meatless Mondays,” — a campaign backed by research from John Hopkins University that advocates reducing meat consumption one day a week — emphasized what a difference this can make. “It takes over 400 gallons of water to make the beef for one burger,” that’s about 10 bathtubs full of water. Reduce and abstain, that’s the first piece.
Educate yourself. Ask questions about your meat and where it’s coming from— to your favorite restaurants, to your grocery stores — and do your research. Farm Aid can help clear up some of the confusion around the extensive list of labels but further.
Establish relationships with the people growing and raising your food and build respect with the food you are actually eating. Understand its origins, go and meet the farmers growing the food you are going to take home. Establish relationships with them. As famed chef and restauranteur, (and a 2018 Slow Food panelist), Massimo Bottura recommended at one of the weekend’s last events, the “best recipe for each one of you [to fix this problem is to] restore the relationships we used to have with the farmers, […] the cheesemakers, […] even the butchers. If you know them, [the butchers for example], they’re going to give you the best cut.”
#4. Vote with Your Dollars and Your Fork
Lastly, an overall underlying theme to the festival and one of the more important ones: vote with your dollars and your fork. Tell companies and restaurants what you want and what you won’t tolerate — animal cruelty, GMO-modified foods, pesticides, unsustainable practices, etc. Where you spend your dollar has a much larger impact than you think. Don’t support companies who are promoting false certifications on their package or animal cruelty. (Again, do your research.) Ask your local restaurant what their “locally sourced meat,” really means and where it comes from. If they can’t tell you? Leave a review. Businesses listen and respond to that. As Michael Hurwitz of GrowNYC summarized in several of his panel discussions, “Each time we eat and drink, we vote for the world we want. [So] treat the world righteously.”
Some of the other biggest overall takeaways — ask questions, respect food, reduce consumption and take responsibility for what you do on daily basis as a consumer. It may be easy to think that something that seems so large in comparison to each one of us is impossible to be changed by a single one of us, but it can. Start today; do your research, get hungry and get involved. Because each one of us has a vote in what happens in our food world, and it all starts with a plate.
All photography by Heather Fairchild