Dispatch from the Dish

Last night at ArtsRiot, an eager crowd gathered for another great food discussion. In this third installment of The Dish series, our topic was “Global Foods, Local Perspectives”. For me, it was another fine example of Vermonters putting their values on the line, even if it means wrestling with some challenging questions. As a community that places a high value on local food and the farmers who grow it, while at the same time cherishing delicious global foods that we will never realistically grow locally (think coffee, chocolate and avocadoes), how can we make informed, value-driven decisions when purchasing those global foods? We can sum up the evening’s conclusion with three simple words: Tell a story.

Our panelists for the night work in various parts of our global food system, from producing to certifying to selling. Each brought a unique perspective, and indeed unique stories, about their work. They might not readily think of themselves as story-tellers, but in their line of work, they often use the concept of traceability. For locally grown food, tracing a product’s origins is pretty simple – we can meet farmers face-to-face at farmers’ markets and community gatherings, and we can even go visit their farms to see their work directly. We can ask them about what they put on their fields and what they feed their animals.

Foods grown internationally are a whole other ball game, of course. We have to rely on many different players passing the story along the supply chain and eventually to the consumer, perhaps with only a few words on a small label. This came up a few weeks ago when a savvy group of third graders came to visit us at City Market. They were on a mission to learn more about Fair Trade and what that means. They already knew many things like where bananas and chocolate come from, and we talked about the hard work that people in those countries do to grow those foods. We asked them whether it was fair to have children in those countries doing that work instead of doing things that kids get to do here in the United States, like play and go to school. No, that’s not fair, they said. These third graders got it.

Sharing a photo of kids from Fair Trade growing communities attending school.

We looked for labels with Fair Trade symbols on them, then read closely the ingredients and other information we could glean. One question that almost stumped us came from one of young visitors: On a chocolate with the Fair Trade symbol, the fine print read “Made with 71% Fair Trade ingredients”. Why would it have the symbol but not be 100%? We read the label a little closer and realized that in the case of this milk chocolate, the milk was from Vermont, so wouldn’t be part of the Fair Trade calculation. Realizing that sometimes you have to read between the lines, our little visitors went back to school with plans to send letters to the companies so that they could gather more information. Food tells a story.

My coworker, Callie, showing the kids what cacao nibs are.

Back at our Dish panel, the traceability discussion moved to the myriad of different certifying agencies. You’ve seen the various logos from Fair Trade USA, Fair Trade International, Fair for Life, Rainforest Alliance, and others. Getting at the differences between each of those could take several other blog posts, indeed several other Dish sessions, but I thought Jacob Davignon put it well. He works for Rainforest Alliance, so he admits he’s partial to their certification, but says don’t feel like you have to pick a favorite. Instead, he says, “If a producer is going through some kind of process to better their practices, that’s better than no certification at all.”

At the same time, Martha Caswell, a researcher from UVM, points out that Fair Trade certification is not a panacea. With only about 10% of the price of coffee going back to the grower, a higher premium on Fair Trade coffee beans is not going to solve systemic issues of poverty in growing communities. That issue, too, could fill several more Dish sessions. It’s a complicated, big issue, of course. Eric Lampman from Blue Bandana Chocolates shared a great example of how to break such a tremendously large issue into small, tangible solutions. In Guatemala, he asked his growers what they needed to make their work easier. They pointed out that, while they had several motor bikes for transporting their harvested cacao, most had broken down and they didn’t have a way to fix them. For Blue Bandana, helping the growers repair those bikes was a relatively small expense, but made a huge impact. This for me was a great example of how real, personal relationships between buyers and growers can lead to greater outcomes. Stories lead to relationships.

We wrapped up The Dish with a timely question. With the holidays coming up, what were panelists planning to do to give local or global gifts this season? Our theme emerged yet again. When we give local gifts, like cheese or wine, we love sharing the story of how we discovered the farmer at a market and tried their product. Even if you give something that’s not local, it can still tell a story. One panelist suggested printing out a personal story from the company’s website or sharing a video with the recipient. Another suggested looking up products that are local to where your friends and family live. By sharing your values with those you are giving gifts to, your gesture can have a global impact.

Many thanks as always to ArtsRiot for hosting and to our moderator, Joe Speidel. For more information about our stellar panelists, check out the links below.

Stay tuned for information about more upcoming Dish sessions.