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Milligan, ETSU team up to sponsor area food summit

by Jason Mullins
Star Staff

Two local colleges are teaming up for a special event later this month to connect local food producers with consumers. The East Tennessee Local Food Summit is a joint venture of Milligan College and East Tennessee State University. The conference will give farmers, restaurant owners, agricultural specialists and consumers the opportunity to learn more about the food movement in the Tri-Cities region.

Rebecca Stephens is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Milligan College and is also a co-organizer of the food summit. She says the event will highlight the need to increase food security in East Tennessee.

The idea behind the East Tennessee Food Summit was conceived by Stephens and Tess Lloyd, who is the Director of the ETSU Appalachian Studies program. Stephens says she and Lloyd developed the idea for the conference following a conversation regarding the promotion of the local food economy. Stephens notes once the concept for the summit was developed, they invited Kevin O’Donnell, who is the head of the Environmental Studies program at ETSU, to get involved. She says “the idea took off from there.” Stephens adds the summit ties in with recent efforts by the Appalachian Regional Commission to promote increased local food options for consumers.

Stephens says she became interested in the local food movement and eating organically about 10 years ago. “I was reading a book called Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. The book discussed how everything was interconnected and that we need to be thankful for our daily bread. When we think about the bread, we need to think about where all the ingredients it takes to make bread come from so we can be thankful for every element of it,” explains Stephens. She says the book approaches the concept of gratitude from a philosophical aspect, but she interpreted the meaning in a more literal sense. Stephens says she made an effort to find out who made the ingredients of the bread she eats. “I wanted to thank them, but I had absolutely no idea how to find them,” Stephens recalls.

Her research led her to customer service phone numbers for Smucker’s Jam and Sara Lee. Stephens says she asked a representative from Sara Lee where they obtain the wheat to make their bread. “They refused to tell me where and how they made the bread. They thought I was some kind of food spy for a competitor. I learned that the companies are not required to give out this information,” says Stephens.

Despite the setback, Stephens says she was not deterred from learning how bread is made. She set out to learn about the entire process of making bread, from start to finish. Stephens recalls she “became very interested in learning all about food. I also wanted to find out how I could eat healthier choices and buy local food.”

Stephens says her participation in the food summit has been inspired by her belief in the local food movement. She believes the conference will be an opportunity for farmers, food producers, elected officials, students and consumers to come together in an effort to advance the production and consumption of locally-produced foods. “There’s a really strong local food movement in Asheville and Abingdon. We would like to see that grow in the Tri-Cities area. A lot of cities have made an effort to strengthen their local movement. In this area, Kingsport is beginning a year-round farmers’ market. Johnson City and Bristol have also strengthen their farmers’ market,” says Stephens.

According to Stephens, the rising cost of transporting foods has led to a significant increase in the price of basic staple-foods such as milk, eggs and bread. She argues the inflation of food prices make the local food movement even more important. Stephens says farmers in Western North Carolina recently participated in an effort to put together five dollar meals made entirely of locally produced foods. She says the program “shows it can be just as cheap to buy locally-grown food than it would be to purchase fast-food.”

Stephens says she is hopeful the food summit will create a dialogue between restaurants and local food producers. During a recent meeting of the Appalachian Regional Commission in Unicoi, Stephens reports that the members heard information regarding “the 50-mile rule.” She says the program has been instituted by many restaurants across the country. According to Stephens, “the program encourages restaurants to offer a menu item which is made with ingredients purchased within a 50-mile radius. I’d like to see more restaurants in this area do that. Before we get there, however, we have to create a working relationship between area farmers and restaurant owners.”

The food summit will cover a wide variety of topics, including an introduction to organic farming and gardening. Stephens says representatives from the University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension Office and experts in the field of organic farming will provide farmers with information on raising organic, grass-fed beef. She adds the seminars on organic farming are not limited to farmers. “For people who are just getting into local food, we will have panel discussions on organic planting, composting and how to preserve foods,” says Stephens.

In addition to seminars, the food summit will also host demonstrations for participants to see various food preparation methods and other tools they can use to participate in the local food movement.

The food summit will be a two-day event at different venues on the Milligan College and ETSU campuses. The East Tennessee Local Food Summit is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 21, and Saturday, Oct. 22. Stephens says the summit is free and the public is welcome to attend any of the seminars and lectures. The first panel begins at 1:30 p.m. at Derthick Hall on the Milligan College campus. Anthony Flaccavento will provide the keynote address Friday evening at 7 p.m. in ETSU’s Brown Hall Auditorium.

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MILLIGAN UNIVERSITY is a Christian liberal arts university in Northeast Tennessee whose vision is to change lives and shape culture through a commitment to servant leadership. The university offers more than 100 majors, minors, pre-professional degrees and concentrations in a variety of fields, along with graduate and adult degree completion programs.  To learn more about Milligan University, visit www.milligan.edu or call 800-262-8337.

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