PUBLISHED ON SEPTEMBER 22, 2015 | WORDS BY STEPHEN SATTERFIELD
The local and sustainable food movement has gone mainstream, and that’s a good thing. But who will keep our sustainability sustainable? Meet Anthony Chang of Kitchen Table Advisors.
American farming is simultaneously enduring a retirement and rennaisance. On the one hand, in just the last two weeks, McDonald’s announced that they will be moving to cage-free hens. The week before that, poultry conglomorate, Perdue made a big splash by purchasing Niman Ranch, bolstering their sustainable meat product offerings. Farmers Markets are booming all over the country and there is growing interest among young farmers to go back to the land to satisfy the demand. On the other hand, with so much growth, who will keep this sustainability movement sustainable? After all, the average age of an American farmer is nearly 60 years old. Plus, we are talking about farming and it is a hard way to make a dollar. Enter Kitchen Table Advisors. We sat down with Founder/Executive Director Anthony Chang to learn more about the mission and origin.
Nopalize: Who started Kitchen Table Advisors and what was the impetus?
Anthony Chang: KTA was founded to fuel the growth and long-term viability of sustainable small farms and ranches, so they can continue to grow healthy food, steward the land, and build community in the San Francisco Bay Area. I started bringing together people and resources to support these farmers when I saw a couple of my favorite farmers’ market vendors close; learned about the significant challenges and uphill battles that sustainable farmers face in building a viable business; and saw a need and opportunity to build a new kind of community supported agriculture where we can leverage the human, financial and social capital of people and businesses who care deeply about sustainable food and farms.
We decided to engage in a long-term relationship of in-depth 1:1 business advising with sustainable small farms to empower them with the business tools, resources, and knowledge they need to survive and thrive. Although I am the founder and first paid staff member, there were dozens of people that played critical roles in our first year as original advisory board members, staff, volunteers, donors, and champions.
N: When did it start?
AC: Kitchen Table Advisors started an initial 3-year pilot project in January 2013,
Over the last 3 years, we have supported these farms as they have worked hard to build viable farm businesses and to achieve tangible business, financial and ecological gains. As we finish our initial pilot project and supporting 10 farms in our first 3 years, we plan to provide business advising to 50 sustainable farms in our next 3 years and support them on their path to becoming sustainable businesses.
N: Why is protecting small farms important to you?
AC: On a big picture and organizational level, we view sustainable small farms and ranches as the foundation for a healthy and resilient regional foodshed. They do the really complex and challenging and often underappreciated work of stewarding the land, growing healthy food, and connecting people to where their food comes from. They not only produce the amazing food that so many of us want to eat and feed our families, they also are often on the leading edge of where our food system needs to go from a community, economic and ecological level.
The leading organic and sustainable farmers in our region – folks like Full Belly Farm, Swanton Berry Farm, Straus Family Creamery – have played such critical roles in our food movement, popularizing farmers markets, making it possible for chefs to start farm-to-table restaurants, creating the market for businesses like Whole Foods to step into, etc. We want to make sure that more and more of the next generation of sustainable small farms and ranches can survive, thrive and take the torch from these pioneering farmers and continue moving our food system forward.
On a very personal level, my passion for our work at Kitchen Table Advisors lies at the intersection of my background growing up in the family of an immigrant small business owner and my personal values around connecting with where my food comes from and the food I want to feed my children. The respect I have for my parents working day and night running a small business to provide a good education for me and my brother is the same respect I have for the farmers who work long hours and take huge risk running a farm business. And they are running a business that provides such a critical service to our community – growing food in line with my values and that I want to feed my children.
N: What are the biggest issues/challenges facing this new generation of farms?
AC: There are a lot of big issues and challenges facing the next generation of farms – it’s hard to say what the biggest are because many of them are interconnected. Water and climate change, high cost of real estate and development pressure on precious remaining prime agricultural land especially near urban areas, the ever changing markets and how people buy food, and the imperative to be really good farmers and business people in order to survive in the face of all these challenges.
N: Has your experience of serving the needs of this community differed from what you thought when you began?
AC: How we have tried to meet and serve the needs has definitely evolved over the last few years, and we are continuing to learn. We are still a young organization, constantly seeking feedback on how we can improve what we do and looking for ways that we can better support the farms we work with.
AC: Overall, the needs of this community are the same as when we began. Farmers need to be able to just as savvy about business as they are about farming in order to survive and thrive.
N: How can people more deeply connect to their local food system?
AC: People can connect more deeply to their local food system by taking one step beyond where they are right now. If you don’t shop at a farmers’ market or buy directly from a farmer, you can take the step of that direct, intimate connection. If you haven’t yet developed a long-term relationship with a farmer, you can go on a farm tour and build that relationship or become a CSA member. If you are ready to go beyond voting with your dollars and establishing that relationship, you can dig deeper and find a way to leverage your time, talents, interests and resources to help move the food system forward – through volunteering, giving, and/or advocating.
N: You guys have your first fundraiser coming up (which Nopa is participating in). What is the intended outcome?
AC: We have a couple intended outcomes for Grazing at the Kitchen Table. First, we want to highlight the farms we support and raise awareness for the need to support the long-term viability of farms like theirs. Second, we want to build and cultivate long-term relationships with people and businesses that want to join us on a long journey to support the viability of sustainable farms and ranches – this is a great opportunity for people to connect with the farms we support, mission-aligned food businesses in our community, and our volunteers, donors and champions. Third, we hope to raise a whole lot of money to help us go from our initial pilot project helping 10 farms in our first 3 years to helping 50 farms in our next 3 years. Lastly, we hope that everyone has a lot of fun with good food, drinks and people.
N: Is this an annual event?
AC: Hopefully, YES! Grazing at the Kitchen Table is our first fundraiser. We are so humbled and grateful for the farmers and chefs and sponsors and volunteers who have already come together to help make this happen. And we definitely hope to make this an annual event where people who care deeply about sustainable food and farms can come and enjoy delicious food from the farmers we support and lovingly prepared by chefs who align with our values, and connect with other people who want to join us in going beyond shopping at the farmers’ market to support the long-term viability of sustainable small farms.
Photography: Wendy Wong & Jonathan Fong