This is a re-telling of the story of how our conference food program came to be. It is dedicated, in gratitude, to our wonderful conference food donors. Read on for the tale of the NOFA-NY conference meals, as told by Bethany Wallis (Education Director, Conference Food Coordinator). If you’re inspired to help us meet our menu wishlist, please be in touch!
Amazing food is the underlying pillar of NOFA-NY’s Annual Winter Conference. True, it’s not the first thing that might come to mind when you hear “farming conference,” but maybe it should be. Yes, each year a new theme is chosen for our beloved winter conference and our staff works tirelessly to put together education around that theme that informs and represents our organic farming community. This ever-changing and constantly-evolving conference is a venue for new research to be shared, farming techniques to emerge, friendships to begin, collaborations to blossom, and families to grow. The constant is evident: this conference exists because everyone in attendance seeks to support the growth, distribution, and enjoyment of delicious, wholesome food grown in a way that supports the environment and the people who toil to bring it to the masses.
I first came to NOFA-NY as a volunteer to assist in procuring the food for the winter conference many years ago when the conference was still held in Syracuse and boasted an attendance of over 300 farmers. It was the best way to be introduced to the greater organic community of New York State. Then and now, the generosity with which people are willing to donate is unbelievable. Farmers in our midst wholeheartedly want to share the products they know are the healthiest available–making their actions speak for their ideals. They care deeply that the food they grow and produce can be enjoyed while participating in an event that helps to strengthen the organic community.
I am excited to once again be organizing the food donations for this great conference. Each year, over 1200 attendees walk through the door, ready for 80+ amazing workshops, engaging keynote speakers, and plenty of social activities. They’re hungry, too. This year we will feed over 7200 meals, provide snacks for more than 900 people on Friday and Sunday and 1300 on Saturday, make sure that the 500 folks who attend our receptions also have munchables while they network.
That is no small feat with a farmer’s appetite! The kitchen and service staff at the City Center often stand in the dining room, amazed at the way the crowd (respectfully, patiently) descends upon the trays of roasted vegetables and salad just as much as the heartier foods–we know about balanced and abundant plates! Curious as to how many potatoes it takes to feed this hungry bunch? 500 pounds! Milk? Only 125 gallons. Then there are eggs (600 dozen, so get crackin’) and over $3000 worth of locally baked bread. Everything is donated from the salt and pepper on the table to the transportation of the donated products from across the state. The list goes on.
It is an intense experience to find all the needed items based on the menu and to confirm all the donations. For example, if in late November we have 5 of 6 main ingredients to make a roasted pork dish, but we’re missing the meat, we have to decide whether to change the menu and use the 5 procurable ingredients in a different way, or to keep looking for organic, local pork. We are so fortunate that the Saratoga Hilton and Chef Vik are so willing to work with us to make all of these meals possible without compromising our community’s values. From September forward there is almost daily communication to nail down all the bits and pieces.
Once we arrive on site, everything is different than the norm of hotel food management. The food is not pre-prepared for the kitchen staff, and sometimes comes in very close to meal time. How quickly can one staff peel butternut squash before it needs to go in the oven? The kitchen and service staff is involved in listing all the donors and ingredients in the dishes on the buffet line; I’m behind the scenes with key volunteers checking off and labeling deliveries, ensuring that snacks and products are left in their packages so folks associate farms and brands with the delicious food they’re eating and reminding kitchen staff to please NOT peel the carrots and to let the artisan cheeses come to the right temperature before serving (do not serve our Board President’s famous cheese at refrigerator temperature!). We are for certain an interesting group!
I would personally like to thank each person in this amazing circle of food for a feast. Thank you to the farmers, to the transporters, to the preparers, to the servers, and to the educators who keep us coming back every year to learn more, fueled by such delicious food! I manage the intensity of this job because I am so rewarded to see how we unite in the love of food, in our support of each other, and in our commitment to work today for a better tomorrow for our ever-growing community.