Saturday, September 1, 2001

Food for Thought: A culinary celebration downtown

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Madison Magazine, Sept. 2001
Column: Table Talk

Here’s some food for thought: U.S. food travels 1300 miles on average from farm to plate, with 90% of our nation’s fresh vegetable crop grown in a single state, California.

The cost of fuel is just one reason to question a food system based on trucking and flying everything across the country (and around the world). There’s also the social justice factor: do you really want to raise your kids on tomatoes from a field where day laborers toil, exposed to pesticides, for $2.50 a day? There’s the environment: agricultural runoff from the Mississippi and its tributaries creates a summer-long dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 5,000 square miles devoid of marine life. And, there’s the economics: 79 out of every 100 consumer food dollars pays not for growing the food, but for marketing-related activities: transportation, advertising, packaging.

Concerns over such issues have put Madison at the forefront of a movement towards more sustainable food practices. On September 8, you can experience the fruits of sustainability, and learn more about it. Enjoy yummy samples from local farmers and grocers. Get cooking lessons from Rick Bayless, one of America’s foremost chefs and cookbook writers, whose celebrated Frontera Grill restaurant in Chicago buys much of its produce from small-scale Wisconsin farmers. Hear from author Ruth Ozeki, whose provocative novel “My Year of Meats” explores the shady side of the American meat industry. All while enjoying music in the long rays of the harvest sun.

It’s the third annual Food For Thought Festival, where over 60 diverse groups will celebrate environmentally friendly agriculture, family farming, fair trade, and delicious, healthy dining. Last year, the mix of participants included Mifflin Street and Willy Street Co-ops, L’Etoile, the American Farmland Trust, Progressive Dane, UW Greens, the Wisconsin Home Garden Project, Q106 FM and the Gray Panthers. The festival will take place just off the Square, during the Dane County Farmers’ Market (a fitting venue—it’s one of the nation’s largest farmers’ markets, circulating a quarter of a million dollars of revenue through the local economy weekly).

On display will be the oversized trompe-l’oeil potato sculptures of local artist Mark Harmon. Stilt-walkers and other wandering performers will set a festive tone. Folk singer Ken Lonnquist will share some of his favorite songs about food. The Milwaukee-based band Leahy’s Luck will perform upbeat Irish music. For kids, there’ll be face painting, farm animals, and a veggie jewelry-making booth—carrot rings and radish circles make smart pendants, dontcha know.

Food For Thought isn’t about convincing people to “give up everything and live on nuts and berries,” says Jack Kloppenburg, a professor of rural sociology at UW-Madison; rather, its aim is “to present the alternatives, to show how fun and doable they are.” Kloppenburg is on the steering committee of Dane County REAP (Research, Action, Education & Policy on Food), the group organizing the event. REAP is a independent grassroots organization made up of, as its Web site says, “concerned citizen-eaters.”

Besides the festival, REAP’s biggest project right now is assembling a comprehensive “Farm Fresh Guide” to Dane County and surrounding areas. “It’ll list farmers’ markets, U-pick orchards, CSAs [community supported agriculture, where a subscriber buys a share of a single farm’s produce, a season at a time], direct producers who market right at their farms, everything,” explains Kloppenburg. The highly regarded Wisconsin Cartographers’ Guild will draw up the guide’s maps, he adds: “We hope to have a mockup of it at the festival.”

The festival’s motive is simple, says Kloppenburg: “We want to get people to think about what they put in their mouths.”

3rd annual Food For Thought Festival
September 7-8, 2001
Friday, Sept. 7, 7:30 pm, 272 Bascom Hall: Food For Thought Forum. Talk by author Ruth Ozeki, panel discussion with Ozeki and chef Rick Bayless.
Saturday, Sept. 8, just off the Capitol Square in downtown Madison: Food for Thought Festival takes place during the Farmers’ Market on the Square.