Sustainable food systems topic of conference

Locally grown food. That's what area farmers, restaurant owners, food processors, public health officials, educators and others will be talking about—and tasting—at the inaugural Local Food Works Conference on Saturday (Nov. 12).

To be held in downtown Toledo, the conference will bring together people from every aspect of the food industry to network and, it is hoped, lay the foundation for a community-wide process for overcoming barriers to a sustainable, regional food system. Sessions will take place from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the McMaster Family Center in the Lucas County Public Library, located at 324 N. Michigan St.

Keynoting the program will be former professional basketball player Will Allen, who now is an organic farmer, entrepreneur in Milwaukee and advocate of local food networks and sustainable food systems.

The Toledo conference is thought to be the first area effort to bring more locally grown food to the table.

"Food forms the foundation of our regional culture, just as it does cultures around the world. The word 'culture' comes from the Latin root for 'cultivate,'" points out Michael Szuberla, coordinator of Toledo GROWs, an outreach program of the Toledo Botanical Garden. Szuberla; Dr. Holly Myers-Jones, director of BGSU Environmental Programs, and her students have initiated the conference with a BGSU Partnerships for Community Action grant.

One survey cited by Myers-Jones and Szuberla found that Ohioans spend 13.7 percent of their household budgets on food. "Most of that (money) doesn't stay here. Retaining those billions of dollars in the region is an economic development challenge worth exploring," Szuberla said.

On the conference agenda will be discussions about new infrastructures to support locally based food systems, opportunities for farmers to enhance business growth by filling specialized niches, key challenges confronting the food system, agricultural tourism and forging networks between "farms and fork."

"Basically we want to look for avenues to keep farmers on farms and promote the healthy benefits of locally grown foods," Myers-Jones said.

"Making our food production more sustainable can lead to economic development and revitalization," according to the BGSU faculty member. "Our national food production and distribution systems are linked to many issues that people may not realize are connected," she said, adding that "food is water; food is petroleum. There are also food security and agricultural environmental issues that community-supported agriculture could help to address."

In addition to BGSU and Toledo GROWS, conference sponsors include the Lake Erie West Foodshed Network, a citizens' group working to influence public policy on agriculture and food issues, and Innovative Farmers of Ohio, a family-farm network that focuses on sustainable agriculture.

Sign-in at the conference begins at 8:30 a.m. The first in a series of concurrent sessions will be held from 9:30-11 a.m., followed at 11:15 a.m. by Allen's keynote address.

Allen, one of seven children in a Maryland farming family, played professional basketball for a time before accepting a job in marketing. After 10 years of corporate life, he bought a farm in 1982. The farm now produces more than 100,000 pounds of chemical-free vegetables yearly. Allen is also co-director of Growing Power, a nonprofit group dedicated to the promotion of fresh, healthy produce.

More breakout sessions will be held throughout the afternoon. Scheduled speakers include Amy Bodiker, former executive director of the Chef's Collaborative, a 1,000-member national network that promotes sustainable cuisine through local, seasonal and traditional cooking; Todd Wickstrom, a member of the Slow Food International board of directors and co-founder of Heritage Foods, a business dedicated to helping farmers market artisanal foods, and Ashley Atkinson from The Greening in Detroit.

The program will conclude with a reception from 4:30-8:30 p.m. at Diva Restaurant, 329 N. Huron St. The reception will feature a menu of locally grown foods, such as Amish cheeses, Lake Erie walleye, free-range beer-can chicken and sweet potato biscuits.

Those interested in attending are encouraged to register in advance. The cost of the conference alone, including lunch, is $15. The fee to attend both the reception and conference is $35. The fee to attend only the reception is $30.

Reservations for the reception must be made by Thursday (Nov. 10).

Students and others may qualify for reduced fees to attend. For more details, see or call Szuberla at 419-936-2986.

November 7, 2005