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Austin-based virtual food conference asks: What has COVID-19 taught us about food resiliency?

Addie Broyles
Austin 360
The Central Texas Food Bank was one of countless organizations that had to reevaluate how it operated due to the coronavirus.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused nearly every person in every sector to ask tough questions about how their community responded to the crisis, but perhaps none more than the food industry. 

A few that come to mind: What happened to all that food that restaurants were buying when they suddenly shut down in March? Where did all those emergency hot meals come from? Who cooked them? How are transportation and food security related? Why did it take a global pandemic to force cities and the private sector to come up with a backup plan? 

At the end of January, experts from around the country will convene — virtually — for one of the largest food conferences since the start of the pandemic to address some of these questions.

We’re not past COVID-19, of course, but the upcoming Virtual Conference on Food Resilience, Equity and Access offers a glimpse of what future conferences might look like in a post-pandemic world.

Organized by TCN Consulting, a firm helmed by Cook’s Nook founder Joi Chevalier, the two-day conference Jan. 27 and 28 will host more than a dozen panels about how private and public organizations can work together to get food in the hands of people who need it, both during the pandemic and beyond.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the fragility of our local food ecosystems, supply chain, distribution practices and has left thousands of people in our community not knowing from where their next meal would come,” she says.

It shouldn’t have taken a disaster to force communities to address food insecurity, Chevalier says, but the pandemic highlighted the systemic issues that prevent a more equitable distribution of food and food resources.

Keep Austin Together is an emergency food relief program that launched shortly after the coronavirus pandemic hit Texas. Co-founder Joi Chevalier has spearheaded an upcoming virtual conference to talk about how the food system responded to the crisis and what lessons will lead to long-term change.

Before the coronavirus hit Austin, Chevalier had been focused on helping launch food businesses through her commercial kitchen and incubator, which launched almost four years ago. When the pandemic started, she quickly assembled an emergency feeding program called Keep Austin Together, which turned excess food from several large food service providers into hot meals for Central Texans in need. 

Keep Austin Together, which receives funding from Travis County, continues to churn out about 3,000 meals per day that are distributed by nearly 40 community organizations. 

This Austin-based emergency food relief operation was one of hundreds that popped up in the weeks after the international food system faced the biggest crisis in recent history.

In September, Chevalier and her team started pulling together some of those organizers, officials and experts who found new ways to provide food to people who needed it to create a virtual conference for them to share the lessons they learned in the process. 

Each day of the conference will include keynote speakers and panel discussions, as well as lunch talks, a virtual expo featuring students, organizations and companies in the food and sustainability ecosystem, Chevalier says.

Featured speakers include Black Food Sovereignty Coalition co-director Eddie Hill, Houston ISD food and nutrition services director Betti Wiggins, Food Tank co-founder Danielle Nierenberg, and Justen Noakes, director of emergency preparedness at H-E-B.

The conference has several kinds of tickets available, starting at $25, including single-day and two-day admission. There is also a student ticket price, and the expo and keynotes are free to attend. (You can buy tickets and find out more at foodresiliency.net.)

People who are attending in the Austin area can add on a lunch from food companies La Pera and Small Plates Catering, which will deliver the meals.

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Panels start at 11 a.m. Jan. 27 and continue through Jan. 28 with sessions covering topics such as risk management, anti-racism, mutual aid and equity in financing, as well as food waste, meat production, transportation, homelessness, hunger relief, seafood and school food. Organizers will post some of the panels and keynotes online in the weeks that follow. 

Like a typical conference, Chevalier says, the goals for this conference are to create spaces for conversations and connections between people who work in the food system, from emergency management officials to food justice advocates. 

Chevalier says that with COVID-19 precautions, there was no doubt that this conference would be held virtually. Because all of the speakers will be joining online, her team was able to invite a diverse group of people. 

“We can access so many people because there’s no overhead for them to participate on the panels,” she says. “We can have such a variety of voices.”

More:Coronavirus kicks local food delivery companies into overdrive

On the attendee side, people from all over the world can attend without spending the money to travel to a central location. That means they won’t be sitting in the same room to hear the programming, but Chevalier says she hopes the breakout sessions and online conversations will provide a similar kind of experience. 

Chevalier says she hopes this will become an annual conference to talk about how food ecosystems are changing around the country.

“How do we connect and form new relationships between for-profits, nonprofits, governmental organizations, community groups? How do we make sure we are connecting constantly on these topics?” she says. “How has what’s happened helped us have a better, more resilient, more flexible and responsive ecosystem?”

Addie Broyles writes about food, food culture and home cooking for the American-Statesman. She can be reached at abroyles@statesman.com.