Looking out from the bridge in Missoula

I spent last week at an academic conference for ASFS (Association for the Study of Food and Society… what a mouthful!), entitled “Food and Ag Under the Big Sky”.  I started in the Gastronomy program at Boston University in January with a (somewhat) overzealous enthusiasm for food and “foodie” culture.  I had that glassy-eyed optimism that everything could be organic and local, and delicious, and… inexpensive.  And I never really considered the challenges that producers and consumers, including chefs and farmers, face in making that idyll a reality.

The Ag folks were talking about environmental issues (water usage, pesticides, GMOs) along with cost concerns and policy problems.  The Food folks were talking about sourcing from farmers and distribution issues, along with the same cost concerns and policy problems.  The more academically inclined were talking about the history, philosophy, language, and cultural underpinnings of the food system and how these issues come to be.  I knew I signed up for a liberal arts degree and I’m always eager to learn a little of everything, but I was a little overwhelmed at the vast range of interconnected issues.

The Farmers' Market in Missoula

Looking at the food system as a whole is hard enough as it is, and it’s even more difficult to come to a consensus when there are so many diverse areas trying to work together for positive change.  It seems like everyone latches on to a pet issue, and it’s hard to talk about sustainable water usage with a farm in Texas that has to irrigate, or about the importance of finding organic and non-GMO feed for chickens with a vegan.  It’s also hard to talk with a potential funder about the importance of values and ethics in a business decision that doesn’t produce maximum profit.  This all sounds pretty downtrodden, but I was struck by a speaker that quoted (I think it was) Teddy Roosevelt: “Start small, but start something.”

The good news is, we’re in agreement that things have to change.  We’re in agreement that sustainability is the goal.  And I think there’s evidence that it’s do-able on lot of different scales and in lots of ways.

Katie Dolph is the National Summit Intern at the Chefs Collaborative.