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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

The annual Home Grown Food Summit kicked off on Monday, May 4th with five video presentations. I was most interested in watching "Grass Roots Rising – How Regenerative Ag can save the world," since this feels like a force starting to inform our food choices. "Compost: The Movie - extreme composting," and "Road Kill: Judging the edibility of found meat" were tempting, but narrower in appeal.

Regenerative agriculture sits on the opposite end of the spectrum of food production systems from our current, prevalent model of industrial agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is built on the premise that all you need to grow good food is located in one locale. It is one continuous, sustainable food system connecting trees, soil, crops, animals, farmer, and customers that feeds itself without the need for synthetic fertilizers. Such a system naturally takes care of itself if you set it up right, without antibiotics or hormones.

Ronnie Cummins, a long-time food activist, makes the case for regenerative agriculture by walking you through the evolution of a food hub his team started in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico called Via Organica. Ronnie and his wife started with a restaurant featuring organic food sourced from local farmers (there are 248 now). Over the course of 10 years they added a store and a micro-brewery, started growing their own produce to expand choice, and opened a Saturday farmer's market in front of the store. As word of Via Organica spread, interest in organic food grew to the point that Ronnie started a teaching farm and training center to extend grass roots efforts to all parts of Mexico. An important part of the mission of Via Organica is to help recapture and preserve the traditional ways of growing food which are built on the principles of regenerative agriculture.

A salient point Ronnie makes is that people with more limited income on average than us American consumers are willing to pay a bit more for organic food, but still a fair price that also rewards the small farmer who practices sustainable agriculture. The typical Mexican consumer, he says, has only recently become aware of the connection between health problems and recently adopted high fat, high sugar food products in their diet. The quick spread of organic food hubs and farmer's markets into every state in Mexico shows that Mexican consumers of even more modest means are choosing to eat food that's closer to the source. We in the U.S. have the wealth in land and buying power to make this choice too. We have the means to embrace regenerative agriculture in a big way.

You don't have to go back to our agrarian economy before the industrial revolution to get a sense for how decentralized food production can be. 20,000,000 "victory" gardens produced half of America's produce in 1943, according to Loretta Craig, another presenter at the Home Grown Food Summit. As part of the war effort, Americans were encouraged to grow gardens, wherever, and however small or large. This was not a federal program. Twenty million gardens were planted, tended, and harvested with the guidance and resources of local champions in every corner of this country. Talk about a grass roots effort!

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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

There's playing with your food to distract yourself, and others, likely your parents when you were little, from whatever it is on the plate that you don't want to eat but that you inevitably have to sample to not be rude, to save face, or to placate mom and dad.

You cut. You group. You push morsels from one side to the other.

There's playing with your food, but not meaning to, at least not at first, like the little boy chasing a potato around his plate in a funny scene from My Life as a Dog, a movie by Lasse Hallstrom. The boy was earnest in his foiled attempts to stab the round, smooth spud.

Playing with your food can be joyful, too, especially if you're strapped into a high chair with a bowl of spaghetti and sweet pasta sauce. The bowl makes a great cap when the noodles have been flung about and your chubby cheeks glisten red.

Then there's Manami Sasaki, a designer and artist. She's making playing with your food an art form these days to stave off the boredom of confinement. With plain toast as canvas she's created three-dimensional paintings from food and edible decoration. My favorite of the fourteen creations posted on her Instagram feed is a zen garden, made with sour cream raked into lines, macadamia nuts and walnuts for rocks, and matcha powder to represent moss. A zen garden so takes advantage of the medium -a flat piece of rectangular bread - and nicely showcases the featured food because of all the white space for contemplation surrounding it. I might not eat nuts with sour cream and bread that way but it got me thinking...

Planning, preparing, serving, and eating food can be even more engaging with a little (or a lot of) imagination. Think of the blank canvases in your meal repertoire beyond round plate or bowl. Mountains (or valleys) of pasta or rice. The playing field of a casserole. A sea of stew. Tangled jungles of salad. A whole new world of recipes and recipe adaptations.

The zen garden toast got me wanting to brainstorm food compositions that will get kids to eat what you want them to eat. Edible sculptures for yourself that would be cool to conceive, or food paintings that would be gratifying to serve.

Updated: May 1, 2020

I'm putting the final touches on a new Talk to Me About Food podcast episode about the growing movement of folks growing their own food. I muse on different aspects of this trend but don't touch on the importance placed on building back diversity in crop genetics by advocates for this movement. An article in Civil Eats the other day about seed saving got me thinking a bit more about protecting and promoting plant diversity, and enjoying more of what can be grown from this diversity.

I'm reminded of the scare we heard about several years ago when Arctic melting was thought to be threatening the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This irreplaceable cache embeds more than 10,000 years of seed breeding knowledge; it is truly a lifeline for future generations should we muck things up. Measures were taken at Svalbard to shore up its defenses against continuing climate change predations. Given the scale of what is at stake, growers of all stripes should also take on some the responsibility of saving seeds.

The Civil Eats story encourages food gardeners and crop growers to save and share seeds as a strategy for coping with climate change, indirectly. The more encompassing benefit of saving seeds, and being part of a community of seed savers, is about food sovereignty for farmers: control. Saving seeds, and having access to open source seeds gives growers control over costs, and the flexibility to adapt to local changes in climate and related conditions.

"Creativity" was also cited as a benefit of growing plants for seeds. Creativity to experiment. To find breeds that work best for your soil and climate. For my podcast on growing your own foods, I talked to Marjory Wildcraft, founder of the GROW network. She mentioned that her father-in-law breeds a variety of heat resistant tomato that thrives in central Texas summers, and a squash that stores well all winter.

This creativity can also provide the flexibility to develop vegetables and fruits with a variety of tastes, textures, and shapes. I found my way to a catalog of open source seeds at the Open Source Seed Initiative. The site lists 107 varieties of lettuce. 33 peppers. And 11 varieties of carrot I can grow, or have someone grow for me somewhere up the line; yellow, purple, golden, red, and white carrots. Sweeter ones too, and carrots shaped like turnips. I've seen carrots of different colors before. Not often, and priced high. What if we had more access to this potential cornucopia of produce? What if we asked for it?

We either crave variety, or have been made to expect variety by food makers over the years. Think about the wash of flavor colors at the yogurt aisle, or the variety of pasta sauce options, or salad dressing types, or flavored tea options. How many varieties of Cranberry+Other Fruit has Ocean Spray got on the shelf!

Why not leverage this expectation we have for affordable variety to make this idea of open source seeds and seed exchanges stick? The broader and deeper the network of available breeds of plants, the more access to a mishmash of heirloom produce. A growing number of us consumers are open to heirloom (sometimes less than perfect-looking) breeds. Food growers and food makers could, and maybe should nurture and cultivate this latent curiosity about what serves as the base of the food pyramid.

The word "heirloom" in front of anything, tomatoes, corn, eggplant, makes it sound even more delicious; a delicacy, ephemeral and exotic. It doesn't have to be a once-in-a-blue-moon thing, if it's regularly in your favorite food stores and local markets, or if it comes from your own hyper-local community of food gardeners.


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