We all know food is a social magnet. It can pull people together like nothing else, especially during the holidays. But two Treasure Valley food activists--Amy Hutchinson, co-founder of the Boise Urban Garden School, and Janie Burns, farmer and co-founder of Idaho's first state-certified poultry processing plant--are planning to push food's natural magnetism through the next year.
Hutchinson and Burns are coordinating a grass-roots program called 2011: The Year of Idaho Food designed to bring Idahoans together over food for a full year. Kicking off in January, the Year of Idaho Food will gather food and farm stories from individuals and organizations all over the state, then share them online.
"We'd love to hear from hunters, from anglers, from vegans," Hutchinson says. "We'd love to hear from the native population."
In fact, anyone with Idaho food stories, recipes, photos or videos can participate. Though the Year of Idaho Food won't shy away from quarrelsome food issues, it's built to be a nonpartisan table that anyone can belly-up to--whether corn dog eater, radical nutritionalist, organic farmer or commodity grower.
"You can't have an authentic conversation about Idaho food unless everyone who grows or produces food in Idaho is at that table," Hutchinson says.
That table, at least initially, will be virtual. A Year of Idaho Food Twitter feed and Facebook page are up and running, and Northwest Food News--a year-old food and farming website that I manage--will also display more in-depth, participant-generated content. I will write weekly stories, too, that will run in Boise Weekly and will air on my Boise State Public Radio show Edible Idaho. (Food can apparently pull media giants together, too.)
In part, Hutchinson and Burns hope the Year of Idaho Food will help Idahoans find inspiration from food-related stories they might otherwise not hear.
"I was just talking with a woman up in Sandpoint who was very excited about a grant that they received in order to convert one of their classrooms into a culinary classroom," says Hutchinson.
Without the Year of Idaho Food, many of us might not hear that Northside Elementary School in Sandpoint put together a garden run by the school's kids. Teachers use the garden to teach math and biology, the school's kitchen serves the garden's produce, and other area schools, inspired by Northside, are planting their own gardens.
The Year of Idaho Food also hopes to be a catalyst for new projects. Photographer David Day says the Idaho Photographic Workshop, a group of semi-pro and pro photographers, is getting involved by shooting pictures "from the field to the production to the plate." Day says a Year of Idaho Food photographic exhibit at the Statehouse is in the works, as well as a possible book.
Diane Norton of the Idaho Division of Tourism is happy to hear that. She says The Year of Idaho Food will help jump-start her own project, Harvest Idaho--One Bite at a Time, which she designed to promote culinary tourism in Idaho.
"People, when they go out, I mean what's the first thing you think of besides lodging?" asks Norton. "You're thinking about food. Where are you going to have the best local dinner? Where are you going to have the most incredible wine?"
At the College of Idaho, professor Rochelle Johnson--whom the Carnegie Foundation recently named the 2010 Idaho Professor of the Year--is also looking forward to joining in.
"When I heard about the Year of Idaho Food, I was so excited that there was an opportunity to make known what the College of Idaho was already doing with regard to food issues."
Johnson says the college not only serves up locally grown fare in the campus cafeteria, but also puts it on the curriculum. In 2011, the College of Idaho plans to have guest speakers and several classes focusing on the subject of food. Johnson thinks it's a timely topic.
"What we eat is very much connected with who we are as a people, with what we believe and how we live our lives. The way that our landscape looks reflects our relationship to food. And these aren't ideas that we're always used to thinking about in our culture. And that's part of why we're so excited to participate in this 2011 celebration," says Johnson.
Hutchinson is encouraged to hear of so much interest so early in the project. But it doesn't surprise her.
"Food is convivial. It brings people together. It provides an opportunity that's nonthreatening. The hope is that communities around Idaho will see Idaho food as a way to work together, and I think that sharing is really ultimately where this project is hoping to go."
A few of the other organizations sharing in 2011: The Year of Idaho Food are the University of Idaho, Idaho Preferred, Slow Foods Teton and the Treasure Valley Food Coalition. If you or your organization want to share stories or get involved, there's more information at northwestfoodnews.com, the host website for the Year of Idaho Food.