They believe that everyone has the right to fresh food every day. They champion the idea that local seasonal food is good food. They founded Edible Communities to help the public access those healthful foods.
And, for that, Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian have been designated the Ground Breakers at the 2010 Heart of Green Awards.
From Edible Ojai in California, their very first publication in 2002, to Edible Manhattan and 63 other magazines, the green-hearted duo have made better eating accessible through an innovative publishing model that incorporates local publishers in markets across the country. In April, they publish their first book, Edible: A Celebration of Local Foods.
We asked Tracey about local food trends and their future and learned that their award-winning, groundbreaking work has only just begun.
Describe your history together. How did you meet, and how did you decide to leave established careers to start Edible Communities?
Carole and I met in graduate school in 1992. We were both in a master's degree program at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., earning degrees in Jungian psychology.
After graduating from that program, we moved from Los Angeles to Ojai, Calif., and formed a graphic design and marketing firm called Elements. Shortly after its start, Elements became very successful, and within our first year we were serving dozens of clients in the culinary, agriculture and tourism industries. We wrote copy, created corporate branding, developed Websites, did photography, marketing, PR, etc., and won many awards.
Then, in 2002, we decided to launch our first magazine, Edible Ojai, which was very well received. From 2002 to 2004, we worked on a plan to expand and have multiple magazines, calling it Edible Communities. In the early stages of that plan, we thought we would do the additional magazines ourselves, perhaps up and down the California coast. Then, in January of 2004, Saveur magazine included Edible Ojai in their "Top 100" for the year and within a week of that issue hitting newsstands, we had calls from over 400 people asking us for an Edible magazine in their community. That is when we decided it would be better to change the model so that each magazine could be locally owned and operated by people in the communities we published in.
Edible Communities officially started in May 2004, with the launch of Edible Cape Cod.
Our business model is a hybrid of the VISA model, started by Dee Hock, when he founded VISA. Just as each bank that issues a VISA card is a "member" of VISA, each person who publishes an Edible magazine is a "member" of Edible Communities. We operate through license agreements and each of our members have a say in how the company is run and about the decisions we make.
Do you have any words of wisdom for someone interested in taking a similar plunge?
In terms of general advice, I would say that in order for something like this to work, you need to be in love with your subject matter and that it must be something that appeals to people in a new way.
For example, people have always loved food magazines, but it's really the local perspective and the personal connection readers are able to make with the people profiled in our magazines that makes them important and compelling they are their neighbors, friends, and community leaders and they are accessible to readers in each community, which allows both producer and consumer to form trusting, authentic relationships.
This is something that has been lacking in our food communities until now.
Edible Communities has launched 65 Edible magazines in eight years. What conditions allowed for that kind of expansion in an economic environment that has not been friendly to print media?
I think it has a lot to do with two things: First, we operate using a very collaborative business model whereby every decision is evaluated in terms of making it a win-win for all concerned for Edible Communities and for our publishers. We all recognize that we need each other in order to be successful and we work hard to maintain very positive relationships with our publishers; and second, the content being 100% local and unique to each community. We don't publish any cookie-cutter content every story, every recipe, every advertisement is relevant to the community it's published in, making readers feel a real connection to each magazine.
Our readers literally tell us they feel a sense of pride of ownership over their particular Edible magazine, and they treat them as an integral part of their community. They are collected and never thrown away and that says a lot in today's world of throw-away everything!
What should we expect from the Edible magazine franchise in the coming years? Are there new launches planned?
We are actually not a franchise, we operate through license agreements. However, we have a lot planned for the coming years.
We intend to continue launching magazines at a rate of at least 10 per year; we're expanding our programming on Edible Radio; we are going to expand our online presence in a big way; and we have at least two more books coming in the next 18-24 months.
We are also looking at bringing the Edible stories to television in the near future as well.
Do you have any principles that guide your expansion? In some markets there have been Edible magazines launched where there had already been a local food magazine. How do you view that kind of competition?
Yes, we do have principles that guide our expansion we look for defined culinary regions that enjoy both food traditions and the emergence of new food-related businesses and trends.
With us, bigger is not necessarily better. We find that the communities that do the best are those with a very defined sense of who they are, such as Queens or Brooklyn (as opposed to all of NYC), Memphis, Hudson Valley (as opposed to all of NY state).
We have launched in several areas where there are other food magazines; however, we haven't really found anyone doing exactly what we're doing. Most community-based food magazines that exist now are more restaurant driven, or they are lifestyle publications that talk about a region that have a small food section. We do not often find an apples to apples comparison of our magazines at all.
What inspired you to write this book, and how did you tackle the challenge of presenting a national perspective on regional food?
We always say that one of the most unique things about our company is that we are a local, community-based company with national reach, and that is exactly how the book is presented.
Edible Communities is a national company that provides support services to each of our magazines across the United States and Canada, yet each of the stories and recipes in the book come from the local communities. It actually came together quite easily since we already operate this way the only difference with the book is that the content is pulled together in one place instead of appearing in 65 separate magazines.
I'm assuming you traveled to research your new book. I picture you dining at trendy seasonal food restaurants and visiting local sustainable farms. Surprise me. What was the most interesting unexpected place you visited?
Yes, that's right Carole and I like to say we've seen every back road in North America, and we've certainly eaten our share of the bounty we've found along the way.
I think that a couple of the most interesting and unexpected places we visited are Iowa and New Jersey.
Everyone already thinks of Iowa as farm country, but sadly, much of the farm land there is devoted to agribusiness like soy beans and corn but we got to visit the Seed Savers Exchange, which is one of the most gorgeous and vibrant farms we've seen to date. My garden is still full of heirloom varieties we purchased when we were there.
And Jersey, what can I say. I was one of those people who pictured everything in New Jersey to look like Newark, but there is a reason it's called the "Garden State" simply amazing in terms of its strong connection to food traditions and its abundance of physical beauty.
One other interesting and unexpected surprise has come from spending time in the Southwest region. I used to look out across the desert and see scrub brush, sand, and not a lot else. Having the opportunity to learn that there is sometimes water right under your feet, even though you can't see it, or that the desert is full of edible plants is just mind boggling.
You divided the country into several regions for your book. What are the divisions, and how did you decide where to draw the borders?
Yes, the book is divided into the following sections: Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, California and the West, the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest.
We decided on these regions because we feel they best describe the regional food sheds our magazines represent. We also cross international borders with Canada (Edible Toronto and Edible Vancouver), and with Mexico (Edible Sonoran Desert), so we didn't want to stop at the border in either case. Regional food sheds don't stop at the border, so we decided to go with what made sense in terms of food communities rather than political boundaries.
After eight years leading Edible Communities, you must have read about every local food trend. What are the most surprising?
I am always surprised by how ingenious food artisans and producers are becoming. I think of their efforts more in terms of creative solutions rather than trends since most of the ideas that are emerging these days have to do with finding ways to survive and thrive against various sets of odds either economic, environmental or physical and need to work long-term, not just in terms of the next trend.
For example, we've met a tomato farmer in northern New Mexico who lives on a high mesa with no water. He's figured out how to collect enough water to grow amazing tomatoes, even in a harsh environment. I also admire the livestock ranchers who are finding new ways to get their animals butchered at regional plants that operate humanely and ethically, so that they can bring their products to local farmers' markets.
There are also some pretty inspiring spirits distillers, brewers and wine makers who are changing things up right now, as well. For example, there is a profile of a vodka company in our book that is based in Hawaii that is using ocean water as part of their distilling process. It comes from very deep ocean water and is quite pure. Now that is surprising!
What trend do you think will catch fire next?
It's hard to say since so many things are emerging all at once and because the movement has such momentum right now. I do think, however, we'll be seeing a lot more about native foods from various regions. People have become so much more aware of the importance of eating in season than in recent history, so now I think the next layer of that will be asking the question: What is native to where I live and why? We've seen things becoming more available like mesquite flour for making tortillas in the southwest a tradition that had virtually disappeared.
What trend is most damaging to the local food movement?
I think that all the talk about the local food movement being elitist is damaging because it's not true. While we still need to do a much better job at getting fresh foods into inner cities, food that is at its peak of ripeness is most abundant, and therefore at its lowest price.
Foods like tomatoes, strawberries and corn when they are at the height of their season, they cost a lot less than they would if they had been shipped across the country in the middle of winter.
Is vegetarianism dead? It seems a lot of people sympathetic to the vegetarianism mindset have found that local sustainable meat satisfied their ethical concerns.
While it's true that many former vegetarians now feel better about eating locally and ethically raised meats, I don't think vegetarianism is dead at all. In fact, we are seeing a bigger increase in the number of vegans than we've ever seen before. I've been hearing that "veganism is the new vegetarianism" lately, too, and I've heard that younger eaters, in particular, are really into veganism.
In the Hudson Valley, this is the first year in hundreds that the signature fish, American shad, will not be caught and sold commercially; the population is too depleted to allow the commercial fishery to continue. So at the same time you have the local food movement taking off, you've lost your main local fish. Is this a common experience to other regions in the United States? Are there any standout sustainably managed fisheries supporting regional markets?
Yes, sadly, this is happening in other regions as well. The difference is that there is awareness around the issue so that, hopefully, by stopping the over fishing of some of these signature fish, they will come back again rather than become extinct. In the Pacific Northwest, there are several sustainable fisheries that are working to preserve the wild salmon varieties from the region.
If you can share a few of your favorite recipes, and photos, we'd love to share them with our readers. Tell us why you chose them.
I will choose my top three favorites from the book. (Check back soon for these!)
See more from the 2010 Heart of Green Awards
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