The Fifth Annual Food Summit was held in Birmingham’s Lakeview District last week. The theme for this event was “Bringing Everyone to the Table” which could not be more appropriate. Over a hundred people gathered at the Avon Theater to listen, share knowledge, network, rally, and learn new tools for ameliorating the food systems here in Birmingham. People came from all walks of life—non-profit activists, private citizens, policy-makers, mothers, restaurateurs—to explore food policy. The one thing we all had in common was our desire to be change agents in this system.
It was exhilarating to enter the theater that morning, the air filled with a positive energy that almost felt electric, such was the desire to improve this facet of life in Birmingham. There were many familiar faces but lots of new ones as well. Folks sat down at long tables, lined with butcher-block paper as the session began, with a special welcome from Mayor William Bell. His message was clear: universal access to decent affordable food is a key element in the economic development and success of our fair city.
John Talmage, President of Social Compact (www.socialcompact.org ) gave the morning’s keynote address. It was fascinating to hear him discuss his non-profit organization’s efforts to provide information to encourage private investment in inner-city neighborhoods. In other words, Social Compact can provide real and significant data on where the next grocery store should be built in a city. Data that goes beyond mere census figures becomes a powerful tool in business development AND economic recovery. Whereas most food-policy intellectuals call an area without access to a major chain grocery store a ‘food desert’, Social Compact would label this area a ‘misunderstood market’. Demonstrable data on the real viability of such areas can foster corporate partnerships which benefit all parties involved.
Much in the same way that information is power, we learned that data matters.
At this point, it was time to split up into various break out sessions, with participants attending forums on a variety of topics: Advocacy—Using Your Voice for Change; The Grocery Gap; Community Gardens; Food Policy Councils; What is Food Security?; School Lunches; The High Cost of Low Priced Food; and Alternative Shopping Options, among others. Of particular interest to me is the subject of School Lunches. Everyone has a bailiwick and what we feed kids happens to be mine.
I am very fortunate to live in a part of town that has excellent public schools. Moving to Alabama from Texas eight years ago, the quality of my children’s education was one of the most important reasons my husband and I chose to live where we do. I have been blown away by the high caliber of teachers we have, the access to cutting-edge technology and a passion for excellence at every turn. Yet, at almost every turn, I am completely under-whelmed by our food and the system’s approach to what and how we feed our children.
Of course I am grateful for all that we have here, and I realize that so many others do not have access to what we do. But I also believe that we are seriously dumbing down our children in a fundamental part of life when we feed them pizza, corn dogs and chicken nuggets and call it lunch. When adults decide that children should be entertained by food and employ high-fructose corn syrup to get them to drink milk, we have failed. So, while I might not have the ability to fix a whole city, I can work on improving a corner of my world.
In this way, I became a willing conduit for all that electricity in the air at the Food Summit. I have been working with other concerned local parents to improve our school food and gained a lot from this symposium. I gleaned valuable negotiating skills to use with my next meeting with the school superintendent. I heard a CNP Nutrition Supervisor discuss the complexities of navigating federal and state guidelines when purchasing cafeteria food. I discovered resources we all have access to in showing our children we care about what they eat.
But the highlight of the Food Summit was the “Taste $2.78” event held at Pepper Place on Saturday afternoon. Local chefs were challenged to create kid-friendly, healthy meals that cost no more than $2.78 per person, the money that will be provided if the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act is passed. This was a formidable task indeed.
In rating each dish, I brought along my secret weapon: my 12-year-old daughter, Amanda. This is a kid whose favorite meal is anything with capers. She can clean a plate of carpaccio faster than you can say “Bottega” but she’s still just a kid and can be persnickety. She’ll be the first to tell you that some entries were more popular than others.
There was a delicious frittata featuring brightly hued vegetables, a creamy mac n’ cheese with roasted broccoli but the hands down favorites were from Whole Foods Market and Indian Springs School. The pair from Whole Foods proffered a Croque Monsieur (fancy name for grilled ham and cheese) served with Honeycrisp apple slices and a tablespoon of Cocoa Haze (what Nutella wishes it were.) It was simple well-balanced fare prepared with high-quality ingredients. Amanda cleaned her plate.
Wendy Bowman, Executive Chef at Indian Springs School, wowed everyone with her Black Bean and Sweet Potato Burrito with Corn, Quinoa and Spinach. Deemed “phenomenal” by my secret weapon, this was a flour tortilla teeming with quinoa and seasonal ingredients that had been minimally fussed with. Amanda and I fought over the last bite, and this was a dish that had been created and produced for 88-cents a serving. Pause to reflect on that achievement. Chef Bowman graciously agreed to share her recipe and even scaled it back for the home cook (See below).
Food like this is nothing less than serious fuel for young brains, challenged with taking on everything from spelling and social studies to AP History and Calculus. We ask a lot of our students today. The least we can do is power them up to succeed. You are encouraged to find out what children in your school system eat and how you can improve it.
Black Bean and Sweet Potato Burrito with Corn, Quinoa and Spinach Serves 4
1 15 ½ ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
4 cups vegetable stock (or enough to thoroughly cover black beans)
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce
1 small onion, finely diced
2 sweet potatoes
2 cups yellow corn
1 cup quinoa, thoroughly washed
3 cups vegetable stock
2 handfuls baby spinach, washed and stems removed
4-ounces shredded Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
4 10-inch flour or whole grain tortillas
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped and divided (half in quinoa, half in pico de gallo)
Salt, Pepper, Cumin, and Chili Powder to taste.
Pico De Gallo:
In a medium bowl, toss together:
4 Roma tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced (to taste)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small purple onion, finely chopped
half of cilantro from above
Season to taste with olive oil, salt and pepper.
1) Preheat oven to 350ºF.
2) Put beans in pot and cover with plenty of vegetable stock. Bring beans to a boil then reduce heat to a simmer. Stir beans only to prevent sticking, too much stirring can break the beans down and make them mushy.
3) Sauté one onion until soft and puree with 1 chipotle pepper and add to beans and cooking liquid. Stir to incorporate.
4) Peel and medium dice sweet potatoes. Season with olive oil, salt, pepper, cumin and chili powder. Roast until soft, about 25 minutes.
5) Heat olive oil in large shallow pot until almost smoking, add quinoa and stir until quinoa smells nutty in aroma and is completely coated in oil. Add vegetable stock to deglaze the bottom of the pot.
6) Add corn and season to taste with salt, cumin and chili powder. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Add half of the chopped cilantro and toss.
7) Assemble as follows: Put one ounce of Monterrey Jack cheese in each tortilla and top with ¼ cup of quinoa mixture. Top with raw spinach and roll up into a burrito. Wrap each burrito in aluminum foil and place on a sheet pan. Bake for 20 minutes or until thoroughly heated.
8) Remove foil and serve with fresh Pico de Gallo.
Recipe adapted from one provided by Indian Springs Executive Chef, Wendy Bowman.
Christiana Roussel lives in Crestline and is a lover of all things food-related. You can follow her culinary musings on-line at ChristianasKitchen.blogspot.com or on Facebook (ChristianasKitchen) or Twitter (Christiana40). On Thursday, November 18th at 6:30 p.m., she will be leading a forum to discuss school food in Mountain Brook. This discussion will take place at the Emmet O’Neal Library in Crestline. All are welcome to attend.