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Bringing Farm To Table To Life At Chicago Ideas Week

By Kristine Sherred in Food on Oct 20, 2014 4:40PM

Urvashi Rangan and Errol Scheizer w/ Louisa Chu at Chicago Ideas Week, Food: The Path to Your Plate (Kristine Sherred/Chicagoist)

Shamelessly asking questions might just have the power to fix our food system.

That sentiment of curiosity and its accompanying thirst for knowledge was the underlying theme of last Wednesday's Chicago Ideas Week featured food talk at the Cadillac Palace Theater. Moderated by Louisa Chu of WBEZ's Chewing the Fat and attended by an orchestra section's worth of Whole Foods' customers and home chefs, "Food: The Path to Your Plate," while not especially provoking for an accomplished foodie, offered insight to all levels of our food supply chain.

Though one may shudder at that phrase "Farm to table" (almost as hard as one should shudder at a server's utterance "small plate concept"), this talk candidly brought its meaning to life. Introduced by Chu's description of "mutually beneficial but delicate relationships," Chef Mario Batali, comfortable in his Crocs and incredibly articulate in his vision, underscored the importance of the chef-farmer relationship to not just the restaurant but to the community as a whole.

Batali told the audience that by agreeing to buy produce or meat directly from a small family farm, the farmer is typically guaranteed a price per pound, ensuring that almost every seedling eventually finds its way to the plate. Plus, he emphasized, chefs' growing comprehension of the seasons and their desire to utilize unusual locally grown ingredients allow the farmers to grow dozens of varietals, thus giving the "unique and ethereal flavor of that particular region" the opportunity to shine. He encouraged the audience to cook without fear, to "embrace the odd."

The chef-farmer bond was exemplified in real time as Chef Stephanie Izard and the kindhearted Marty Travis of Spence Farm discussed the way they do business with one another. The most important conversations, Travis said, occur in the back alleys of restaurants, where chefs take a moment to describe a new vegetable they tried or an herb that was unlike any other. Then Travis embarks on the hunt to find the right seedling to cultivate it on his farm. Chef Izard was humble in lauding Travis and his contemporary, often youthful, farmers—many of whom have been mentored by Marty - as encyclopedias. Ask questions at every turn—your farmer knows a thing or two about the seasons and the soil.

Which brings us to trends, like the Cronut or kale. Mitchell Davis, Executive Vice President of the James Beard Foundation, proffered this equation for the evolution of food: personal tastes lead to trends, which have the power to change behavior (hence, kale) and in turn effect a paramount shift in that industry or process. Davis admits that the Cronut might be a passing fad but contends that kale is here to stay, a truth that respected menus and kale farmers the world over would hardly deny.

On the darker side, hard facts and figures were offered by the regulation and retail side of the food spectrum. Gary Hirshberg, a former Stoneyfield president and co-chair of, a website lobbying for stricter GMO (genetically modified organism) labeling in the US, highlighted the country's lagging transparency laws. Trailed by Brazil and Argentina, the US sells more processed foods containing GMOs than any other country: 80 percent of these foodstuffs here contain GMOs.

What we learned: superweeds, resistant to herbicides, are now a huge problem and raining more herbicides down on our fields swarming with crops genetically modified to resist them is not the solution, though that is exactly what the FDA has plans to do. Travis reinforced this point by comparing a sustainable soil to a sponge. Once you cover it with chemicals, it becomes tough to the touch.

Perhaps one of the most enlightening moments was hearing Whole Foods' Executive Global Grocery Coordinator, Errol Scheizer, say outloud that the organic stamp should be the "point of entry, not the highest standard for sustainability." And this coming from a mega-chain where organic certified products account for 45 percent of sales, according to Scheizer.

As demand for organic foods has increased across the board, Whole Foods has struggled to maintain a constant supply of organic items. The depressing part remains that certification does not guarantee sustainability nor genuine practices. And terms like "grass-fed," "pasture-raised," and "natural" are not even federally regulated. In fact, the Food Safety and Sustainability Center for Consumer Reports is campaigning to ban the label "natural" entirely, says Executive Director Urvashi Rangan. The term has been shown to mislead consumers more than any other. Even worse, the USDA has no definition for "humane." The takeaway: scrutinize those claims!

To join the labeling debate, visit and Visit Spence Farm to support their efforts to nurture young farmers.