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Fresh thinking for Ohio’s food community
From feeding local communities to feeding a booming global population, Ohio Farm Bureau’s recent Bringing it to the Table conference brought together a diverse group from Ohio’s food community to inspire creative collaboration in pursuit of new opportunities. The daylong event was the first step in an effort that seeks to support innovative thinking throughout Ohio’s food chain. To get the conversation started, a number of speakers were asked to share creative ideas and perspectives on factors influencing food production. Here are some excerpts:
Social Media and Food
The communication gap that used to divide farmers and their city counterparts is shrinking thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook, web videos and blogs.
“With the advent of social media and the opening of our communication channels, it’s become easier to connect with farmers,” said Walker Evans, founder of ColumbusUnderground.com, a popular metropolitan social networking website.
Rachel Tayse-Baillieul, who authors a food blog at www.houndsinthekitchen.com, said people are curious about what they’re eating and they’re relearning the things that most people used to know about food.
“I am facing a previous generation of people who knew how to cook by dumping things out of a box. And I think they realize now, that may not be the healthiest thing, they don’t know what’s in that box and who put it there,” she said.
“I welcome people’s interest in farming, what I and we do. My goodness, if you eat, you should be interested in what you’re putting in your mouth, where it came from and what it is. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And as a farm community, I don’t know anybody that would say you shouldn’t know those things,” he said.
New Recipe For School Lunches
Chuck Dilbone, director of business operations for Granville Exempted Schools, wasn’t happy with the food his district was providing students.
“It didn’t taste good. It wasn’t presented properly to our kids. It wasn’t a good situation,” he said. Only 22 percent of the students were purchasing school lunches.
That led Dilbone to pioneer a new approach to how the school served food. And he did it while gaining the approval of students, parents, the community and also turning a profit.
The district hired a chef to oversee food preparation and started using fresh foods. Produce comes from local fruit and vegetable farms, beef from a local cattle farmer and cookies from a village bakery. Instead of deli meat, the turkey breast is cooked fresh daily. Potatoes are mashed with the skins still on. Dilbone sees this as a big improvement over powdered potato mixes.
“The first day we did this last year, it almost brought tears to my eyes to be honest with you,” Dilbone recalled. “The chef comes out and says ‘Chuck we’ve got a problem.’ I said ‘What’s the problem?’ He said ‘The kids are taking far too many vegetables.’”
It was a great problem to have, Dilbone thought.
Now, more than 70 percent of students are eating school lunches.
“It’s taste. Bottom line,” he said.
In addition to the approval of students, Dilbone said the new lunch program has been great for community relations. Residents are more likely to support a levy, he said, because they see the school supporting the community in a new way.
Dilbone, who has also worked as an administrator in school districts in Muskingum and Perry counties, believes a program like this could be implemented anywhere.
The transition initially increased the cost of school lunch for students by a few cents, and while costs are higher, the school district is making a profit in the second year of the new lunch program. Dilbone now regularly receives calls from other district administrators exploring how they could implement a program like Granville’s.
“The cafeteria business in schools is a huge business,” Dilbone said. “And if you think about that, that money should stay in Ohio and stay locally as much as possible.”
Dr. Ken Lee of Ohio State University’s Food Innovation Center said by the year 2050, the world is projected to have a population of 9.1 billion people, an increase of nearly 3 billion people.
“We’re going to have to really invent perhaps the second green revolution to feed all those people,” he said.But simply following the model of the first green revolution may not be adequate.
“The same thing, but more of it is not really the innovation that we need to really address the problem. Some of the innovations that we need, people haven’t even thought of yet,” Lee said.
Part of the issue, Lee noted, is that more food is currently produced than reaches the table.
“So it’s an issue of waste. It’s an issue of processing, storage, transport. All those things in the food chain that can make a difference and increase the efficiency of food production are things that we need to look at,” he said. Food quality must remain a priority as new practices are adopted, Lee said.
“Quality of course is job 1. You can’t have foods with a taste penalty. That’s how we got into a flap with low-fat foods. It just didn’t have the same flavor and taste quality that drives us instinctively to eat,” he said
The challenge for food scientists and the food industry, he said, will be to find new ways to provide good nutrition in a socially and environmentally responsible way.
“We know how to do that. We’re working on doing more of it,” he said.
Lee said some projects on the horizon include technologies that will make eggs 100 percent safe using ozone, plasma microwaves that could quickly cook food and ultra-high pressure processing which can make foods such as raw oysters safe without altering the quality.
However, not all segments of the population may be willing to embrace these new technologies. Lee acknowledged that there is a trust gap, but said more awareness about food production would help.
“The consumer needs to have a trust relationship with the person who is processing or packaging or manufacturing that food product,” he said.
Local and Regional Food
A number of food producers say a growing interest in local foods is creating new opportunities for farmers. Freshness, flavor, quality and a greater economic impact on the local community can be attributes of food that is harvested closer to home, said Brandon Jaeger, of Shagbark Seed and Mill Company in southeast Ohio.
“You get a relationship with your food that you don’t get when you just get it at a supermarket,” he said.
“I also think that this contributes to this sort of regional specialty, the culture of our communities all over America, but I’m very excited about the culture we have here in Ohio through food,” said Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, a Columbus business that uses local and seasonal foods in its products.
Her business has boomed in recent years, and she said that growth has translated into even greater support for Ohio farmers.
“I bought $24 worth of strawberries at the farmers market,” she recalled of her ice cream shop’s early days. “It wasn’t really making that farmer’s day. He was excited for the sale, but not that excited. Last year we bought 24,000 pounds of strawberries from one farm. That farmer grows us the exact strawberries that we want and, you know, we made his year.”
Richard Stewart of Carriage House Farms near Cincinnati said consumers’ attraction to local foods has created new opportunities for his farm to be profitable.
“It’s fantastic. It actually allows us, to not have to worry about transportation of the product in bulk. It allows us to focus on the market and produce quality items that wouldn’t necessarily ship well to a remote location. It also allows us to charge a premium price for our product because there’s less spoilage.”
A restaurant that uses his freshly cut greens, for example, can expect a longer shelf life than a product that was shipped from northern Mexico.
“That’s a big boon for a local business,” he said.
Consumers trust farmers but they’re not sure what happens on today’s farms is still considered farming, according to Charlie Arnot of the Center for Food Integrity.
“We begin to see others step in and say ‘You’re right, you shouldn’t trust today’s farmers because they’ve changed, they aren’t who you thought they were, they don’t care anymore, they’re not as committed,’” he said. “It does create that opening because consumers are generationally and geographically removed from farming. If we’re not actively engaged in that conversation, they’re getting misinformation from someone else.”
But it’s not only farmers who are being challenged, Arnot said.
“Today (organizations) have targeted the branded food companies as being one of their primary strategies for changing how food is produced,” he said.
Arnot said organizations will identify a production practice or technology that they don’t like and threaten food companies with shareholder resolutions, protests or public relations campaigns unless the company changes. He said maintaining public trust is key to preserving these production practices.
“When the public trusts us to do what’s right they’ll grant us a social license which is more flexible, more responsive and much lower cost because we aren’t overly regulated in that environment.” he said.
When that trust is violated, farmers can expect more regulation, legislation or food companies moving away from certain production practices.
“So it’s important for us to engage with the public and communicate that while our systems have changed, our commitment to doing what’s right has never been stronger,” he said.
Photo by Galen Harris