Takeaways From Last Month’s Tennessee Local Food Summit

Takeaways From Last Month’s Tennessee Local Food Summit

Talking to several local food luminaries about soil, sustainability, community, carbon emissions and more

Jan 9, 2020 5 AM

Image Right: Jeff PoppenJeff Poppen – Photo: Sherman Pollard

Legendary writer Ruth Reichl, who reviewed restaurants for The New York Times and edited Gourmet magazine, has been known to say that food gives us a great way to cover a local community — “to introduce a community to the best of itself.”

But covering food goes far beyond writing about the best restaurants, of course. A strong food scene begins with people who grow it, like longtime farmer Jeff Poppen (aka The Barefoot Farmer of Long Hungry Creek Farm). Poppen takes the notion further, saying good food begins with good soil. That’s one of his key takeaways from the most recent Tennessee Local Food Summit, an annual meeting drawing about 250 attendees that he started a decade ago.

“We have to get carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil,” says Poppen, reflecting on a talk by Larry Kopald of The Carbon Underground. Additional keynotes included Mary Berry, director of The Berry Center and daughter of writer, farmer and activist Wendell Berry, as well as Ellen Polishuk of Plant to Profit.

Until now, the Tennessee Local Food Summit happened once a year, but Poppen and other organizers plan to offer smaller gatherings throughout the year to capitalize on the building momentum across various fields in food. Inclusivity across the food scene has been one of the goals of the event, which draws farmers like Poppen but also chefs and entrepreneurs, food lovers, nonprofit leaders and community gardeners. As Poppen says, it takes all different kinds of folks working in grassroots ways to make positive change in a food scene.

As for progress in Nashville’s food scene over the past decade, Poppen points to new organic local farms, an increase in community-supported agriculture and more farmers markets. We’ve had some success in distribution systems like Nashville Grown, he says, and more new restaurants — especially those supporting local farms — can bring interest in the food system as a whole.

But Poppen, who grew up on a farm, is particularly worried about the many abandoned farms he sees when he drives through the Middle Tennessee countryside. “Land is a responsibility,” he says. “We have to figure out how to make this farming thing easier for the next generation.” To that end, he recently completed a textbook for young farmers.

“There’s a disconnect in what’s happening in rural agriculture in Middle Tennessee,” Poppen says. “People who need jobs and want to work are not able to, because capital is tied up. … It should be a no-brainer that we have to have more productive farms in Middle Tennessee.”

The ninth annual Tennessee Local Food Summit took place in December at Harpeth Hall and featured workshops, demonstrations and much more. We asked a handful of attendees across various areas of food to share what they learned as well as goals for a better Nashville food scene in 2020.

Caroline McDonald

McDonald runs Sounding Stone Farm and has been involved with Slow Food of Middle Tennessee.

Image Right: Caroline McDonald of Sounding Stone Farm

Caroline McDonaldCaroline McDonald What she learned from the summit: “Larry Kopald of The Carbon Underground talked about not just stopping climate change in its tracks, but taking legacy carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back in the ground where it belongs, via good farming practices. Kopald advocated for paying farmers to do this sequestration work. … His message is the most hopeful thing I’ve heard about climate change.”

Hopes for 2020: “My wish is that leaders within the food and environmental movement will begin working together in a strategic way, instead of being siloed in their efforts. … From farmers to nonprofits, schools to the mayor’s office, we need everyone to row together here.”

Jo-Jo Jackson

Known as the “The Yogi Bassist,” Jackson is a certified yoga instructor, wellness counselor, gardener and fermentation enthusiast. She led a workshop at the summit on Ayurveda and seasonal eating.

Jo-Jo JacksonJo-Jo Jackson What she learned from the summit: “My biggest takeaway is grassroots efforts do make a difference, whether it’s discussing how backyard composting has an impact on carbon emissions or how community gardening empowers disenfranchised people to connect to a heightened sense of awareness. The actions of every individual matters when it comes to developing, empowering and educating a locally aware community.”

Hopes for 2020: “I hope to see more community garden spaces emerge in Nashville. The local agriculture revolution isn’t just in the fields. It’s especially in our own backyards. The more community members open up their lawns for food cultivation, the more people can reclaim a sense of agency through growing their own healthy foods and become a steward to the well-being of their land.”

Image Left: Jo-Jo Jackson

Hassan Sharaff

Sharaff runs HydroHouse, a hydroponic farm in Hermitage

Image Right: Hassan Sharaff

Hassan SharaffHassan Sharaff What he learned from the summit: “As a new farmer, it was very inspiring and comforting to see so many people doing many different great things within the local food community.”

Hopes for 2020: “One of my hopes for next year is to increase the amount of locally grown food that goes to public schools. The consequences of a poor diet on a child’s physical and mental health have been long researched and widely accepted at this point. There is enough food grown in the Middle Tennessee area to at least supplement many school meals with quality fresh ingredients. This not only provides a healthy component to their diet, but also helps provide an education and experience in local agriculture and good environmental practices. There are some logistical hurdles to making this happen, but as the local food scene gains strength and more farms emerge, I believe this will become a reality very soon.”

Marie Campbell

Campbell works with Nashville Foodscapes, which creates food-based landscaping and gardens. She also found inspiration in Kopald’s framing of climate change as a crisis of both climate and soil and how it might be applied to urban agriculture.

Marie CampbellMarie Campbell Hopes for 2020: “My dreams are always about building broad-based, multiracial coalitions in Nashville to create alternatives to death-dealing industrial food systems. In 2020, I’m hoping we can join forces to fund pathways for youth leadership in food justice, support community and home food gardens in every neighborhood, pull our resources together to deepen our knowledge and practice of plant medicine, and hold our elected officials accountable to policy-making that reflects our needs for secure, local, healthy and just food systems.”

Image Left: Marie Campbell

Tallu Schuyler Quinn

CEO at The Nashville Food Project
Image Right: Tallu Schuyler QuinnTallu Schuyler Quinn

Hopes for 2020: “I’d love for our community to have more public conversations using food as a lens for discussing and addressing some of the most pressing national issues of our time — poverty, climate, social justice, labor and wages, immigration, forced migration and mental health. Food is a part of all of this and more!”

Seema Prasad

Seema PrasadPhoto: Jennifer McDonald, Seema Prasad, Owner, Miel restaurant

Hopes for 2020: “I would love to see a policy component where we ask local elected officials to act on a particular topic — my favorite, food waste, could work! … I would like to ask councilmembers to set commercial-waste-diversion goals for organics that can be processed into compost for our local farms, closing the loop both economically and environmentally.”

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