A triumvirate of food experiences in Des Moines
Oct 14, 2009
This past weekend, my taste buds had the pleasure of encountering spices and textures normally reserved for travels outside of Iowa, and even outside the country.
Photo © 2009 Stan Brewer
By Shoshana Hebshi
This past weekend, my taste buds had the pleasure of encountering spices and textures normally reserved for travels outside of Iowa, and even outside the country. I had taken my mouth, and the rest of me, to the International Food Festival in the East Village, where I tried Bosnian food, Ethiopian food, Salvadoran food and Moroccan food. It truly was a festival for my mouth. And I enjoyed every minute.
A friend from grad school was also in town during this time of feasting, and her visit could not have been better timed in order to stir up in me somewhat dormant issues about food in Iowa.
This friend just graduated from ISU’s sustainable agriculture program, and she is now living in Maine working for a school district in its farm-to-school program. That is, she works on getting local farms to sell their wares to local schools. She did much of the same while working for ISU’s dining services, connecting local farms to the academic food industry. She was in town for a conference on food issues, and sort of ironically it coincided with both the World Food Prize and the International Food Fest. You could say this past week was the week of food in Des Moines: a convergence of food-centric events focused on expounding, exposing and enlightening in various respects.
While we were visiting one night, it dawned on me that the World Food Prize conference and my friend’s conference—both of which had attracted a bunch of people from all corners—should have had some overlap. We’re all concerned about food. It’s what sustains us, right? But is it sustainable?
Here, in the corn basket of Iowa, we see rows of crops on either side of nearly every road we drive. Corn on the left. Soybeans on the right. If you’re lucky, you may pass a hog farm, or maybe even a wind farm. But if you’re really lucky, you’ll stumble upon a small, family farm, like Coyote Run Farm in Lacona or Picket Fence Creamery in Woodward. And this is the kind of food we should be talking about—conferencing about.
While the World Food Prize may focus on feeding the world, in which Iowa plays a leading role, the focus of my friend’s conference was sustainable food and farm-to-table ideas. And, the focus of the international food fest was experiencing new food and making the world a bit smaller through our gastronomical commonality. All good goals from where I stand.
But, how can Iowa continue to feed the world if its monstrous farms that stretch for thousands of acres at a time are not sustainable? That is, because of modern farming practices dependent upon pesticides, herbicides and maximum usage of every square-inch of available topsoil, Iowa’s prided black dirt is being degraded. And the environmental impact downstream has been well-documented, as in the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the unhealthy bacteria levels in Iowa lakes and rivers.
How can we feed the world and continue to support community-based, sustainable agriculture? What is the future of food production? These are the questions these conferences could address in unison. And, as the climate changes and arable land diminishes, there will be more pressure on farming states like Iowa to provide the global masses with nourishment. I hope it’s not in the form of corn and soy byproducts, but in the meantime, I alone, do not have the answers. I would, however, not argue against a city mandate to have neighborhood chicken coops for fresh eggs to share or simply more dialogue on the local level of understanding where our food comes from and how it gets from point A (a farm of sorts) to point B (our plate).
Thanks to my friend, I have become much more aware of the local food movement in Iowa. It seems to be growing every year, and the public is paying attention, as farmers’ markets become more popular and better stocked. When we were in school together, she had me involved in the Real Food Challenge, which armed college students around the country with fodder for getting their schools to adopt the practice of buying local, organic and/or fair trade food for use in cafeterias, restaurants and vending facilities.
This may seem like a fringe issue that only leftie hippies and granola-types care about. But this is an issue that affects each of us on very basic levels. For, we are, after all, what we eat.
Shoshana Hebshi hates ending on a cliché, so instead, how amazing to petition to have the Ethiopian booth become a real restaurant so all in and around Des Moines don’t have to wait until another freezing October day for the spongy, yummy injera and other food-centric delights at http://shebshi.wordpress.com