Food summit organizers want to mend broken links in the food chain

Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

Acadiana’s small farmers and restaurants aren’t speaking the same language. That was the conclusion of a 2016 survey by the Acadiana Food Alliance, an organization tasked with building a sustainable food economy across a nine-parish region. The dissonance is striking. Farmers reported they couldn’t find the demand for their goods, according to the survey. Restaurants, on the other hand, many of them farm-to-table establishments, said they couldn’t find the supply to buy local and serve local. In a nutshell, the region’s food chain isn’t on the same page.

The inaugural South Louisiana Food Summit is trying to address that problem, putting farmers, distributors, restaurant owners and other stakeholders together for a two-day slate of site visits and panels that organizers hope will close those communication gaps.

The supply/demand disconnect has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, AFA secretary and Summit organizer Jennifer Ritter Guidry tells me. The time and energy required on both sides of the transaction has left opportunity for growth and profit on the table. Farmers, many of them working the fields only part-time, struggle to market their goods outside of farmers’ markets. The growing number of locavore restaurants cites a related struggle: Local procurement often requires a dedicated staffer.

And if that weren’t enough, this ecosystem is wound up by a labyrinth of local, state and federal policies, often inconsistent in application or ignorant of the factors on the ground.

“What it comes down to is infrastructure and policy,” Ritter Guidry says. “Are our communities looking at ways to incentivize and encourage and promote local food producers?”

Local laws vary from city to city and parish to parish across the AFA region, she says. The state’s cottage food law is flimsy in some ways and rigid in others, stifling the reach of some artisan purveyors. Federal subsidies for growers, purported to support “small farmers,” are out of reach for the operations AFA works with, many of which do less than $25,000 in annual revenue on 5-acre sites, according to AFA’s annual reports.

But this isn’t just about figuring out how to connect local farmers with socially-conscious restaurants or removing roadblocks in the pipeline of artisan foods to farmers markets. The summit aims to house discussion of a gamut of food-related policy and social issues under one roof.

Food security and access remain an intractable problem in the region; according to federal data, as much as 25% of residents in some Lafayette neighborhoods are without cars but live more than a mile from a grocery store, the very definition of a food desert. Farmers are aging out of the business while younger generations leave the growing life for other opportunities, Ritter Guidry says. Climate-related disasters loom each growing season — hard freezes one year, floods the next — ratcheting up the risk on an already risky business.

That’s a lot to untangle without any coordination. And traditionally, these problems have been dealt with in silos. That’s where the Summit comes in. The event itself combines advocacies from different sides of the table, programmed by AFA, which largely focus on producers, and Lafayette Travel’s EatLafayette campaign, an annual promotion that raises awareness for local restaurants.  

“We’re trying to expand an understanding of what eating local means,” Jesse Guidry, vice president of communications at Lafayette Travel (and Ritter Guidry’s husband), tells me. “The summit is not designed to be kumbaya. There are huge barriers not only on the restaurants’ end and the farmers’ end.”

Since AFA completed a strategic plan in 2015, there has been headway. Ritter Guidry points to farm-to-school efforts in Lafayette public schools to connect 42 cafeterias to local produce. Simply changing purchase orders to specify local products has landed institutional contracts for Louisiana producers, a key factor in maintaining a stable and predictable revenue stream. That’s a win for farmers and for the students who rely on school lunch for proper nutrition.

The relative success of the farm-to-school movement is instructive. Awareness alone impacted links up and down the food chain, and that’s what Ritter Guidry hopes to replicate in the summit going forward.

“It’s making people aware of the problem,” she says, “and getting the right people in the room.”

The South Louisiana Food Summit is June 17 – 18 at various Acadiana farms and the Cajundome Convention Center. Click here for tickets and information.