Monday, January 14, 2013

Angi Fuller Wildt: Communicating the virtues of local foods

Olives grow in the U.S. too!
As both a co-owner of a small-scale sustainable agricultural business and a public historian, the work that I do synthesizes public history with actively producing and marketing locally and regionally produced foods. In addition to cultivating, growing and selling mushrooms, herbs and produce to local restaurants and at our Columbia, South Carolina All-Local Farmers' Market, our business sells olive oil made from olives grown in southeast Georgia. One aspect of our marketing entails informing our customers about the 18th and 19th century exportation of olive oil as a commodity from coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Most people are quite surprised that olives can be cultivated in the southeast United States. Sharing the history allows them to have a sense of connection to the roots of the region. Many customers appreciate that the product isn’t shipped across the country or an ocean and that it supports economies close to home.

Another educational opportunity takes us into university classrooms and local venues to engage in dialogues about the ecological and economic benefits of growing and consuming heritage varieties of produce and other foods grown organically and locally.
As members of Slow Food, we work with a likeminded group of people in a growing movement to share our knowledge about the benefits of locally-produced, sustainable foodways with the community. This summer we participated in the Tasty Tomato Festival, a co-production of our Columbia Slow Food chapter and another organization, Sustainable Midlands. The event draws over 1,500 people and is held at an in-town sustainable farm called City Roots. The location itself invites attendees to see the possibilities of a different kind of urban renewal. The owners transformed three acres of a formerly vacant lot lies between the edge of a working class neighborhood and a light industrial area into a working farm. An information tent at the event featured Faces of Local Food with photographs and quotes by producers and customers. Another tent offered a wide variety of locally grown tomatoes for attendees to sample. Nearby, children lobbed commercially-grown tomatoes at a target.

Many of these efforts “preach to the choir,” however, and we occasionally struggle to quickly and easily explain in just a few sentences why local is better. Getting the message across that higher production costs equate to higher prices can be difficult in the minute that we might have with a potential customer. Those who are already aware of the environmental and societal costs created by government-subsidized food grown with hormones and chemicals, harvested by low-wage labor and shipped across long distances don’t need to be convinced of the value of buying locally-produced food. The founders of the Tasty Tomato Festival had the right idea. Featuring flavorful ripe red tomatoes alongside their bland, mealy, pink, mass-produced hothouse tomato counterparts makes it easy to see and taste the difference in quality. Making that connection, at a fun event with local food, local musicians, and a range of related activities gets the message across in a more palatable way than a few dry facts can. I would like to explore more ways to effectively communicate the virtues of locally grown foods to as many community members as possible. One idea to reach a more diverse audience includes partnering on events with other local organizations and groups whose members we may not typically encounter at the farmers’ market. Programs that connect participants to the history and the present of their communities create a sense of belonging. In addition to sparking an appreciation for quality, inclusive events can invoke a sense of civic responsibility, stewardship, and pride of place.

~ Angi Fuller Wildt


  1. Welcome to a fellow Slow Food member! The Slow Food movement, and its projects like the Ark of Taste, have a lot to offer in forging links between the food systems of the past and today's pressing concerns.

    I also really appreciate that you introduced your topic by talking about the power of historical narrative in local food marketing and education. Story is emerging as a powerful framework for understanding human awareness, choice-making and understanding. Because we're predisposed to love a story, narrative gives us an effective tool for making change - people can be profoundly moved (and moved to action) by the story behind an heirloom plant's travels around the globe and the compelling moments and challenges in the lives of food producers. Stories will be an essential part of solution-building, and part of the public history work to be done is unearthing and sharing hidden, previously unknown, and suppressed stories about food and food production. At the same time, we'll need to wrestle with the problematics of story - how to unseat false but well-loved stories about the food system, and how to guard against the dilution of meaning that sometimes accompanies the entry of foods into the marketplace, where a 'good story' has a dollar value and so might be in danger of coming disconnected from historical grounding.

    Looking forward to learning more about Georgia olive oil!

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  3. This post is in really interesting dialogue with Tyler French's piece - it's nice to have two case studies from so close together!

    Michelle, I'm glad you noted that "story" per se isn't necessarily always helpful in challenging entrenched ideas about food. There are plenty of stories already in circulation that actually support the dominance of the system we're trying to fix (eg. the story about how farmers from the old northeast moved west in search of land because they couldn't make their smaller, older farms pay - which to my eye is a comment more on the new expectations of industrializing and market-oriented agriculture than about those older farms and the people who farmed them). That one isn't so much "false" as it is misplaced - it arises from a certain set of assumptions about farms needing to survive within mainstream capitalist markets, and we may need to question those assumptions themselves if we're going to find our way out of the system that has developed within them.

    So it seems to me that we need more critical, questioning stories that can convey those complexities without just being wonky or polemical!