A model food community

It was a crisp Oregon morning when I caught the glimpse of all the cars in the parking lot at the Riverside Amusement Park where the Portland Chefs Collaborative was hosting its annual Farmer-Chef Conection. In my pre-breakfast stupor, I wondered, are that many people here roller skating and riding bumper cars at nine in the morning on a Monday?

When I asked our host, Debra Sohm Lawson, about the size of the crowd which Chefs Collaborative was expecting, she nonchalantly estimated that twelve dozen farmers, chefs, caters and food activists might participate.

The participants were largely from the Portland area, but when I saw that Doc and Connie Hatfield of Country Natural Beef had driven in from Brothers Oregon to attend the meeting–one of many they are invited to each year–I knew that it must be a highly functioning gathering, or else they would have skipped it. Folks had not come merely to listen to a few talking heads, but they had come to interact. The “speed dating” exercise among producers and chefs kept people busy for nearly an hour of one-on-one negotiations, but the relationship-building continued all the way through lunch.

We often talk glibly of “food communities,” as if everyone who buys or sells foods from one another share considerable time as well as values with one another. But that is not necessarily true in all places; more often than not, we all fall short of that goal. Yet there is something remarkable that many of us have seen in the Portland-centered community…there is collaborative problem-solving, long-term continuity in relationships among producers and chefs, and millions of dollars of locally-produced foods reaching Portland restaurants.

Portland has as many innovators in its food community as Austin has songwriters and musicians, or Santa Fe has folk artists. Much of what has occurred there has come not through support from government agencies and foundations, but through non-profit and private entrepeneurs funding common ground and maintaining momentum. If “it takes a village” to achieve such successes, Portland area farmers, ranchers, foragers, orchard keepers, chefs, farmers market managers, CSAs, and vintners have shaped an elegantly functioning food village.

What can we learn from them in terms of principles that might help other food communities? Was it simply that Portland had many “early adopters” of food systems innovation? How did they avoid burnout (if they did)? How did the non-profits learn to complement rather than compete with the business skills of restaurant owners and producers? How have the numbers of farms in Oregon doubled since the 1970s? How have they kept several hundred people regularly engaged in their collective work? If Portland community leaders can answer such questions should be given THE NEXT NOBEL PRIZE IN ECONOMICS….

Posted by: Chefs Collaborative

2 Responses to “A model food community”

  1. Noah Stevens Says:

    Portland also has the benefit of a culinary school which (when I attended it about 10 years ago) had some amazingly cool instructors who went out of their way to get students involved in local “food issues”. The first time I heard of CC was in its halls, mentioned by an instructor when food issues were just revving up in other places. Local produce, interested people, a wonderful community and a vibrant city add up to make Portland the next Mecca of “green” restaurant thinking, IMHO. Being there at that time made me really stop to consider the future of the business and how to work at changing things. Hopefully that thinking percolated through the other students.

  2. Lola Milholland Says:

    Inspired by burning questions just like those, in early 2007, Ecotrust and the National Chef’s Collaborative published “Building Local Food Networks: A Toolkit for Organizers.” The Toolkit distills seven years of history hosting Farmer-Chef Connection conferences and publishing “The Guide to Local and Seasonal Products,” which serves as yellow-pages of regional food producers and buyers interested in direct market relationships. One of the beauties of the conference is its adaptability; by sharing the tools that have been honed over the last seven years (like speed dating!), our community can help springboard others to further develop region-specific models for food systems change.

    In 2007 and 2008, 35 distinct communities—from New Orleans to Iowa City and Saskatoon to Durango, CO—purchased the Toolkit and subsequently hosted Farmer-Chef networking events. It’s fantastic to watch this strong idea spread, as others learn about and build from the amazing groundwork in place and avoid the reinvention of a well-designed wheel.

    For those communities interested in guidance for establishing local food networks in general, as well as specifics about organizing a Farmer-Chef Connection gathering in detail, consider purchasing a copy: http://www.ecotrust.org/foodfarms/localfoodnetworks.html.

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