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Keeping it in the community: Local food systems build sustainability

Adam Yarish, WFU Communications Intern

In Wausau, Wisconsin, head chef Nathan Bychinski and the staff of Red Eye Brewing Company work hard transforming locally sourced goods into restaurant quality meals. For Bychinski, fresh farm ingredients have an importance beyond the effect they have on a plate.

“I think that's important because getting the word out there that this is the kind of sustainable living that we should be doing. We should be helping our neighbors and we should be highlighting the hard work and the time that they're putting into something,” Bychinski said. “You want to keep the integrity of the people that you work with and the work that they put into the food. So that correlates with the food going out to the customer.”

In Bychinski’s former role as head chef of Boulder, Colorado’s Mateo, he became accustomed to the restaurant’s culture of partnering with nearby producers. Shortly after he joined Red Eye Brewing Company’s staff in 2014, he forged connections with farms as he simultaneously overhauled the menu – a process that started with regular trips to the farmers market.

“I approached Tony from Stoney Acres and we started getting a few things in from them here and there,” Bychinski said, “At that same time, when I started, Red Door had just started their farm and they had an abundance of stuff that they needed to move. Otherwise they would just go to the pigs or for compost.”

One of the farms included in Red Eye Brewing Company’s extensive network of suppliers is Wisconsin Farmers Union member Joel Kuehnhold’s Lonely Oak Farm, located in Milladore, Wisconsin. Kuehnhold, who gave up his career of teaching high school agriculture classes to pursue farming, raises pigs, sheep, cows, and chickens in addition to growing vegetable and herb plots.

“When we sell to restaurants such as Red Eye, that's really great – helps get our name out there. It helps promote their business. You know, them purchasing locally from us. It's a two-way street, we bring each other out—and that's a great thing.”

Recent events such as COVID-19 related food shortages and mandates, as well as the closure of Kuehnhold’s community grocery store, have shed new light on the significance of the connection between consumers, restaurants, and farms.

“If we can keep farmers farming and create that local infrastructure so that we can have a movement of goods where the money stays within our community, that really helps to bring our communities up and prevent things like school closures and the eroding the tax base, if you will. We can even look at this in a bigger perspective, that food security is essentially national security.”

Throughout Governor Evers’ “Safer at Home” order, Bychinski utilized his skills from the kitchen and passion for farmgate market relationships to educate via Instagram by performing cooking demos that showcased goods from the CSA programs he is enrolled in.

“I’d recommend, if you haven't, to at least go out and try to cruise the farmer's market and see what they've got. Start with the few things that you might be familiar with and then try a couple things new here and there. Whether it's a cooking book or the Internet, you can definitely find some guidelines.”

Before Bychinski took over as head chef, sous chef Jacob Gilles, who has been with Red Eye Brewing Company for over nine years, had limited experience with locally sourced food. However, the changes implemented at the restaurant have also changed his personal habits.

“Being my first restaurant job coming in, I saw what we did and just assumed that was what I should be doing. But then when Nate started getting farm products—seeing the freshness of all the ingredients and utilizing seasonality is really awesome,” Gilles said. “I go to the farmer's market more, and Stacey from Red Door Family Farm is awesome. We get a lot of stuff from her.”

Lonely Oak Farm offers a CSA program, Sunday brunches, and utilizes selling at farmers markets among many outlets to best serve the needs of their customers. Kuehnhold stressed the benefits of local food in terms of nutrition, environmental impact, and especially how it affects the communities responsible for the food production.

“Local control over your food system is incredibly important because creates wealth within your community and it creates this sense of sustainable sustainability—that togetherness that we all are seeking right now,” Kuehnhold said. “That's, in a nutshell, what I think has to happen. And I think that businesses such as Red Eye are really helping us to sustain rural economies in a small way. It's a pretty meaningful way.”

All photos by Adam Yarish.

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