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In Community with Food Event Review

by Marie Niedermaier

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Is food the great connector? As the topic of Common Ground’s and Broaden Impact’s conference In Community With Food, the hope was that the conference itself would prove the saying to be true.

The four-day long gathering, which took place on the rich natural and historical land of the north shore of Kaua’i, aimed at gathering farmers, thinkers, chefs, innovators, community groups, and business leaders in one place. The goal was to explore the past, present, and future of food and how we can fix the issues within the global food supply chain. This exploration was done through hands-on workshops, activities, talks, and shared meals. The central questions of the conference were, How can we create a more sustainable relationship with our food system, and How do we use food to connect us all?

To answer these questions attendees came from a range of occupational, as well as religious, ethnic, and national backgrounds. Participants from Puerto Rico, Australia, the Hawaiian Islands, the US mainland, Hong Kong and Europe gathered on Kauai. This diversity was critical when discussing the future of food and how we can achieve global and local change within food systems to make them more culturally, economically, and environmentally sustainable.

Each day began with an optional movement or breathing session led by one of the attendees. Then there was breakfast followed by a general session and two different options for the second session. Those were followed by a casual lunch which -based on the afternoon activities- was sometimes grab-and-go. The afternoons varied between more sessions and activities around the island including visiting a local fish pond to experience firsthand what sustainable farming can look like. After the last sessions or excursions, there was live music or a DJ, an open bar, and tapas which are all together referred to in Hawaii as Pau Hana.  Pau Hana was shortly followed by a four-course dinner. During or after the dinner there was some sort of performance. To wrap up each night, attendees had the choice to go to the speakeasy bar located in the back of the packaging warehouse.

With a backdrop of mystical, ancient mountains, the land, and the atmosphere, the property was filled with energy. This energy radiated through every person attending; creativity and the willingness to learn buzzed like the bees in the nearby hibiscus trees. The four days were permeated with spectacles of talent which ranged from art, and food, to dancing and music. The entertainment (activities) consistently contrasted between paying homage to the ancient traditions of Native Hawaiians and Polynesians and modern island life. There was fire dance, a Piko ceremony and chants, Tahitian dancing and drumming, and the preparation of a traditional Imu (a way of cooking a whole pig in a special pit in the ground), local bands, DJs, a gallery walk through the transformed warehouse art studio, and an interactive collaborative graffiti piece.

The focus of the conference being food, the expectations were as high as the mountain backdrop. Over the conference, four 4 course dinners, three lunches, and two breakfasts were served all with the theme of local and traditional cooking in mind. The selected team of chefs strived to portray the beauty and richness of Hawai’i’s native ingredients and recipes while putting their own twist on them. These included Japanese bento boxes with local fish, Japanese sashimi dishes, and a mashup between U.S. southern comfort foods and Hawaiian foods. Every dish was delicately presented, while the flavors caused mind and mouth to dance. One highlight of the culinary journey was chicken and pork soup with Lau Lau leaves. Lau Lau leaves are a traditional Polynesian dish which is made out of cooked Taro leaves. Lau Lau leaves were also utilized to make an iteration of collard greens with coconut milk. Another highlight was family-style short rib lettuce wraps with crispy rice. From the vegetable to the meat all ingredients were locally sourced, the chickens having lived only 20 feet from the dinner table. The food was the centerpiece of the conference seamlessly portraying the ideas discussed during the day's sessions.

During the conference, there were a total of 14 different sessions. Some considered general sessions, which everyone attended. These general sessions were deemed rewarding for everyone to take part in and they did not disappoint. The general session topics included; a history of the land, what success means in regeneration, building our future food stories, Food+foodways of the Hawaiian islands, and wrapping up the learning/discussions where we go from here and what we take with us back home. The other session topics included inequalities within agriculture, regenerative agriculture in practice, how to get past plantation mindsets, or how to actually create regenerative projects. The sessions touched on every aspect of the global food system and catered to the specialties of the attendees. Sessions were organized in small panel style however most branched out into group discussions that enraptured all. This setup allowed for the hearing of many impactful voices and the opening of the space for a real community. There was overall no lack of community within the conference, people from around the world, most of whom were strangers to each other prior, formed quick friendships over a meal. The power of a meal was often the center of discussion, the role it plays in turning enemies into friends, bringing together family and so much more.

Overall, the four days were saturated full of learning, teaching, connecting, and eating. This having been the first of this conference it was an impressive event. Beyond the physical aspects such as activities and food which were both incredible what made this event special were the people, it brought together. People who would normally not sit down over a meal or in a tent to discuss big world issues. Local issues were brought into a global context by local people sharing similar stories, traditions, and challenges with people from different parts of the world. This was seen across the four days, you had the head of Asia Pacific for one of the world's largest banks discussing “regenerative finance” with a local credit union leader. Across the tent, you then had an indigenous food activist from Australia talking with a Muslim faith leader from Oklahoma and native Hawaiian leaders about indigenous wisdom. The setting and the organization set up a culmination of people who were able to teach and learn so much about topics relating to the global food system but also so much more. With the success of this year's conference, one can only tell what next years might bring.

And yes, food is the great connector.
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