Feb. 15 2012 12:00 AM

Everybody Eats conference highlights healthy food initiatives

On a summer afternoon, a familiar chime fills the street. Plastic tricycles scrape to a halt. Dolls and baseballs plop to the sidewalk. Dingly, ding, ding. Kale! Organic carrots! Whole grain cookies!

The third annual Everybody Eats conference, last Friday and Saturday at Pattengill Middle School in Lansing, was a hotbed of healthy food ideas designed to take nutrition to the streets.

Joy Baldwin, food systems project manager for NorthWest Initiative, is working on a healthier alternative to the neighborhood ice cream truck. The idea, Baldwin said, is to fund a food truck — complete with catchy jingles echoing through streets and into backyards — that will sell produce and other nutritious staples in “food deserts,” underserved or at-risk communities where healthy food is scarce.

“We want to use a cardiac disease map and overlay it with a food desert map to find the areas we might have the most impact,” Baldwin said.

The Everybody Eats conference was designed to foster conversations among citizens, consumers, growers, producers, and anyone else with an interest in the region’s food systems, and that’s just what happened. About 300 people turned out for the two-day event, generating a buzz that organizers hope will grow. 

Everybody eats, but we don’t always talk about food, and there are questions to be answered. Where do supermarket eggs come from? Can I find local tomatoes in the winter? How do I go about selling that extra squash my garden produces? And why does the food I see at my neighborhood store seem to come only in a box and saturated with sodium or sugar? 

Baldwin said the conference filled a crying need. “There was nothing that brought everyone together to talk about these kinds of food and food access issues,” Baldwin said. The planning committee for the Everybody Eats movement, including Baldwin, works on multiple fronts, fighting political apathy about food issues, improving school lunch programs, making community gardens more accessible and helping start-ups and entrepreneurs with an “incubake” community kitchen.

“Cultivating food democracy” was the theme of this year’s conference. Everyone has a right to nutritious food, Baldwin said, but not everybody lives within walking distance (defined as 5 miles or less) of a store that offers fresh produce. What is worse, the inhabitants of “food deserts” are also the most likely to lack transportation.

“The last data I saw showed that 32 percent of people in Lansing do not own a vehicle,” Baldwin said.

Katherine Kelly, executive director of Cultivate Kansas City, was the keynote speaker Friday evening. Kelly’s work in Kansas City includes growing organic food on a two-acre farm, supporting urban farms and farmers, and reaching out to the community to provide information and advice on eating healthy, natural food.

Over the past few decades, Kelly said, an increasing number of people have become separated from food production. Many city dwellers have grown up and lived in a world where farming and food production is done far away, out of sight and out of mind.

She praised community gardens and urban farming in Lansing for embracing “appropriately scaled entrepreneurial farming.”

“We need to make growing and eating healthy food the norm,” she said.

On Saturday, the conference offered nearly two dozen forums and presentations on issues such as local fair trade, marketing and distribution concerns for food growers, rain catchment in the city, food policy and recent legislation. 

Organizers hope events like the Everybody Eats conference will build the social and cultural critical mass needed to change the region’s food systems.

Kelly told the Lansing audience that committed, engaged people can work together to find food system solutions that can change the world, or at least their corner of it.

This region, she said, can also become a model for other communities, but it won’t be easy. “There is no one fix to this,” Kelly said. “That’s what makes it a grassroots movement.”