Thursday, January 24, 2013

Farm to institution reaches Nelsonville, brings together multi-county partners in local food access

NELSONVILLE, OH - They came together to talk about local food sourcing and left with fresh ideas, new connections and a stomach full of local food prepared by one of the nation’s few Certified Master Chefs.

The menu for the local food buffet. Photo by Joe Barbaree.

On Wednesday, January 16, more than 40 local farmers, restaurateurs, school faculty, hospital personnel and non-profit representatives came together at The Inn at Hocking College to discuss the future of local food sourcing and distribution as part of Rural Action Sustainable Agriculture’s continuing “Farm to Institution” initiative. The series of meetings, which began at the newly rebuilt Lake Hope Lodge in McArthur on November 14, addresses issues faced by restaurants, schools, hospitals and other institutions looking to source more fruits, vegetables and other products from local producers in Athens and surrounding counties. 

But the topic of discussion wasn’t the only local element at the afternoon meeting. Hocking College’s new Dean of Hospitality Master Chef Alfonso Contrisciani explained to the room full participants how he taught his students to select, prepare and work with fresh, local produce from area farmers to craft one of the highlights of the day: a local lunch buffet.

Participants from Live Healthy Appalachia, Athens City-County Health Department and Community Food Initiatives get settled before lunch begins. Photo by Joe Barbaree.

As Hocking College begins to restructure their agriculture and hospitality programs this year, Contrisciani wants to emphasize local food production and preparation. For the Farm to Institution meal he worked directly with Hocking students, who had a few surprises working with local food along the way. For an “Amish style” chicken pot pie, he worked with J.B. King of King Family Farm to get the freshest chicken he could. And his students were stunned. The chicken looked nothing like the pre-packaged stuff they were accustomed to in the grocery store. “This is what real chicken looks like,” he told them.

Chef Alfonso Contrisciani (left) speaks with Hocking College president Ron Erickson. Photo by Joe Barbaree.

Contrisciani also sourced pork shoulder from King, smoked it an entire day and paired it with a chipotle barbeque sauce, braised cabbage, apple smoked bacon and mustard cream for another entree. For a savory, local soup he purchased sweet potatoes from Rick Vest of Vest Berries and Produce, and turnips from the Chesterhill Produce Auction, which he showed the students how to lightly caramelize and turn into a velvety dish. Other items sourced from Chesterhill Produce Auction growers included the main ingredient for mashed potatoes – the potatoes – and honey for one of the sweet treats at the end of the meal – a honey and citrus goat cheese Bavarian cream with red wine poached pear compote.

Throughout the afternoon, attendees discussed issues faced when sourcing local produce: how to clear up communication issues between buyers and producers, the advantages of local produce, ways to address capacity issues and how to distribute produce effectively across the region. A number of solutions as well as some lingering issues were proposed.

Federal Hocking Schools superintendent George Wood (left) listens as Rick Vest of Vest Berries and Produce discusses local sourcing and his produce. Photo by Joe Barbaree.

After dividing into smaller groups during the meeting, attendees came back together to recap their discussions, some with tangible solutions to local sourcing problems. Natalie Woodroofe of the 30 Mile Meal initiative and the Real Food-Real Local-Real Good Institute pointed out that communication issues are a major hindrance to local sourcing. She said farmers often don’t know who is looking for what kind of produce, and buyers often don’t know the best way to reach a farmer, or what produce they typically sell and in what quantities, or even how to order.

To solve this, she and Joe Barbaree AmeriCorps VISTA with Rural Action Sustainable Agriculture suggested creating a buyers resource guide that lists all growers and producers within the Athens region and include listings for each that detail what produce they grow, seasonal availability, ordering methods and other pertinent information. Local producer information currently exists on and the 30 Mile Meal webpage, but a print compendium is the focus of this effort - something buyers can constantly have with them. These guides would be distributed to restaurants, schools, hospitals and any business interested in sourcing locally but not sure where to begin.

Executive Chef at WVU-Parkersburg Gene Evans (far left) and Roger Graves of Yankee Street Farm listen as John Gutekanst of Avalanche Pizza makes a point during the afternoon discussion. Photo by Joe Barbaree.

Other groups discussed changing school curricula and developments toward teaching local, sustainable food production while also increasing access to fresh, local food in higher education. This is what Rosa Guedes the new head of WVU-Parkersburg’s diversified agriculture program hopes to achieve. She will work with students - just as Contrisciani is – to prepare them for futures in sustainable, local food production and preparation. Permaculture, organic growing and high tunnel work will all be part of the learning curriculum.

After last week’s Farm to Institution meeting, smaller discussions are set to take place between partners in the local food economy. Some will turn their time, attention and talents toward revitalizing college and technical school agriculture curricula. Others will focus on creating fresh, local menus for hospitals and schools. Others will look at distribution and sourcing. But regardless of their approach, all will be working toward further strengthening and creating a thriving, sustaining local food system.

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