Monday, April 29, 2013

An Innovation Coming?

A few weeks ago I heard a fairly new phrase during the What Now, Lexington un-conference put on by Progresslex. It was a session on local foods and some brainstorming about new funding and branding potions which might be available. The new label is a Food Innovation District.

First off, the skeptic in me does not want to hear “food “and “innovation” put together in a title since the revelation of gene splicing and genetic engineering. Mrs. Sweeper and I wish to keep our food intake to the most natural and local of ways possible. The taste of a tomato from the garden is so much fresher than one from the farm and way better than one which has been traveling for several weeks. I know how I feel and look after traveling for a few weeks.

Some of the recent innovations in GMO foods surely have not been tested as to their long-term effects on the human body, either from the steady build up or the interactions of seemingly separate and benign species experiments. These so called Frankenfoods have not been around long enough to understand if they “play nice” with your body and themselves.

Within the last two decades we have seen a “revolutionary new sweetener” come to market and be embraces warmly as well as used widely. It did its job of sweetening foods but was not absorbed into nor broken down by either the body or nature. Today there are huge concentrations of its base ingredient being located in the world's rivers and oceans. It can even be monitored as a component of the Gulf Stream off of the Atlantic seaboard.

Since the University of Kentucky has the goal of becoming a top 20 research university and they are a “land grant” institution, armed with all of the elements which would allow them to be true food innovators, does this bode well as a Food Innovation District?

The optimist in me (as well as one who loves to eat) hopes for the type of gastronomic wonders which Mrs. Sweeper and I have watched on such TV shows as Iron Chef (both the original and the Americanized versions), MasterChef, the Taste and many others. These are competitions where being creative can give you an edge.

I have talked about so many of the new dining venues which have sprung up lately and we have tried as many as we can. That same creative flair will give a restaurant an edge also. The Lexington area has quite a few quality chefs and will now have a former TV contestant as head chef at the soon to open TheJax Being a Harrodsburg native and working in downtown Lexington, will she help make the whole Central Kentucky area a Food Innovation District?

In reality, the concept comes out of the Michigan Good Foods Charter, a statewide policy platform. Their definition for it is: 
A geographic concentration of food oriented businesses, services and community activities which local governments support through planning and economic development initiatives in order to promote a positive business environment, spur regional food system development, and increase access to local food.
I think that Lexington could make a pretty good case for being a Food Innovation District, what with the research at the University and the land grant charge, our Kentucky Proud program of the state's Agriculture Department, our increasing numbers of farmers markets and local growers and local consumers. With planning and concerted effort it can work and we currently have folks who are striving for a few small, baby steps. Imagine what we could do with a little more focus.

For those of you who might like a little more information on the local food movement, I suggest that you check out the Lexington FoodHub site at your leisure. If you are a producer looking for a market or a consumer looking for a product, let them try to help out. If it is happening in local food, I think that you can find the information there.

Lets be innovative.


danny said...

Why do we have to call it anything. Why can't the city just say, hey, we're gonna support local food across the board? "District"'ing it, to me, sounds like segregating it. Wonder who will get to enjoy its benefits?

I'd like to agree with your assessment of UK, but in addition to the types of food research that you cite (ie, the newer Sustainable Ag-related things), the university is also heavily involved with agri-business (and the development of the sort of food products that you detest). Wendell Berry has written some about this in the context of land-grant ag institutions and their massive failures to their local and state communities.

Lex Streetsweeper said...

I am not suggesting that we call it anything. The report and the Michigan Good Foods folks applied that moniker. I also don't think that the city government can go it alone with the local food support. It will take all of the various levels of support to make something work.

Yes the University does do both types of research and it would be great if the conversion was as simple as throwing a switch to go from one technology to another. Unfortunately, life is not that simple. It will take a larger showing of local foodies and knowledgeable consumers to begin to disassemble the economic juggernaut which currently exists. The business of agriculture is still business and until it makes business sense to change the model, there will not be much progress.

I do not think that we are that far apart in our thinking, it is just the how that we go about it.

danny said...

Agreed on our thinking not being far apart. I agree with a need for local food, as you do. I have a problem with its distribution as a practice and meme. These are the same conversations, led by the same people (all of whom have some significant degree of political and economic power in this city) that I've heard since at least 2006--and I've still seen zero city support that isn't soft support (and UK still vastly outspends on conventional ag research and support over sustainable).

Heck, the "food person" that all the connected foodies are putting together as a "city position" via CM Steve Kay, and I'll guess where the district idea has come from, will have next-to-negligible city support. I think they are hopeful for 40 grand; compare that to other initiatives the city is behind monetarily. (As you knot, business won't change without money to support its business function...see 21C or Rupp or CentrePointe or our horsey grounds).

I agree life is not that simple as saying 'let's change' (actually, it is not much more complex than that). This is why food access and a food economy shouldn't be district'd. (It may be a Michigan term, but it's completely supported as a model and term by already over-district'd Lexingtonian leaders.) The simple thing to do, what you advocate for, is to do it the American way: wait for the private sector to come around, which--surprise surprise!!--seems to always get worked out to the benefit of the 10-20% of the population who can afford the innovation.

Of course, deep down I don't think you disagree with me on this, Sweeper. I think you were as incredulous as me during the UK-sponsored global warming discussion of a couple weeks ago, where good conservative capitalists (a group who we all know has enthusiastically endorsed global warming from its Al Gore/James Hanson inception) debated the need for slow, business-friendly actions to stave off global warming. Difference is, now you're talking about LOCAL business-friendly actors making decisions for the entire community, and instead of the world being screwed, it'll just be those low-middle income Lexingtonians who get the shaft from that kind of conventional thinking.