The foods we choose to grow, the foods we love to eat, and the habits we build around meals can demonstrate a sense of place and a sense of identity. Food can be a symbolic gesture of culture, of friendship, and of family. Food can play the main role in celebrations, customs, and rituals. The way we grow, prepare, distribute, share and consume our food can also reflect both our collective and individual priorities. What we eat, the way it’s produced, and the way we eat it tells a story. Eat Local Month can be about more than a challenge to eat as many locally sourced foods as possible. Let’s take it as an opportunity to consider our 31,000+ individual food stories and how we want our food stories to collectively define our regional culture.
What is Our Food Story?
Local food promoter Therese Allen said in 2007 that Wisconsin food stories often take place “at farmers’ markets, community festivals, and church suppers; in cheese factories, butcher shops and specialty markets; and in restaurants, cafes, and home kitchens.” Many of our food traditions have helped develop local industry throughout the years such as fishing, harvesting cherries, producing maple syrup, foraging for wild edibles, milk and cheesemaking, brewing, growing ginseng, and more recently growing and distributing organic produce. Food has been the center of our celebrations, and also a reason to celebrate in this agriculture rich state.
Healthy and Affordable: Work to Do
According to a 2014 report from the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems, two of the four factors that make up the elements of “good food” include “Healthy—providing nourishment and enabling all people to thrive;” and “Affordable—all people have access to it.” Our community has made some strides providing nourishment and yet still has a ways to go with regard to local food enabling all people to thrive. On one hand, Madison has paved the trail to healthy food: we were one of the first communities to join the Slow Food movement in an effort to develop a local food system that supports the local economy and the people within that economy. Slow Money Wisconsin president Tera Johnson recently noted on “For The Record” (a news segment on Madison’s WISC-TV) that Wisconsin is presently the second-largest producer of organic food in the United States (next to California). That’s a lot of nourishment, the question is: are we all thriving and do we all have access to the food and momentum we’re creating?
According to the City of Madison website “not everyone enjoys the same opportunity to participate in the food economy.” Low income, physical barriers that segregate neighborhoods (roads or nature for example), low transportation access, and lack of social or economic opportunity leave many within our community unable to afford the local foods that may not be priced as low as those conventional foods that can be produced with an economy of scale. It’s easy to say “vote with your dollars” when it is affordable for you and there are ample choices to be made. Unfortunately, it’s clear that not everyone within our community has access to the choice to vote local food. As a result, the City acknowledges a strong need for “the development of a local and regional food system that supports equitable access to healthy, culturally appropriate food, nutrition education, and economic opportunity for all of its citizens.” Several initiatives are called out as part of developing our healthy, culturally and economically rich food system: community gardens; developing edible landscapes on public land for all to enjoy; investing in healthy retail food access in underserved communities; promoting FoodShare use at local farmers’ markets by offering up to $25 in dollar for dollar matching on FoodShare use via the MadMarket Double Dollars Program; continued work on a future Madison Public Market; and SEED (State Economic Engagement & Development) grants. Lots of opportunities; lots of work to be done.
Local Food as Good Food
Your Co-op is interested in the City’s initiatives to make Madison’s local food good food by creating more opportunities for all people to thrive. One way we are participating in making local food good food is by supporting the Allied Community Cooperative’s initiative to develop a healthy corner store owned and operated by the neighborhood. By creating a small store that is as much about local food as it is about local people, Allied Community Cooperative is taking a stake in its own food story, creating a project around creating food access as well as economic and job opportunities in the neighborhood. Your Co-op provided mentorship to Allied Community Cooperative when responding to the City’s request for proposals to issue a $300,000 forgivable loan to an entity interested in locating a grocer in the Allied Drive Neighborhood. We are currently working with Allied Community Cooperative to respond to the City’s questions about the proposal, and we are committed to helping them see a store to fruition, should that be what their neighborhood and cooperative decides to pursue. The City is currently drafting a report on the proposal for City Council review, and we will keep you posted as to when the Council will weigh their decision to support the Allied Community Cooperative’s healthy corner store project.
Your Co-op is also interested in making food more affordable and accessible for our Owners. Recently, we expanded our Access Discount Program qualifiers, making it even easier to participate in our 10% discount program if you need financial assistance to make healthy food and local options more affordable for you. Access users also now receive a free class coupon each year they participate, making it possible to learn more about using local food from our own local food experts. We are working with Second Harvest and FairShare CSA Coalition as well, to share information about our Access Discount Program with those who are using FoodShare and Partner Shares—making sure that those who want greater access to local foods already are aware of our resources.
We’ve also recently invested in a myriad of local food initiatives to increase local food access through our Community Reinvestment Fund: Backyard Mosaic Women’s Project and Verona Area Needs Network’s community garden improvements, filming and sharing the stories of the people participating in Centro Hispano’s community garden projects, creating opportunities for neighborhood dinners all over Madison from the food carts in the Let’s Eat Out! program, and teaching local families how to cook together and create their own food stories through WYOU’s Kitchen Krewe television series.
Literacy Kitchen Series In Progress
One great opportunity our shoppers have to make a local food, local people connection is through the Literacy Network’s Literacy Kitchen Series, which started just last month. As stated on our website, “The Literacy Kitchen is a series which highlights a Literacy Network learner and cuisine from their culture. Each session in the series will focus on a different learner, their culture and their experience with Literacy Network as well as the impact literacy has had on their lives. You’ll walk away with a new recipe, a full belly, and a deep appreciation of the workthat the Literacy Network does in our community, as well as the challenges faced by low-literate adults.” The last of the three part summer series is scheduled Thursday, September 10th in our East Community Room. It features Krishna and Mangal Subba Cooking Bhutanese, and it will surely be another great opportunity to see how local food takes on different meanings depending on whose food story is being shared.
Eating Local, Talking Local
How is local food part of your local story, your customs, traditions and culture? Does local food mean to you what it does to your neighbor? One of the great opportunities we have as a local cooperative is to talk with each other, perhaps while we shop, in the community rooms, and after we shop when we are putting our food on our tables. We are local people, after all. When you eat local this month, consider: am I sharing my food stories, listening to other food stories, and does the food on my plate have an impact on the plates of others? How can I play a role in making local food good food for all in our community?
If you want to talk more with our Co-op about our commitment to local food and local people this month, join us at one of our Eat Local, Talk Local panel discussions, where you can find out more about our food and product selection philosophy, how we support local suppliers, and our part in the future of local food. We hope to see you either September 16th at West, or September 21st at Willy East.
See the Community Room Calendar for details on how to register for either part three of the Literacy Kitchen Summer Series or Eat Local, Talk Local.