Sustainable Table was created in 2003 by the nonprofit organization GRACE to help consumers understand the problems with our food supply and offer viable solutions and alternatives. Rather than be overwhelmed by the problems created by our industrial agricultural system, Sustainable Table celebrates the joy of food and eating.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge for causing more mainstream adoption of sustainable food supply solutions? Is it a cultural issue? Purely monetary? Something else? (by teej)
A: I’m not an expert in the supply side of sustainable food, but the biggest problem that I know of is an actual distribution system for local food, or should I say distribution systems for each local area in the country – so it’s an infrastructure issue. If you look strictly at efficiency and economies of scale, the large industrial distribution systems like we have now are more efficient at getting food into stores, but it’s at the cost of the quality of the food, the effect on the environment and climate change, the treatment of animals, the vast distances the food has to travel, etc, so it’s not sustainable and simply can’t be maintained indefinitely.
I’ve also spoken with small sustainable farmers who’ve said that they can’t continue to do farmers markets either – they need to be growing and harvesting food. It’s very hard for them to then load a truck, drive for a few hours, and sell it all day at a market. I know people who are working on developing local markets where the market will pick up food from local farmers and sell it for them. (Gigi Market in the Hudson Valley, NY, is an excellent example.) So, even though the thought of creating a nationwide system of local distribution channels might seem daunting, there are people currently working on this issue. And once we have distribution channels in place, where farmers know they can get their food to consumers, I think you’ll find more food being produced and available.
Q: I'd like to hear your thoughts on sustainable foods for people that live in areas with extreme climates. For example, even though it's particularly extreme, places like Barrow, Alaska. Their average temperature never gets above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and they only average 109 days above freezing per year. They also experience 65 days per year without a single sunrise, but still have thousands of residents. Do they have any sustainable options? (by teej)
I’m not sure about Barrow, Alaska, because I’ve never been there, but I’ve been to Laramie, Wyoming, which is over 7,000 feet and has less than a 90-day growing season. I visited last year while Sustainable Table went on the Eat Well Guided Tour of America, a cross country tour to promote local sustainable food. The University of Wyoming, through their ACRES program, had just started an organic student farm, and even though they never thought they’d be able to grow anything the first year, they had just come back from the farmers market with around $900 in sales from the food they’d grown. I also spoke with a woman from Laramie who has a farm that grows lettuce – and she has to contend with 125 mile an hour winds on the mountain where she lives.
So, is it more challenging to grow food in places like Wyoming and Alaska? Of course! But it can be done. In Wyoming I was introduced to high tunnels – they’re simply large sheets of plastic secured over a rounded frame – this protects the soil and plants, and extends the growing season. I also saw cold frames – which are wooden boxes covered with glass, where food grows inside in the ground. In addition to those options, hot houses aren’t the way they used to be. Some have food growing directly in the earth; others have boxes with soil, but many are organic and grow delicious food. With regard to lack of sun for 65 days, if there is the possibility of wind power or some type of alternative power, you could use wind to generate power for lights to make sure food can continue to grow – and that you keep the operation sustainable.
Also, we here at Sustainable Table promote buying as locally as possible. It’s not possible to get all foods in all areas at all times, and we’re not trying to tell people they have to stop eating a certain food – but if you live in Alaska, it’s going to make more sense to get food you might not be able to grow from Washington or Oregon than from China or even Florida. (Though we do encourage people to try to eat as seasonally as possible, or to try to can food so that they’re not buying something like strawberries from another country in December!)
A: Organic is a great way to start. Understanding the problems around food today and knowing what to do can be confusing and overwhelming when you first begin learning about it, so, for some people, looking for organic is a good way to start. Also, if you’re in a large store and no one there can tell you about the food, organic guarantees the food will not be genetically engineered, will not be irradiated, no sewage sludge used, and no chemical fertilizers or pesticides applied.
Also, I have to say that there are many many small organic farmers who exceed the organic certification requirements and who are truly sustainable, but organic food is not necessarily sustainable. Large agribusinesses have become very interested in organic food because that segment of the market is growing so quickly, so large industrial organic farms are now present, and they are not sustainable. Monocropping (planting one crop on a large plot of land) is not sustainable – you want to buy food from a small farm where many crops are grown together and are rotated. With organic certification, animals only have to be given “access” to outdoors – they don’t actually have to go outside – so there are large farms raising animals in confined conditions, and they can call themselves organic – but they are not sustainable.
So, large industrial organic is not the best option, if you have other sustainable options, but it is better than conventional food. The best option is to buy sustainable food (which could be organic but doesn’t have to be) from a small local family farmer. The best way to do this is to shop at a farmers market or to ask your local store to start selling food from a local sustainable farm. And to find the right farmer for you, you need to ask questions. There is no legal definition for sustainable – it’s more of a philosophy where you put back what you take out and leave the land in the same condition (or better!) for generations to come. In order to do that, you need to grow food responsibly, using minimal to no pesticides and chemical fertilizers. You also need to have humane treatment of animals, treat workers fairly, provide a living wage to the farmer, and support the local community.
Finding the right farm or farms for you might take a little while, so, as I mentioned, starting with organic can help ease you into the transition to being sustainable. I think when you’re looking at buying organic, you should try to buy from small local organic farmers – they tend to be sustainable. It’s the large organic farms that usually ship food long distances that tend to be industrial organic.
Q: There is a burgeoning "youth" push for sustinable, good, and fair food - especially in colleges and universities. What would you suggest (barring WWOOFing and volunteering at a local NGO) as the best way for those recent graduates to remain involved, especially given the fact that local NGOs and policy groups are often so small? (by Jbaumstein)
A: Get local sustainable food in your cafeteria or dining halls while you’re still in school! It’s being done all around the country. We have a section called Education & Schools on the Sustainable Table site, where we give some ideas on how to get local food into your cafeterias. The Yale Sustainable Food Project is probably the best known school food program in the country. We met former students from the University of Montana who started a local food program at the University, and since leaving, have continued to work on sustainable food issues in the Missoula area.
My other suggestion would be to look around you and see what your community needs. Do you have a CSA (community supported agriculture) program? If not, start one! Does your area have a farmers market? If not, be the first to open one in your area!
Sustainable Table is currently putting together Presentation Kits that we’ll be offering online (hopefully!) by the end of the year. You’ll be able to download a speech, tabling materials, handouts, everything you need to spread the word about sustainable food and to educate others. You can table at local fairs and events or at any public place – we currently have a Tools You Can Use section on our site, where you can download information and share it with others.
If you cook, see if you can do a local sustainable cooking demonstration at your local mall – bring a local farmer in and use his/her food. Or see if your local Macy’s or other large department store with a kitchen department would let you come and give a demonstration or give a talk. If you’re passionate about local sustainable food, there are so many things you can do to spread the word and get involved. Or see if you can do educational events with a local health food store or co-op.
Q: Do you think that the recent Slow Food Nation further polarized the sustainable food discussion - by being in SF, with Alice Waters and other members of the community who both love the process and taste, of sustainable food, and by many of the more "interesting" events being not free to the public - or did a sufficient job of steering the movement away from the criticisms of elite that surround it? (by Jbaumstein)
A: I think Slow Food Nation did an amazing job with this first event. This was a huge undertaking, and they pulled it off spectacularly. Were there some glitches? Yes, but I don’t think there were any major problems. Personally, I think people are forgetting that there’s a difference between artisanal (slow) food and sustainable food. Artisanal food will be sustainable, but other foods are also sustainable. Artisanal caters to a certain market in this country because it is always going to be more expensive – making small batches of high quality anything by hand is going to cost more money. And I think the people who were criticizing the event were forgetting that.
What is great about Slow Food and Slow Food Nation is that they’re looking beyond just artisanal and what some might call elitist food into the whole arena of sustainable. So, I think right now they’re still in the process of defining exactly how they can best promote sustainable food and access for all in conjunction with their current work on saving heritage foods and breeds and promoting artisanal foods. I think they are a powerful force in the food movement, and I believe they’ll have a huge impact on helping to change our whole food system to a more sustainable one.
I’m actually having a call with them in a couple weeks, so if any of you have any suggestions on what they can do to improve their next event, please let me know and I’ll pass your comments on! They are very open to input and are working really hard to make Slow Food Nation something everyone can be a part of. They had over 2,000 volunteers help them with this event – now, that’s saying something about the interest in this type of food!
Q: My gut says that from a food perspective, you can't get more sustainable than buying what you need locally and cooking at home, but are there ways that restaurants (that are really on top of their game) can actually be better than each of us fending for ourselves? Are there more restaurateurs joining the local/sustainable food movement? (combined question by deej and MagdalenaC)
A: Yes, buying food yourself and cooking at home is usually the best option, but restaurants can be just as good (or better!) if, like me, you aren’t the greatest cook! There are many restaurants around the country that use local sustainable ingredients in their dishes and cook meals I simply would never have the time and patience to create myself – so, yes, you can still eat out and be sustainable! They’re usually not cheap, though. If you want to find a sustainable restaurant in your area, try Sustainable Table’s Eat Well Guide – it’s an online directory of sustainable food in your area – all you have to do is put in your zip code. We’ve also just launched Eat Well Everywhere – which is a tool where you can put in your driving route and get local sustainable outlets all along the way. With regard to restaurants joining the movement, yes, more and more are going local sustainable – the best thing we have in our favor is that local sustainable food simply tastes better, which certainly makes chefs happy!
Q: On an individual basis, how is the best way to participate in the movement? Joining a CSA? Shopping at farmers' markets? (by MagdalenaC)
A: If this is new to you, start small. Commit to buying one product that’s local sustainable. When you’re comfortable with that, add another. Or commit $10 a month. If we all did that, there would be a huge positive impact on farmers. And you can start by buying it right at your local grocery store (assuming they sell at least organic food or something local sustainable). Once you see how great the food tastes, you might want to take the next step – I would suggest you find a farmers market in your area. That way, you can pick and choose what you want to buy/eat. Next I’d suggest trying a CSA (community supported agriculture) for a season. With CSA, you pay up front and get food all season long – the amount depends on how well the growing season is. (Trust me, it’s always a LOT of food….) With CSA, though, you get what they give you, so this is best for when you’re ready to be a little adventurous. I actually had never heard of Kohlrabi until I did CSA – but certainly loved it once I tried it! But you have to be committed to cooking and eating a lot of fresh produce when you do CSA – or the food will be wasted. And, remember, every time you buy something local sustainable, you’re supporting not just your local farmer, but also your local community.
Q: What exactly does Sustainable Table do? How does your organization fit into the whole slow food movement? (by jessg)
A: Sustainable Table is a nonprofit program (our main organization is called GRACE) founded by me in November 2003. Basically, we’re an educational program that raises awareness of sustainable food through new media, humor, entertainment and pop culture. We celebrate local sustainable food, educate consumers about food-related issues and work to build community through food.
How do we fit into the slow food movement? Hmmm…again, there’s some confusion over slow and sustainable. We put out an online film in 2003 (along with Free Range Studios) called The Meatrix – it’s an animated film that spoofs The Matrix trilogy and is about factory farming. The film has been seen by over 20 million people, is in 30 languages, and continues to get thousands of new viewers each month. This film is considered the most successful online advocacy film ever – so we work to educate people about the problems and solutions with our food supply. The Eat Well Guide, our online directory of sustainable food, is our solution to the problem with industrial food. Last year we went cross country on the Eat Well Guided Tour of America to promote local sustainable food but also to help highlight what’s happening in local communities. So we educate, offer solutions, and build community.
We fit into the slow food movement because we support small local family farmers - and the artisanal food Slow Food promotes comes from small family farms. So perhaps we’re the sustainable part of the Slow Food movement.
Q: Very cool website. How do you get all that information for your sustainable food database (by dana1981)
A: Thanks for the compliment! I’m assuming you’re referring to the Eat Well Guide – we work with local groups around the country and get information from them (and promote them in return). We also have a large team of interns and externs around the country who help find and update the listings we have in the Guide.