Written by Amelia Keleher (SFYN USA Communications Team)
Growing up in a small town of 5,000 people in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, Wally Graeber’s concept of good food used to entail going to a bar and grabbing a burger. Burger King was another frequent stop, because it was “fast, easy, and supposedly cheap,” he said. Now, “good food” means something different to him.
Today, Wally wears multiple hats in his work with food and food systems. In addition to being an SFYN USA Leader, Wally serves as treasurer for the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, a board member of Southern Heights Food Forests, and board secretary for Open Harvest Co-op Grocery. He currently lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Wally became interested in good food as a freshman in college by attending the $5 Family Dinner Nights hosted by the Slow Food UW chapter at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The dinners featured local ingredients and were prepared by a local chef or community organization. The meals were tasty, affordable, and served family-style. Farmers and producers were often present, creating an inclusive atmosphere. According to Wally, it was an example of what mindful eating and equity in the food system can look like.
In 2009, Michael Pollan published In Defense of Food and came to speak at UW. Wally was one of the students who attended the talk and said it forever changed his values around food.
Community & SFYN USA
In Madison, Wally helped with preparing community meals at the Goodman Community Center food pantry, which provided people with inspiration for tasty and simple meals they could cook at home using ingredients from the pantry. This hands-on cooking and nutrition education is just one example of how good and slow food can be accessible and inclusive towards those who experience food insecurity.
After moving to Nebraska last fall, Wally wanted to find a way to continue supporting Slow Food’s mission and values of good, clean, and fair food for all, which is when he decided to take on a leadership role with Slow Food Youth Network USA.
Within two months of moving to Lincoln, Wally ran and was elected to the Board of his local Grocery Co-op, Open Harvest. According to Wally, the pandemic has called for rapid response and decision making, and also a high degree of flexibility. In regards to planning for the future, Wally also said that “there’s really no predictability for the cooperative’s staff to plan for more than a few months out at a time.” Many grocery stores and food providers around the country are faced with similar challenges, including covering their payroll, meeting consumer demand, and ensuring the safety of employees and shoppers.
Wally’s involvement with the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society began unexpectedly and quickly: “I applied for the board during my first attendance at the NSAS annual meeting this year. I filled out an application because I felt called to become more involved in the food system of our entire state. Before you knew it, there was a unanimous vote to accept all board applications. There wasn’t even time to consider what the responsibility was truly going to look like at that moment.” He laughed and went on to say that he is hopeful for what is to come in building the 50-year-old organization, “the hurdles to bring good, clean, and fair food to all Nebraskans is still a challenge that must be a collaborative and inclusive process.” Wally believes his different roles in local food organizations have the potential to spur and ignite this much-needed food system collaboration over time.
“I wasn’t this active in Madison,” Wally said. But knowing that he’d be living in Lincoln for the next four years, Wally felt a call to contribute to the community in a meaningful way. “Even if it’s a community I’m not native to or currently deeply connected to,” he said.
Local Food & COVID-19
One of the major issues Wally sees in our food system is how to ensure a steady and predictable supply and demand of locally produced ingredients. As COVID-19 has highlighted, people are quick to hoard items in times of stress. This especially impacts local farmers, as they cannot suddenly increase their supply of pork or produce, but need several months’ notice before they can alter their production systems and increase output. On the other hand, industrial pig farmers have been forced to cull their livestock, while dairy farmers are dumping thousands of gallons of milk. This raises two questions: If there’s a sudden uptick in demand, how do we get people to do it in a consistent fashion so that growers and farmers can plan ahead and prevent waste? And when people are worried about going to the grocery store or being food insecure, what training can we give consumers in order to secure a predictable demand and income stream for farmers?
The pandemic has threatened the sustainability of many small(er) farmers. Wally said that if we truly value local food and the direct relationship with the people who grow, deliver, cook, and process that food, “we need to find ways to grow the [local food] systems that have been around for 40 plus years.”
Accessibility & Technology
Wally said he hopes that farmers can find ways to make older generations as comfortable with online purchasing, emails, and websites as the younger generations already are. He’d also like to see good, local food become as convenient and accessible as food from the grocery store. “That accessibility, at least for people with access to a reliable & affordable internet connection, will propel us to be able to sustain this newfound demand for local food,” Wally said.
Gratitude + Patience = Good Food
“When people express a sense of gratitude for having good, clean, fair, accessible, and affordable food, it makes the twenty calls we receive about wanting to purchase local bacon worth it,” Wally said. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, he’s been helping with the supply side of a couple of dozen farmers with Lone Tree Foods, including a small CSA farm and a goat dairy—Shadow Brook Farm & Dutch Girl Creamery. Many of these farmers are receiving record numbers of CSA sign-ups, in part because many consumers are seeking safer alternatives to grocery stores. Together with the farmers, Wally’s working to encourage consumers to be patient, especially in these strange and uncertain times. A big part of this is establishing a long-term trusting relationship between the buyer and the producer.
Ultimately, building a more resilient local food system is important for all of us, as food has the ability to nurture us. Wally believes that eating good food is bringing people a lot of comfort in otherwise stressful times. “Sitting down after making a meal and enjoying it, with people I love, is the best part of my day,” he said.