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Look West: The Future of Food in Portland

The New York Times hosts a live discussion with some of Portland’s leading voices in food systems reform.

On October 5th, the New York Times hosted a live conversation on “The Future of Food” in Portland as part of Look West: a new event series that brings “game-changing innovators in the arts, media, and technology” together with New York Times journalists for engaging discussions with live audiences across the West. A panel of Portland’s leading experts, including Ecotrust’s own Amanda Oborne, VP of Food and Farms; Piper Davis, Grand Central Bakery; Kanth Gopalpur, Business Oregon; and Joshua McFadden, Ava Gene’s and Tusk, joined New York Times national food correspondent Kim Severson to talk about what’s next on the food agenda for Portland — a city that has staked its claim as ground zero for the good food movement.

From the rise of food hubs, to the civic responsibility of chefs, to equity in the food system, Kim Severson led the panelists through a lively conversation and some good laughs, bringing out their best insights on how to move food system forward.

Video highlights from the event will be available here soon from the New York Times.

But in the meantime, here are some of the most notable (and quotable) moments of the night.

Start with the cart.

Amanda Oborne shared the vision for the Redd on Salmon Street, Ecotrust’s new development in Portland’s Central Eastside, designed as working hub for the regional food system. The Redd provides essential processing, warehousing, and distribution infrastructure for regional farmers, ranchers, fishers, and food entrepreneurs, making it easier for them to grow their businesses and serve local eaters. While much of Ecotrust’s work is focused on connecting producers with schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities, juvenile corrections and other institutions, because of their capacity to both serve vulnerable populations and shift the food system at the same time, Amanda also made a case for a “beyond Portlandia” look at food carts. With good business development support and pooled resources for sourcing and production now housed at the Redd, Amanda believes food carts could help aspiring entrepreneurs bootstrap viable food businesses, especially for minority and immigrant operators capitalizing on the surge of interest in global foods.

“Schools, hospitals, and jails in Oregon serve a total of 48 million meals per year. Even slight shifts toward local sourcing at that scale mean tremendous opportunity and potential prosperity for our local farmers, ranchers, and fishermen.”

woman smiling

Mind the gaps.

A twenty-year veteran of the local food community, Piper Davis shared insights from her family’s history from starting Grand Central Bakery in Seattle in 1989 to expanding the company to a dozen locations across the Northwest. She also raised critical questions about those issues the food system is not addressing — including equity, access, and the income divide, and the relationship between food production and soil health. Piper made it clear that, as important as sourcing locally is, in a large-scale operation it is vitally important to understand the way ingredients are grown, raised, caught and processed, wherever that happens. Soil health, water availability, biodiversity loss, and climate change are global problems that affect all of humanity.

“We are not going to fix the food system, we’re not going to fix school lunch, and we are not going to fix our obesity problem if we only can provide food for the top ten percent.”

man smiling

It’s all about the bean toast.

From his perch at two of Portland’s hottest restaurants — Ava Gene’s and Tusk — Josh McFadden shared trade secrets on the power of local sourcing to change not only the taste, but the entire conversation, around local food. He described his approach of choosing the perfect ingredients from local producers based primarily on seasonality, including one of the most simple and delicious items on his menu, bean toast. Josh gave a shout to his favorite local farmer, Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm, who now grows 29 rows of Borlotti beans on his farm in nearby Gaston, Oregon. The bean toast — simple, fresh, and utterly delicious — invites eaters into the conversation about food directly through their stomachs. Josh and his colleagues at the top of the chef game are taste-makers and trend-setters, and so their restaurants are also platforms for making the products that grow so fantastically well here — beans, legumes, and rotational grains — also delicious and hip.

“I’m hell-bent on that idea that seasonal eating will change awareness, and that it is something that really sparks a conversation.”

man smiling

With great success comes great responsibility.

Kanth Gopalpur shared the latest developments on the James Beard Public Market and his thoughts on education and the civic dimensions of food system reform.  In a landscape where our “fast-food nation” stands in stark contrast to proliferating high-end retail food markets, creating a widening divide in affordability and access to good food, Kanth took a stand on the social responsibility to make good food available to all.

“I believe we are complacent in a lot of ways. We enjoy good food, but we don’t really take the effort to really go deeper into it, and really educate folks as to what is the impact. Good food vs. bad food, and I think that at the end of the day this is a democracy, and really we all have a voice.”