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Musings on 2011: The Year of Idaho Food

A look back at the last year

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If Janie Burns and Amy Hutchinson hadn't organized 2011: The Year of Idaho Food, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to spend the last 12 months sipping gin at 8:30 a.m., foraging for stinging nettles in the forests of McCall, riding in a big-ass wheat combine on the Palouse, sampling more fermented foods than I thought humanly possible (or medically prudent), eating goat five ways, jet boating down the Salmon River in search of pioneer apples and sifting through the sands of the Snake River for a lunch of fresh-water mussels (not recommended). And that's just for starters.

My weekly collaboration with Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio to write food and farming stories under the Year of Idaho Food banner was just one part of the project's broader agenda.

"The Year of Idaho Food was envisioned as a means of engaging the public to think about their food," Burns said of the statewide project she and Hutchinson dreamt up in March 2010 while driving back from a Moscow food conference.

The two women wanted to create what Hutchinson called "a virtual table" at which Idahoans who normally didn't have an opportunity to express their interest in food and agriculture could gather and publicly share their food and farming stories via a Year of Idaho Food website. Burns and Hutchinson also wanted to organize events--and encourage participants to organize their own events--so people could meet face to face.

"A lot of people think about food and the issues surrounding it, but they've never had the opportunity or been empowered to do anything," Burns said. "So we hoped that this would be some kind of organizing principle that would allow people to do something that they might not have had the courage to do otherwise."

In January, Idahoans from around the state began submitting their Year of Idaho Food stories to Northwest Food News (a web site I administer). The first, from Michele Murphree in Sandpoint, detailed Bonner County's progress in creating school gardens. Some of the other 50 stories included lessons from an accidental chicken rancher, a child's fascination with tractors, an ode to sorrel and a full-on Idaho-grown Thanksgiving.

Melissa Frazier, for instance, took the opportunity to begin cataloguing the state's growing number of community gardens, a project she plans to continue on Northwest Food News into 2012. And Casey O'Leary, who submitted several stories about the numerous epiphanies she's experienced while working on her urban farm, Earthly Delights, also plans to continue submitting stories.

Hutchinson, who also founded the Boise Urban Garden School, said she was pleased to see how quickly participants put together their own grass-roots projects.

"In addition to potlucks and different neighborhood gathers, there are now newsletters, a compilation of titles of books about gardening and food. There have been baby and bridal showers that have focused on local food, as well as discussions and book clubs," said Hutchinson.

Schools and universities got involved, too.

"We've partnered with the University of Idaho. College of Idaho has done a tremendous amount around food this year, and also different schools from Council to the Boise School District, which held a harvest day," she said.

Over the Labor Day weekend, Burns and Hutchinson organized a "Day of Idaho Food" celebration, which challenged Idahoans to create a meal made of Idaho-sourced foods. Participants were asked to send in their resulting menus. People whipped up everything from Chioggia beet salads to bear meatloaf stuffed with garden chives and tomatoes.

Mountain Home Republican Sen. Tim Corder sent in this Day of Idaho Food menu:

"We will be eating fresh tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peas out of the pod, some green beans, cantaloupe and watermelon, crook neck squash, carrots and a salad right out of the garden. Perhaps even an Idaho-grown steak on the grill. More is possible, but we will be full. We will eat Idaho cheese and I will drink a little Idaho wine, strawberries for dessert."

The Idaho Legislature participated in the Year of Idaho Food in another way.

"Probably the biggest marker of success in the broader public sphere is having the Senate Agricultural Committee support a resolution supporting the Year of Idaho Food and the Day of Idaho Food," Burns said.

Senate resolution or not, as I toured the state collecting stories, I was struck by how deeply involved in food so many Idahoans already were. When Tara Kelly introduced me to a science lab's worth of fermented concoctions lined up in glass jars on her suburban kitchen island, I knew I'd stumbled onto someone with far more than a passing interest in food. And when Sadie Barrett shot down the Salmon River in search of abandoned pioneer apple orchards, her determination to save Idaho's heritage fruit trees was palpable. So, too, was the determination I saw in Palouse wheat farmers Wayne and Jacie Jensen, who were part of a group working to free themselves from the dictates of international commodity markets by selling their grain locally.

The common thread running through the lives of all the people I met was this: They'd become active participants in our food system as farmers, ranchers, gardeners, cooks or avid eaters.

In the culinary dark ages of the 1950s, when I was a child, American families gave up gardening and cooking for the packaged promises of a burgeoning food industry. At the same time, farmers and ranchers gave up their independent, diversified lives to the singular dictates of industrialized, commodified agriculture. As a nation, it seemed we'd collectively drunk the Kool-Aid that scientists, technologists and the corporate and governmental agencies that employed them knew more about health, nutrition and taste than we did.

En masse, families and farmers surrendered their daily intimacy with food to "experts" who pledged freedom from kitchen drudgery and "better living through chemistry." By the 21st century, '50s futurists claimed, we'd all be popping perfectly engineered, nutritionally balanced pills rather than choking down that archaic collection of leaves, roots and muscle once called food.

We all know where that led. But projects like the Year of Idaho Food are a course correction, a turning away from those technological pipe dreams toward a saner pursuit of something that defines us as human: the growing, cooking and conscious consumption of real food.

Although 2011: The Year of Idaho Food has officially ended--and my food-centric contributions to Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio will be less frequent--that doesn't mean that Burns and Hutchinson have quit making plans.

"The Year of Idaho Food was actually year one of what we're calling a 10-year campaign to get the percentage of local food that we eat to 20 percent by 2020," said Burns.

According to Burns, a recent University of Idaho and Urban Land Institute study found that Idahoans currently get a mere 2 percent of their food from local sources. Through a series of initiatives and partnerships with statewide organizations, Burns and Hutchinson hope to convince more of us to become active participants in our own food system.

When I asked Hutchinson if this perceived sea change in the nation's attitude toward food was actually a single cresting wave that would surely wane--a foodie fad rippling across the country--she was quick to reply:

"Once you have experienced good food and good ingredients and you've learned more about how to prepare those things, there's really no turning back," she said. "Once good food becomes a part of your life, it becomes something people value more and more, not less and less."

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