Building Pittsburgh's Food Culture

After being named the #1 food city in the country, it’s important for Pittsburgh to figure out what its food culture is and what that means exactly. Where are we going and who (if anyone) gets left behind? The aim of the panel Food City, USA at Thrival was to discuss this and hopefully forge a direction to start working in. The major values that came out of the panel were that Pittsburgh’s food culture should be inclusive and supportive of the local economy. By following these values, everyone will benefit from the new crown - foodie or not. But what does it mean to be Inclusive + Local?

Local

What became apparent was that the food economy in Pittsburgh is very interconnected. While most of us really only concern ourselves with the consumption side of this economy, it’s important to remember the local suppliers. They need to be included as well. Since it’s no secret that buying local is expensive, it is important for chefs to convey why the price is higher. It really boils down to customers feeling connected to their food. Joe Hilty of The Vandal does this by including farmers as part of his narrative. He loves it when customers see the chickens being delivered by the farmer. He’s noticed that people feel better about the price when they know where their food is coming from.

Scott Smith from East End Brewing Co does something similar. When he released his Strawberrye he invited the farmers from whom he purchased the strawberries to set up a stand at the brewery and sell their produce. Local producers need to be embraced especially in an age of Big Ag®. It’s important to know where you food is coming from and what techniques are actually used by farmers. Leah Lizarondo of The Brazen Kitchen pointed out that activism is important for keeping local producers in business.

Inclusive

How do we build a food culture for everyone? This was a tough question that Leah Lizarondo asked each of the panelists. They all agreed that since buying local is not cheap, it will be hard for everyone to participate. Maintaining this balance was important for everyone there. Jamilka Borges of Spoon suggested that it was important for chefs to give back to their communities. The people that are locked out because of price should not be forgotten. Not being able to serve them in your restaurant should not be a reason to not serve them at all. Get involved in causes that fill this gap and make sure they are getting the quality food they deserve. One idea she had was to teach people how to prepare and cook healthy, quality food. They may have fresh fruit and veggies available to them, but if they don’t know what to do with them then they won’t be eaten. She also tries to create balanced dishes that take into account the food as well as the price to make dining more affordable for her customers.

Scott Smith said that having a broad offering of products is key. He acknowledged that not everyone was going to like all of his beers, which is why he brews a variety. Everyone is bound to find something they like. Food should be representative of the people who make it as well as those who consume it. It should reflect the heritage of the locals. These sentiments were echoed by both Sandy Cindrich of Penn Brewery and Jamilka Borges. It is important to embrace your roots and not lose them.

Inclusive + Local are excellent building blocks for a food culture worthy of the #1 food city in the country. While they may seem at odds with each other at times, it is important to include everyone in the Pittsburgh food economy. Since not everyone will have access to this food commercially, food education is extremely important. This enables everyone to participate in the local food economy without having to go to a restaurant. And that is the true meaning of Inclusive + Local - food is available to everyone and everyone is connected to their food.

Panel Participants

Leah Lizarondo (Moderator) - Founder, The Brazen Kitchen

Jamilka Borges - Chef, Spoon

Sandy Cindrich - CEO, Pennsylvania Brewing Company

Joe Hilty - Owner, The Vandal

Scott Smith - East End Brewing Company