How often do you think about where your food comes from, or the process through which it was made?
Changing the way we as consumers and eaters approach food was the goal of two workshops at the recent Food Book Fair in New York City, with discussions revolving around where we buy our food and modern farming, respectively.
As more and more consumers begin to take a deeper interest in food, the grocery stores that have become a modern staple are, in some places, being challenged by two newer iterations of food purchasing. One, a return to the ways of shopping past: buying food at multiple small specialty shops and cooking food from scratch rather than bulk shopping and buying prepared foods. The other, however, revolves around food delivery services, whether you are buying your groceries on FreshDirect, meal ingredients from Blue Apron, or restaurant fare from Seamless.
Americans have stopped cooking, one panel said, and that is what is making us sick.
The panel highlighting this cultural shift of food buying in America was moderated by Taylor Erkkinen, co-owner of The Brooklyn Kitchen, and featured Michael Ruhlman, author of Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, Anne Saxelby, owner of Saxelby Cheesmongers in the Essex Market, and Rohan Mehra, a co-founder of The Prusik Group and an instrumental influence in the creation of the Market Line.
The drive toward more locally-run markets, Mehra suggested, comes from the consumer’s desire for a personal connection with their food and the people who produce it. While they touted grocery stores as a modern miracle, they only exist as we know it due to the convenience they provide, Ruhlman said. “Tony the Tiger is the devil,” he joked, referring to how processed our foods have become for convenience’s sake.
Saxelby noted that this is a disruptive moment for grocery stores. “A market was always a social hub,” she said, continuing to explain how modern shoppers seek a return to the aspect of community when buying food. Ruhlman added that, “[People] want to know the grocer cares about their food.”
Though the bulk of the discussion focused on the food shopping atmosphere in New York, the panel approached this disruption as something that is occurring nationwide, as farmer’s markets regain popularity and consumers increasingly—conversely—rely on food delivery services.
But, a member of the audience questioned, isn’t this an elitist way to think of food shopping? It doesn’t, she continued, address people who don’t have access to grocery stores and live in food deserts, who don’t have money for artisanal food, or those who work during standard grocery store hours.
The panel acknowledged that those issues remain a challenge, and that several factors are at play in the situations the questioner raised. However, in that moment it was clear that it was the larger image of how Americans are consuming food, rather than social justice issues, that were at the forefront of the conversation. (Incidentally, that was a topic of conversation for the following day, in a workshop led by the New York-based Food issues Group.)
Photo by Anne Elder
Beyond looking at how we as a society buy our food, another panel returned to the source, before food hits stores or farmers market stands. In honor of the release of Letters to a Young Farmer, a collection of essays published by the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, a panel of three young farmers spoke with self-proclaimed grain enthusiast Amy Halloran, author of The New Bread Basket, about how they view and experience the future of farming.
The panel of farmers represented much more diversity than is typically seen in the farming industry, as Halloran spoke with Shephali Patel, a first-generation American who works as a production farmer at Snug Harbor on Staten Island; Arian Rivera, who works as a sheepherder and livestock farmer, and Hillary Lindsay, owner of The Green Onion in Chester, New York. Patel and Rivera both previously worked as apprentices at the Stone Barns Center.
The farmers discussed the challenges and lack of community they face as people of color and women in the farming, which is predominantly operated by older, white men. Patel and Rivera both said that they had been approached by people saying, “You don’t look like a farmer,” leading into a frank conversation addressing the racism and sexism they have experienced while working in the industry. But for school groups who visit the farms they work on, they serve as sources of inspiration—the children see them and ask, “You’re a farmer? Could I be a farmer?”
Investing in this younger generation of farmers is a top priority for the Stone Barns Center, as it seeks to create a sustainable food system beneficial to both our health and the environment. These farmers implored audience members to actively participate in the food system by developing relationships with farmers and supporting them locally to understand the work they do. This understanding, they said, is imperative to feeling connected to the soil, which Patel referred to as, “our natural heritage.”
The panel seeks to change the way farmers are perceived, and make farming a mainstream conversation rather than niche—and not just for marketing purposes. Phrases like “farm-to-table” and “organic,” they said, have been hijacked from their original meaning, and now are used as substitutes for trust and community when it comes to selling food. The true cycle, they said, isn’t merely farm-to-table—it’s farm-to-table-to-compost-to-farm, and it’s important that consumers pay attention to all of this ecosystem rather than just a portion of it.
Halloran, who has a demonstrated passion for local grains, easily summed up the message behind the two panels: “There’s this hunger for storytelling—everybody really wants to know the stories [behind the food].”
The overall takeaways from these panels? Get to know your farmers, cheese mongers, bakers, and butchers and have conversations with them. Furthermore, support a sustainable food system by eating locally and seasonally—a diet that connects you to the soil and the people who work with it.
Photo by Ryan Johnson, CC BY-SA 2.0
Anne Elder spends more time talking about food than actually eating it. She has worked everywhere from wine bars to newsrooms to vineyards, has tasted cheese as it’s aging and ganache directly from the marble slab on which it’s made. She is currently researching cuisine as a means of communication among refugee chefs in Paris. Follow her on Instagram, Twitter, or her blog.