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Aug 24, 2016 03:26PM

'Farm to Table': Unique dinners link area farmers with consumers

By Jonathan Turner
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Vegetable grower Chris Gilbert, left, of Bettendorf, talks with another diner at the Quad Cities Food Hub Farm to Table dinner at The Freight House in June.
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Tracy McGinn, Food Hub kitchen coordinator, serves bone-in prime rib of bison at the QC Food Hub Farm to Table dinner at The Freight House in June.
The Quad Cities Food Hub knows that many area farmers are outstanding in their fields. That's one reason it's in the second year of hosting a "Farm to Table Dinner." The next one is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 21.

"We're trying to bring the consciousness of healthier living, locally grown foods and providing a market for people who want to grow," says Anne Corbi, of Rock Island, a QC Food Hub board member and member of the Davenport Levee Improvement Commission, after the dinner in June. The dinners are held upstairs at the Freight House, 421 W. River Drive, Davenport.

"People believe in a healthier, more affordable economy," she says, noting much of agriculture is corporate-owned.

The QCFH dinners emphasize local foods and create a greater awareness of farming, Corbi says.

"I like that idea. It helps the local growers get noticed. We can produce some of the best quality products in the area," says Lyndall Winter, owner of Winter Bison in Blue Grass. He provided meat from his grass-fed, free-range bison raised without hormones or antibiotics in June, where chef Robin Brown prepared bone-in prime rib, among many other dishes.

"I think with that and the farmers market, it's getting the word out there, the taste of the bison," Winter says, of the weekly outdoor market at the Freight House.

June's buffet-style dinner included raspberries grown in Moline; cherries from Taylor Ridge; onions from East Moline; eggs from Davenport; goat cheese from Long Grove; bourbon (at the cash bar) from LeClaire; chicken from Preston, Iowa; and arugula, turnips, pea shoots, microgreens and carrots from Bettendorf.

Helping local business in more ways than one

Chris Gilbert and his wife, Sara, grow those vegetables (as well as beets, radishes and tomatoes) at their one-acre farm in Panorama Park, Bettendorf. June's Farm to Table dinner was the first that the couple has contributed produce to, though they've been selling (as Gilbert's Grapes) at the Freight House Farmers' Market for three years; and at the Food Hub's first-floor store at the Freight House for two years.

"There are tons of farmers here who are able to produce things as early as the second week of March, all the way to the end of November," Chris Gilbert says. "We have a long growing season to produce food."

The Gilberts came to eat at the first dinner last year. "It was really good," says Sara Gilbert, who works as a media planner for John Deere. The dinners are a way to help promote their business. "I think word-of-mouth is the biggest thing," she says.

"Sometimes, people aren't willing to spend $3 or $4 on buying something that they're unfamiliar with. In this setting, it's there and you can give it a try," Chris says.

The couple's kids stay home with him during the summer, and he studies accounting at Western Illinois University during the year.

Of June's dinner, "I thought it was fantastic. I love Winter Bison," Sara says. "I had never had bison before until I had it from Cinnamon 'n' Sage (headed by Robin Brown). I just love it."

For each dinner, the chosen chef selects foods to serve from area producers. The admission price for patrons ($30-$45 per person) helps cover QCFH staff time, including chefs, musicians who perform at the dinners, and helps other local food-related businesses get off the ground, says Liz Hogan, Food Hub operations manager.

"Very few people know that the money we raise from the Farm to Table dinners goes right back to incubating small businesses," she says, citing Cinnamon 'n' Sage and Taste of Ethiopia, the area's first Ethiopian restaurant, which doesn't have a physical location yet. Each business has rented the QCFH's shared-use community kitchen and sells at the farmers market.

Through July, five businesses used the fully-equipped kitchen for $15 an hour, and dinner revenues make that affordable, Hogan says. With Taste of Ethiopia, she's helped them learn the rules of the farmers market, how to build a customer base, and the process for county health department licensing.

Assembling ingredients for culinary success

Davenport-based chef Chad Cushman, also known as "The Crepe Guy," was a key part of QCFH earning a $600,000 federal grant in 2014 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' center for economic development to launch the Food Hub. The kitchen equipment was purchased with grant funds from the Regional Development Authority (formerly the Riverboat Development Authority), and the Levee Improvement Commission.

Cushman also recommended the Farm to Table dinners and prepared the first four, beginning in February 2015. This year, a different chef is in charge each time, and dinners feature a variety of farmers. Hogan tries to track down new farmers for each dinner in part by checking out the farmers market.

"I had read an article about these things happening in cities like Chicago," Cushman says. "Community-shared kitchens have been in place for 10 years-plus."

The dinners are "a great way to connect the farmer with the consumer," he says. "I think people, they're not aware what's around them, what's being grown a few miles from where they live."

Out of habit, they go to their local chain grocery store, he says. "I'm surprised when people have never been to farmers market for the whole summer."

The market and meals are "connecting people with the food, an opportunity for them to taste, whether it's squash or potatoes," Cushman says. "They realize, 'Wow this is being grown here; I could buy it from local farmers.'"

The nonprofit Food Hub's mission is to support local food production, connecting producers and consumers; cultivate education and training programs; preserve and expand sustainable agriculture; foster local economic development, and promote healthy lifestyles. It aims to "pay farmers a fair and equitable price and supply affordable food to our community resident," according to qcfoodhub.com.

Its programs include an organic gardening series, cooking classes, online resources for growers, a Grower's Choice subscription program and seed exchange.

The Grower's Choice offers weekly bags of fresh local produce, available for pick-up at Genesis West and East campuses and the Food Hub, with plans for a Moline location. For more information, visit qcfoodhub.com/growers-choice.

The store at the Freight House includes a variety of local foods and ingredients, as well as healthy, pre-made meals, snacks and desserts. It features sustainable products, which means something that enriches the soil and doesn't deplete it, and farming techniques that protect the environment, public health and animal welfare.

After this month's Farm to Table dinner, Hogan is planning a new ethnic food series of dinners starting in October, including Taste of Ethiopia. Instead of buffet, they will have a set plated menu, she says.

Contributor Jonathan Turner is a writer on staff with The Dispatch and Rock Island Argus newspapers. For more information about the Farm to Table dinners and to register, visit qcfoodhub.com, or call 563-265-2455 ext. 2.

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