FOOD. A Chicago Sustainability Series Recap.

A Dialogue about getting past ‘organic.’
Recorded July 21st, 2016 at Life Creative Co-Working Space

On July 21st, The Chicago Sustainability Series continued with a Dialogue on Food issues with Jon Scheffel (Healthy Soil Compost), Benjamin Kant (Metropolitan Farms), & Costa Lapaseotes + Ian James Anthony (Harrison Quality Meats) in support of The Christmas Cheer Foundation, hosted at Life Creative. Jon provided composting, & Priscilla Monsivais of Chicago Votes registered voters.

Going into this Dialogue I expected the discussion to focus on the nuances of urban farming, or explore issues of GMO, but instead it centered on customer expectations & the standardization of terms like ‘natural,’ & ‘organic.’ Moreover, that these terms are now so commonplace for the average American, that Ian, Costa, and Ben all spoke to having to reassert / reorganize their offerings in response.

However, as much of that recognition comes from advertising, for all of the involved entrepreneurs, that one on one education is an unexpected mainstay of their days now. For Jon, that’s often explaining the massive potential of literally converting trash to energy, for Ben it’s navigating City Hall as one of the first urban farms with aquaponics in the city, and for Ian & Costa, it’s detailing what a company is and isn’t obligated to practice if they want to use ‘Farms’ in their name.

Moreover, they all felt ‘organic’ had become a convoluted term now that it has to both encompass small and large firm branding, consumer catch-all expectations, and federal and state regulations. From that, they felt discussing the virtue of grass-fed or natural can become an uphill battle.

Which actually speaks to where we are in the ‘sustainability movement.’ Within Chicagoland, an urban farm with aquaponics, a responsibly sourcing butcher, and a bicycle powered composting company are all operating, and got approval to do so. And while that’s amazing and speaks to the strong demand here, all of them agreed they started their businesses as sustainable ones without policy or financial incentives. Within that, there’s a disconnect, because for the sustainable food community to grow, not only do we need these companies to grow, we need more like them to found and stay in Chicago. For that to happen, we need to present incentives both to evolve and multiply, and for them to be immediately accessible.

Additionally, all of the speakers spoke to a need for City and State officials charged with licensing sustainable businesses that employ new technology lack process to learn about the implications and potential of new technology. This hits both fostering more innovation by design, and also to the need for a faster bureaucratic process for folks to get started.

For me, and this is something I think is a part of the entire ‘sustainability’ movement, the main take-away is the order in which change happens. In the case of food, sustainable food is going to remain relatively expensive until it isn’t. Until enough Whole Foods / Trader Joes type shoppers buy it, then more large consumer packaged goods companies will see the financial potential, and produce more low cost alternatives to their current staple. A good example of this is McDonald’s new campaign, “For Your Family,” in which the chicken nuggets are now made without artificial flavors. Additionally, Safeway is now running commercials for their “O Organics” label, promoting it as the way to finally make organic widely accessible and affordable. And as the market dictates, there will be that order, of luxury to affordable products and choices, as the demand increases, which speaks to the necessity of incentives for more green businesses.

In closing, we raised $100 for The Christmas Cheer Foundation, composted and recycled our food and packing waste thanks to Healthy Soil Compost + Nature’s Little Recyclers, registered two more voters courtesy of Chicago Votes, and explored the realities and opportunities for building and maintaining a sustainable food business in Our City.

Thank you to everyone who is a part of these early days.

More to come. More to build.

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