Rob Gaston is the Executive Director of Dig IN, an organization that connects Indiana residents to food and agriculture through education and conversation in order to support the growth of a local food system in the state. These goals are accomplished from a number of angles: Dig IN supports farmers and local businesses by connecting them through supply chains, educates the public through educational workshops and campaigns, and celebrates local food at the annual Taste of Indiana farm-to-fork Festival. Food Tank recently had the opportunity to talk with Gaston about the challenges and opportunities in creating and supporting local food systems.
Food Tank (FT): What changes have you seen in the Indiana food system since Dig IN was created in 2009? Is Indiana coming closer to being able to feed itself?
Rob Gaston (RB): When Dig IN started in 2009, I was the buyer at the Ivy Tech Community College Culinary program in Indianapolis. I was trying to purchase local ingredients and literally could only find two providers at that time who could meet our requirements. We had conversations with our one of major suppliers, Piazza Produce, and today they carry a robust offering of items that are regionally sourced. I now teach part time at the school and see so many locally sourced items like lettuces, eggs, and beef, and the program has several options of suppliers from which to choose.
When I first started culinary school, everyone talked about how Indianapolis was a city of chain restaurants, and that it was difficult for independent restaurants to open and succeed here. While chains are still the majority, the local and independent restaurants thrive with a loyal and dedicated customer base. Most of those independent restaurants also have a commitment to using local foods as often as possible. More independent restaurants and more local food is exactly what Dig IN has been striving to achieve.
FT: In your experience, what are the major obstacles to creating a diverse, local, and sustainable food system?
RB: First of all, not many people are willing to do the labor or live the life that farming requires. If we want a more local and sustainable food system, it means more people have got to be involved in the production of food. Then, we have to work on consumer expectations. We have moved away from seasonality, and expect to eat strawberries, tomatoes, and peaches at any point during the year. It’s great to see a big movement back towards preserving things grown in season for other parts of the year. Finally, we have to work on the cost equation. Those of moderate income do not want their food budget to increase, and those with low incomes cannot afford many local foods. Therefore local and sustainably produced food is still regarded as elite or unaffordable.
Our food system is set up so that chefs and restaurants have the ability to place orders with their food service vendor, and get all the products they want within a day or two. The buyer orders product on a Sunday or Monday to cover all their needs for the rest of the week. The food from these vendors has mostly been grown across the country or around the world, and is sitting waiting to be shipped to the business. Meanwhile, diversified crop farmers here in our state plan their growing season based on what they think they can sell to local consumers, hoping for a good season and to sell as much as they can at the farmers market.
FT: Can you give an example of how Dig IN’s work proposes innovative solutions to one or more of these problems?
RB: Dig IN is working on educating chefs and consumers about seasonality again. We have a consumer-focused campaign called #INSeason to teach the public what fresh ingredients are growing in the Hoosier state each month. With chefs, we are encouraging them to plan in advance and rotate usage of ingredients on their menus to reflect the seasons. Rather than rely on the major food service vendor, we are pushing them to plan in advance, and have communications with the farmer about what they might use before all the seed ordering and planting takes place. Farmers who are used to selling retail to the consumer also need new methods of pricing, packaging, and communicating if they are going to be successful with chefs.
In partnership with Purdue University, we are creating a series of workshops to deliver around the state over the next two years. We will use guest speakers and peer learning to teach best practices in working with one another. By bringing chefs and farmers together regionally, we’ll also start growing the local food movement in each area by reinforcing the networks. Finally, we will be offering a tool that should make it easier for farmers to offer their product and for chefs to buy it. The tool will be a web storefront in which producers can upload their product each week, and buyers can then go in and complete a purchase. We know that we’ve got to make it as simple and direct as possible in order to work for both farmers and chefs.
FT: Do you have any particular goals or aspirations for the Taste of Indiana festival this year? What will be new at the festival in 2015?
RB: This year we will have a “bottle free” water station, meaning customers can fill up their glasses and we won’t have to waste all that plastic. We are doing a chef competition, where chefs will have to improvise with mystery baskets from area farmers. The farmers will be on site to talk about their products and answer questions from the emcee. The chefs involved in the competition will be sous chefs, in partnership with Indianapolis on Deck and Chefs Night Off Indy. We are promoting the hidden talent of the kitchen, line cooks and sous chefs who believe in local foods, thereby encouraging them and growing more advocates of our cause.
FT: What are the most important lessons you have learned (personally or as part of an organization) during your time with Dig IN?
Rather than broken, I like to think of our system as imperfect. There are many important questions to answer and concerns to address, although most of us have ample options when it comes to eating. And although we waste 40 percent of the food we make, we all have many hungry citizens even in our own backyards. The biggest lesson I have learned with farming is how difficult and tenuous the work is. When you are a food advocate or activist, it’s easy to make broad statements about the food system. However, I would encourage everyone to learn as much as they can before making assumptions about farms, farmers, and how things are done. While you may not agree with the way someone does something, first seek understanding. We can only change the food system if we involve farmers and work together on solutions.