By Michael Tomberlin
Birmingham celebrity chef Chris Hastings wants to use food as an economic development tool, but probably not in the way you would think.
While that is one aspect of culinary economic development, Hastings sees the bigger picture.
“Those are high-end situations,” he said in an interview with Alabama NewsCenter. “You need to be able to provide healthier food to all. When you think about development of community through the prism of food, you just don’t think about attracting people like me. You have to think about the hope of providing great food to every citizen that lives in your community and developing a master plan for that so that you’re raising healthier, stronger people and you’re also attracting people from outside of that community because you’re really committed to that. I just think it’s the way to do it. We’ll see if I’m right or wrong.”
Driving home the point, Hastings created dishes for the audience using almost exclusively Alabama-sourced products.
There was pork over a grit soufflé with peach sauce, beef over collard greens and sweet potatoes, shrimp over summer vegetables, a hot tomato salad, a crab carpaccio, a fig and peach dessert and even sweet corn and blueberry ice cream.
“I’m used to doing events all around the country,” Hastings said. “It’s nice to be able to come here, in this case the Grand Hotel, and work with the Economic Development Association of Alabama to discuss a really important topic, which I’m very passionate about … this relationship with community development and food.”
Hastings wants developers and city leaders to think about the relationship between food and economic development in a much more dynamic way.
“Food is changing every day in America,” he said. “More people are aware of the value and importance of great food in their lives, healthier food in our lives.”
The new approach Hastings is proposing would take into account the poorest among us who don’t have access to good food. It would include addressing food deserts, creating community gardens, introducing new school cafeteria programs and creating edible schoolyard programs throughout the state.
“I think about those things and I think about farmers markets and the restaurant community all coming together to create essentially a tapestry of ways people can connect with food in a real way that kind of defines this place,” he said.
Hastings said that as a restaurateur he views the farmers and watermen who are the source of great food as real heroes. Yet, many are not known for what they do in their own communities, he said.
“(It’s about) connecting people to their community,” he said. “If you think about it being a developer and you want to connect and attract people to this place – wherever this place may be – if you delve into some of the people who are providing food there … those people are working really hard to provide me as a restaurateur and ultimately the community with better, healthier food that is within a reasonable distance of your community and kind of speaks to this place.”
Hastings believes his approach will bring financial, quality-of-life and health benefits in ways that a traditional approach to economic development doesn’t always factor in.
“You could separate yourself from your competition as a development state – how you plan and think about your development work around the state – through the prism of food,” he said. “So you look through the idea of development through this prism that is a food-related prism. You then dive into the sourcing around whatever part of the state you’re in because they’re there. They’re all there. This is an agrarian state – people grow things here and they raise things here. There are very passionate people raising and growing and sourcing amazing products. So you go into this place and you introduce citizens who may not otherwise know that they’ve got amazing peach farmers, somebody who is making cheese or has an apiary who has the best honey you ever put in your mouth.”
That’s the first step – taking inventory of what a community has. The more difficult part is establishing the connecting points to create the culinary ecosystem that extends to everyone.
“Then you start working with the leadership in and around these communities to make sure that there are opportunities to address food insecurity issues,” Hastings said. “What we’re talking about here is parts of our communities that don’t have access to healthy food. We want to make sure they can get to a farmers market to buy fresh food. We want to find ways to do community gardens in their communities. We want to find ways to maybe get a cafeteria program in those school systems so they get at least one really good meal every day.”
Hastings knows there are challenges to his approach.
“That takes leadership, that takes investment, that takes a plan and that takes desire,” he said.
But in a state that is focused on attracting the best and brightest young talent as part of its workforce, Hastings said taking this approach to food can really pay off for Alabama. At the same time, the benefit to those already here shouldn’t be overlooked.
“If we as a state can kind of approach economic development through this prism that is food in some of the ways that I just talked about, I think we’re going to make Alabama not only an attractive place for families and people to come because we have a dynamic food scene, we’re going to introduce citizens who are currently living here into this amazing ecosystem of healthy, fresh, delicious food,” he said. “They’re going to improve the quality of their life and their family’s lives.”
It’s an area where Hastings said Alabama could be a leader.
“Food insecurity is real, and in America today that this is even a problem is a bit shameful, frankly,” he said. “What we need to do is think about it just in our place, just Alabama, where our feet are. We’re going to do what we can where our feet are.”
Hastings said the younger generation is making this a priority and Alabama would be wise to do the same.
“It is a movement in this country that you can’t escape,” he said. “The younger generation is eating healthier. They need access to the places that provide healthier, high-quality food. They want their families there. They’re going to go where those things are, and where they are not, they will not go. So we have to look into the future on this.”
Hastings was hopeful his message would be heard by those gathered at Monday night’s dinner.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to get in front of all of these dynamic thinkers and leaders and help them understand who has a place in your development plan,” he said. “It’s very layered, it’s very nuanced, but it’s very important.
“We will see if the message resonates. I will be out talking about it as long as I’m still pulling in air.”