The Harvest Dinners raise funds for Healthy Food for All, a farmer-driven initiative to make fresh produce accessible to households with limited income. The October Harvest Dinner experience included a farm tour with the host, Remembrance Farm, a dinner prepared on-site by Executive Chef Andre Jacquet of AGAVA, and wine pairings from Damiani Wine Cellars.
A Q&A with Elizabeth Karabinakis, Director of Healthy Food for All, and Rachel Bondra, a member of the Healthy Food for All Task Force.
What are the Healthy Food for All Dinners?
EK: The dinners are our wildly popular farm-to-table events that raise funds for Healthy Food for All, a partnership of local farms and Cornell Cooperative Extension to make fresh food accessible to people living in and around Tompkins County. We subsidize CSA shares so they are affordable to families with limited income. Our Harvest Dinners are our most lucrative way to raise money. To give perspective, it means we turn one night of dining out into an entire six months of fresh produce for 15 families who would otherwise struggle to put healthy food on their tables.
The dinners are successful because of the partnership of farmer, chef, and wine, beer, or cider maker. It’s a farm-to-table event literally on the farm with a menu that is organically grown out of this friendship, this relationship, of these partners working together for a good cause.
How did the dinners start?
EK: They started in 2008… it was an idea generated by one of the farmers in a brainstorming session. They were asking how they could raise more money to subsidize more shares, because we wanted to expand so more people could benefit… the Harvest Dinner idea just made sense.
Who are the dinners good for?
RB: They benefit the entire community. Healthy Food for All supports health and vitality in our community. It’s about fundraising and making healthy food accessible, it’s encouraging farm viability because money’s going back to the farms, it’s building a sense of connection to the people that are creating the dinner, producing it, putting it on… from the chefs to the farmers to the stewards of the land, to the wineries and breweries that are participating, to the people that are at the dinner breaking bread with their neighbors and enjoying this really beautiful morsel of seasonal goodness.
What change are you trying to make?
EK: The overarching goal is for everyone to have dignified access to healthy food, regardless of income. On a practical level, we’re trying to remove the barriers, real and perceived, that make it exceptionally difficult for families living paycheck to paycheck to access good food. It’s not only meeting our community’s immediate need, but it’s also about long-term sustainability and investing in local agriculture to grow our region’s capacity to continue producing good food for generations, for the whole community.
How does this impact our community?
EK: Statistically, there are some compelling numbers. Not that I like to reduce things to numbers, but I think it speaks to the profound impact that the program has on a day to day basis on the lives of people who choose to participate. 98% of our CSA members, people who purchase a farm share, report an end to hunger in their household during their CSA farm’s growing season. For many families that makes a tangible difference between jumping from one emergency food assistance program to another, working hard to piece together meals that they may or may not feel good about, to a pleasurable experience of what we call dignified access. We’re offering the opportunity for many people otherwise shut out of the local foods movement to benefit from the beautiful landscape of farms and bountiful foods our region has become known for. And in return, they’re making a commitment to actively support their local farmer by buying their food from them. Subsidizing CSA shares and helping to connect farmers and consumers who are both struggling is a simple concept that’s having a profound impact on promoting personal health and farm viability.
How has our community supported the dinners?
RB: There are people from all over the community with varied professional skills and interests who are coming together in the interest of bettering their community as a whole and raising the quality of life for everyone who’s involved, to a level where they can enjoy themselves. This food is nourishing the spirit of the community, not just the basic nutritional needs. People recognize that in different ways and are willing to contribute their time to ensure that that is accessible to everyone.
What struggles have you encountered?
EK: It’s no easy feat to do a fine dining event on a farm. Considering we’ve done over 30 since 2008, there still isn’t a dinner that comes and goes without some unforeseen obstacle….. it really takes a talented chef, a committed farmer and dedicated team of organizers to pull these Harvest Dinners off.
It’s also worth acknowledging that the primary purpose of the Harvest Dinners is to raise money, and providing a memorable culinary experience is a means for doing that. Over the years, our biggest challenge has been raising enough money to subsidize CSA shares for the growing number of families who want one and can’t pay the regular full price.
What should we be celebrating?
EK: It’s about celebrating the people. I like to recognize and celebrate our farmers and also our CSA share members. It goes hand in hand. It’s a partnership… a relationship. There’s reciprocity between farmers who grow good food and are wanting it to go to their whole community, and neighbors who want to actively participate in eating good food in a way that supports their farmers.
How can people participate?
RB: If you would like to dine out for a cause, we have a season of Harvest Dinners and some new and exciting farm and food events starting next spring. If you would like to be involved in volunteering, to donate your time or a special skillset to our cause, reach out!
EK: We’re launching our first annual appeal. We have a very ambitious goal. Our goal is to not turn anyone away who is income eligible and wants a CSA share. So, we’re looking at doubling in the next year… we’re hopeful that people who are in a position to give will consider doing so.
RB: We’ve also received a matching grant from the Park Foundation, so if you’re a first-time donor and want to maximize the efficacy of your contribution, we encourage you to do so by the end of the year where your donation will be matched dollar for dollar up to $10,000 total. So, if you’re thinking about it, sooner rather than later is good, but any time is totally acceptable!
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