A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between the Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio.
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If Janie Burns and Amy Hutchinson hadnâ€™t organized the project called â€ś2011: The Year of Idaho Food,â€ť I wouldnâ€™t have had the opportunity to spend the last 12 months sipping gin at 8:30 in the morning (well, once), foraging for stinging nettles in the forests of McCall, riding in a big-ass wheat combine on the Palouse, sampling more fermented foods than I thought humanly possible (or medically prudent), eating goat five ways, jet boating down the Salmon in search of pioneer apples and sifting through the sands of the Snake River for a lunch of fresh-water mussels (not recommended). And thatâ€™s just for starters.
Still, my weekly collaboration with the Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio to write food and farming stories under the Year of Idaho Food banner was just one feature of the projectâ€™s broader agenda.
â€śThe Year of Idaho Food was envisioned as a means of engaging the public to think about their food,â€ť local food advocate Janie Burns said of the statewide project she and Hutchinson dreamt up in March of 2010 while â€śAmy and I were trapped in a car for six hours, traveling back from Moscow where weâ€™d both been at a food conference.â€ť
The two women wanted to create what Hutchinson called â€śa virtual tableâ€ť where Idahoans who normally didnâ€™t have an opportunity to express their interest in food and agriculture could gather and publicly share their food and farming stories via a Year of Idaho Food website. Burns and Hutchinson also wanted to organize actual on-the-ground events and encourage participants to organize their own events so people could meet face to face, all under the egalitarian banner of the Year of Idaho Food.
â€śA lot of people think about food and the issues surrounding it,â€ť Burns said, â€śbut theyâ€™ve never had the opportunity or been empowered to do anything. So we hoped that this would be some kind of organizing principle that would allow people to do something that they might not have had the courage to do otherwise.â€ť
In January 2011, Idahoans from around the state began submitting their Year of Idaho Food stories to Northwest Food News (a web site I administer). The first, from Michele Murphree in Sandpoint, detailed Bonner Countyâ€™s progress in creating school gardens. Over the year, stories included lessons shared by an accidental chicken rancher, a childâ€™s fascination with tractors, an ode to sorrel, raised garden beds built from actual beds and a full-on, Idaho grown Thanksgiving. Some participants used the website to post multiple entries. Melissa Frazier, for instance, took the opportunity to begin cataloguing the stateâ€™s growing number of community gardens, a project she plans to continue on the Northwest Food News site into 2012. Casey Oâ€™Leary wrote several stories about the numerous epiphanies sheâ€™s experienced while working on her urban farm, Earthly Delights, and also plans to continue submitting stories.
Along with the 50 written submissions that the Year of Idaho Food posted, co-founder Amy Hutchinson, who also founded the Boise Urban Garden School (BUGS), said she was pleased to see how quickly participants put together their own grass-roots projects.
â€śIn addition to potlucks and different neighborhood gathers,â€ť Hutchinson said, â€śthere are now newsletters, a compilation of titles about books about gardening and food; there have been baby and bridal showers that have focused on local food as well as discussions and book clubs.â€ť
Hutchinson said schools and universities got involved too: â€śWeâ€™ve partnered with the University of Idaho; College of Idaho has done a tremendous amount around food this year and also different schools from Council, Idaho to the Boise School District, which held a harvest day.â€ť
Over the Labor Day weekend, Burns and Hutchinson organized a â€śDay of Idaho Foodâ€ť celebration challenging Idahoans to create a meal made of Idaho sourced foods and asking participants to send in their resulting menus. People submitted everything from Chioggia beet salads to â€śbear meatloaf stuffed with garden chives and tomatoes.â€ť
Idaho Senator Tim Corder sent in this Day of Idaho Food menu:
â€śWe will be eating fresh tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peas out of the pod, some green beans, cantaloupe and watermelon, crook neck squash, carrots and a salad right out of the garden. Perhaps even an Idaho grown steak on the grill. Â More is possible but we will be full. Â We will eat Idaho cheese and I will drink a little Idaho wine, strawberries for desert.â€ť
The Idaho legislature participated in the Year of Idaho Food in another way. â€śProbably the biggest marker of success in the broader public sphere,â€ť Janie Burns said, â€śis having the Senate Agricultural Committee support a resolution supporting the Year of Idaho Food and the Day of Idaho Food.â€ť
As I toured the state collecting stories for the Boise Weekly and my Boise State Radio show â€śEdible Idaho,â€ť I was struck by how deeply involved in food so many Idahoans already were, Senate resolution or not. When Tara Kelly introduced me to a science labâ€™s worth of fermented concoctions lined up in glass jars the length of her suburban kitchen island, I knew Iâ€™d stumbled onto someone with far more than a passing interest in food. As Sadie Barrett shot down the Salmon River in search of abandoned pioneer apple orchards, her determination to save Idahoâ€™s heritage fruit trees was palpable. So too was the determination I saw in Palouse wheat farmers Wayne and Jacie Jensen; they were part of a group working to free themselves from the dictates of international commodity markets by selling their grain locally.
The common thread running through the lives of all the people I met and all those who sent in stories to the website was this: theyâ€™d become active participants in their food systemâ€”whether farmer, rancher, gardener, cook or avid eater.
In the culinary dark ages of the 1950â€™s, when I was a child, American families were running in the opposite direction, toward near total passivity, giving up gardening and cooking for the packaged promises of a burgeoning food industry. At the same time, farmers and ranchers were giving up their independent, diversified lives to the singular dictates of industrialized, commodified agriculture. As a nation, it seemed, weâ€™d collectively drunk the Kool-Aid that led us to believe that scientists, technologists and the corporate and governmental agencies that employed them knew more about health, nutrition and taste than we did. En masse, families and farmers surrendered their daily intimacy with food to â€śexpertsâ€ť who pledged freedom from kitchen drudgery and â€śbetter living through chemistry.â€ť By the 21st century, 50â€™s futurists claimed, weâ€™d all be popping perfectly engineered, nutritionally balanced pills rather than choking down that archaic collection of leaves, roots and muscle once called â€śfood.â€ť
We all know where that led. I believe projects like the Year of Idaho Food are a course correction, a turning away from those technological pipe dreams toward a saner, more active pursuit, a pursuit that also defines us as human: the growing, cooking and conscious consumption of real food.
Although 2011: The Year of Idaho Food has officially endedâ€”and my food-centric contributions to the Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio are likely to be less frequentâ€”that doesnâ€™t mean that Janie Burns and Amy Hutchinson have quit making plans.
â€śThe Year of Idaho Food was actually year one,â€ť Burns said, â€śof what weâ€™re calling a ten-year campaign to get the percentage of local food that we eat to 20 percent by 2020.â€ť According to Burns, a recent University of Idaho and Urban Land Institute study found that Idahoans currently get a mere 2 percent of their food from local sources. Through a series of initiatives and partnerships with statewide organizations, Burns and Hutchinson hope to convince more of us to become active participants in our own food system.
When I asked Amy Hutchinson if what she saw as a sea change in the nationâ€™s attitude toward food was instead a single cresting wave that would surely waneâ€”a foodie fad rippling across the countryâ€”she was quick to reply:
â€śOnce you have experienced good food and good ingredients and youâ€™ve learned more about how to prepare those things, thereâ€™s really no turning back,â€ť she said. â€śOnce good food becomes a part of your life, it becomes something people value more and more, not less and less.â€ť
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.