By Michelle DiMuzio, Communications Coordinator
Mona Esposito, also known as The Grain Lady, attributes her love of food to her Italian mother, Dorina, who grew up on a farm near Bologna. Mona, winner of our 2021 Biodiversity Snailblazer Award, recounted stories of her mother’s family growing and milling grains as well as tending to chickens. Dorina then relocated to Brooklyn, where Mona has fond memories of continuing food traditions. “Without being aware of it, my mother was doing some pretty radical things in Brooklyn,” Mona shared. “At one point, she dug up the whole front yard of grass and turned it into wildflowers. This was in the 70s, so it definitely turned some heads.” Mona herself moved around frequently, taking these food values with her to Arizona, Italy, and Montana, before settling in Colorado, drawn to the blue skies and sunshine.
Although the bread-making craze surged throughout the pandemic, Mona and other grain enthusiasts have been working to restore heritage grain throughout the Colorado region for several years. While staging with Kelly Whitaker at Basta in Boulder, CO, the idea to start the Noble Grain Alliance in between making wood-fired pizzas was born.
The Noble Grain Alliance has a mission to provide everyone with whole grains. “Grains are often missing from the local economy,” Mona explained. “When we started this nonprofit, we gave bags of grains to farmers to grow, so we could ultimately connect consumers to more nutritious grains.” While these sentiments seemed simple, issues with the overall system have caused challenges. Small scale infrastructure for grain making and processing has disappeared, making it difficult for Mona and her team to deliver on this mission; these are some of the roadblocks they have been trying to solve for the past six years. This eventually led to the creation of a more formal organization, Colorado Grain Chain, which works to link all the missing pieces along the chain of grains — from seed saver to grower to miller to end user.
Grains have been in the news lately due to the war in Ukraine, highlighting the crucial roots of wheat in the country. “The crisis in Ukraine and beyond has magnified the ongoing issue of accessibility of grains,” Mona stated. “It’s a big sticking point in this movement because a lot of this is boutique and expensive and not accessible. So we struggle on how to move this towards giving everyone access to good food just like the Slow Food motto — good, clean and fair food for all.”
Fortunately, The Bread Lab, housed at the University of Washington, is working on just that. Mona, who recently returned from a trip to the lab, revealed the important work they are cultivating, to ensure there are nutritious and sustainable grains for everyone. One of the current barriers in our wheat system is that modern wheats are expected to produce a high yield, but at the expense of taste, nutrition, and flavor. The Bread Lab understands the need for quality and quantity and is researching ways to increase yields and flavor, without compromising nutritious grains. “For accessibility to happen, the yield needs to happen and it has to be valued so that farmers can earn a fair living,” Mona explained. “I would love to get to the point where there are small mills in the bulk section of markets, just like we now have with coffee beans, once we have enough supply; but just like most food things, it has to happen at the local level.”
Another component of the grain movement is seed sovereignty and seed saving, sentiments that reflect Slow Food USA’s annual Slow Seed Summit. “When you give someone a seed and teach them how to grow, it is such a gift,” Mona reflected. “It can start in such a simple way — just connection to the soil, to the earth, to what you eat, it’s so empowering. It’s really so basic and we have become very disconnected from the cycle.”
While the heritage grain movement has met its challenges and still has a steep hill to climb, the passion around the movement within stakeholders like Mona is evident. “Someone recently said to me, ‘What’s going on with the Grain Lady, are you still doing stuff?’” Mona recounted. “And I said, ‘yes, that’s who I am, it’s a reflection of how I actually live my life.’ The Grain Lady seeks to spread that joy and knowledge and resources about all things grain.”
The Bread Lab is completely operated through donations; lo learn more and make a donation, visit their website.
Learn more about our 2021 Snailblazer Awardees here.
Save the date for our 2022 Slow Seed Summit, which will take place May 13-15; access our 2021 archive here.