Monday, March 5, 2007

Speed Dating, Sustainability and Lovely Hula Hands

By Lisa Sedlar

I had the pleasure of participating in the annual Food Alliance Sustainability Industry Forum last week which included a panel discussion on Sustainability and a fabulous dinner featuring some of the most flavorful, locally produced foods from our growing region.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the Food Alliance, they are a Portland-based nonprofit organization that provides independent, third party certification for farmers, ranchers, processors and manufacturers who produce food in environmentally friendly and socially responsible ways.

My fellow panelists for the discussion on sustainability included:

A local producer: Al Gosiak, Pendleton Grain Growers / Columbia Oilseed Company
A local processor: Peter Truitt, Truitt Bros. Inc.
A local distributor: Ernie Spada, United Salad/Duck Delivery
A local retailer: yours truly, Lisa Sedlar, New Seasons Market

This group represents how the Food Alliance is helping to create sustainability throughout the supply chain—from farm to table.

The following are some of my remarks from the Food Alliance panel (minus the ad-libs):

“It seems there is some debate over what’s better: Organic or Local/Sustainable. At New Seasons Market we don’t see it as an either or proposition. We are happy to sell certified organic foods, and we are happy to sell sustainably grown local foods.

Our mantra in terms of defining local is “the closer the better”. Food that comes from our growing region means fresher, better tasing food because it doesn’t have to travel as far. Buying locally grown food means we are supporting our regional food economy and those dollars stay here and go toward supporting Pacific Northwest family farms.

For us, the conundrum with regard to sustainable was in defining and measuring what sustainable is or isn’t. We thought there has to be some criteria for sustainable, so that our customers can trust in the quality of the products they buy from us. So we turned to the Food Alliance to be our partner in certifying the farms we buy from.

What does that mean, you may wonder? Well...it means certifying through an independent third party that:
• Animals are healthy and treated humanely
• Animals are raised without added hormones and antibiotics
• Crops are grown without genetically modified organisms
• Pesticide usage and toxicity is reduced
• Safe and fair working conditions exist for workers
• Soil and water resources are conserved.
• Wildlife habitat is preserved and protected

The Food Alliance has been a valuable partner in introducing us to new growers and processors. I’ve met so many new growers and producers lately--I feel as though I have been speed dating. The process for us works like this: I call the Food Alliance and let them know that I’m looking for say…a local sustainable berry farmer. Then they consult their little black book and connect me with a local berry farmer. We then meet to discuss partnership options and before long, the products wind up on our shelves.

Some of the folks we partner with are here today: Peter Truitt—we sell your amazing green beans and pears; Karl Kupers—we use Shephard’s Grain in our kitchens; Doc and Connie—we sell your incredible beef; Al and I met earlier this week to discuss selling his sustainable canola oil. If there’s anyone out there producing sustainably raised hens, let me know, we could use some eggs!

We recently introduced our private label brand—Pacific Village. Most grocery stores house brand is a cheap knock-off of a branded item…sourced from all over the world. What makes Our Pacific Village products unique is that they are organic or sustainably produced and grown in our Pacific Northwest region. In addition, a percentage of Pacific Village profits goes back to support local family farms in our growing region. This year some of the profits are going to support our local farmers markets and the Portland Public Schools farm to school program.

With each Pacific Village product we are hoping to connect the person buying the product with the farmer or rancher who grew or produced the product.

Here’s one example: Kathy Panner and Leonard Gondek are two of our Pacific Village farmers. Their grass fed beef operation supplies our Pacific Village label and is certified sustainable by Food Alliance. They consider themselves to be not just ranchers, but also environmentalists and stewards of the land. They didn’t start out this way though. They used to send their cattle to feedlots then to the commodity market and it was through their partnership with the Food Alliance that they changed how they were farming. Kathy is often in our stores doing demos of her delicious beef, but if you miss her at the store you can check out her Pacific Village Beef profile on our website.

Did you know the average age of the Oregon farmer is 55 years old? I often wonder what is going to happen to these family farms 10 years from now. At New Seasons Market, our goal in partnering with the Food Alliance is to work together to keep these family farms in our community for generations to come. Sustainability preserves and enhances not just the land… it preserves and enhances our community.”
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Local Restaurant Rave:
I have to tell you what a fabulous meal I had at Lovely Hula Hands on Mississippi. Oh my good, golly, gosh! First of all, they make the best Tom Collins I have ever had the pleasure to drink. It was so wonderfully crisp and refreshing—I wish I was drinking one now. Our appetizer of chickpea puree with a radish and fennel salad was down to earth and elegant at the same time (much like the service). For my entrĂ©e I ordered pork loin with Brussels sprout and squash hash. It arrived piping hot and smelling delectable…a good sign. After my first bite of perfectly cooked pork, I knew I had arrived at a restaurant I would visit again.