With a tag line, “putting the food back in fast,” snappy graphics and smart social marketing, the Eat Real Festival, a three-day community-based extravaganza in Oakland, Calif. set up exactly the right expectations. It promised to be a fun place to go, where good food would be served for affordable prices, without a side dish of politics. And that’s exactly what it was. But it was also radical in a way.
In our celebrity-obsessed culture, you wouldn’t think that an event focused on eating humble foods, without celebrity restaurant chefs, famous bands or highly sought after speakers, held in the city about which Gertrude Stein once remarked, “there’s no there there,” would draw unexpected crowds well over 50% higher than projected. Especially if that festival was competing with Outside Lands, a huge music festival across the bay in San Francisco. But it did, with nary a famous name in sight.
The Eat Real Festival was founded as a way to connect eaters with their food (real food, not the rarified kind) and the people who make it.
It was set up as a social venture to inspire eaters to choose good food, and to benefit local organizations working to increase healthy food access in underserved communities.
Admission was free and all foods were priced between $1 and $5. The focus was on delicious and sustainable street food that everyone could have access to.
The festival organizers reached out to purveyors as varied as the traditional taco trucks in east Oakland and the new generation of trendy, sought after underground San Francisco street food vendors. All these people worked together, along with the grassroots community food access organizations to make the event happen.
These are people that don’t always get a chance to talk to one another. People always say that food brings folks together, but I’ve never seen it in action quite like this.
In addition to food there were local entertainers, local (non-celebrity) chef demos, a canning contest, a butchery contest and gardening workshops.
I had a chance to catch up with Susan Coss, Marketing Communications Director for Eat Real, to ask her a few questions about the event.
Vanessa: Why did the organizers decide to do this event?
Susan: The organizers of this event were some of the same people that organized last year’s Slow Food Nation. Despite best efforts to talk about accessibility around that event, there was much criticism that organic, sustainable food is elitist. Everyone does have a right to great, locally-produced food, but there is an affordability challenge. So we thought, what could be more simple than a taco truck and beer festival? Why not showcase this satisfying, affordable, humble and healthy “fast food” as a great alternative for people on the go? And while we’re at it, why not work toward connecting these food purveyors with local, sustainable producers? We wanted good food without pretense. We wanted to apply slow food principals to a fast food mentality.
Why did you choose Oakland as the venue?
Oakland already has a vibrant street food culture and an active pushcart alliance, especially in the Fruitvale district. There’s also so much going on here in the urban agriculture movement. And Oakland’s economic and ethnic diversity makes it a mass market in a way that San Francisco is not. Also, Oakland was once the largest produce district port on the West Coast, and the produce district is only one block away. Locating the event here in Oakland’s historic Jack London Square was a great way to connect with that history.
Speaking of produce, how did you work with vendors on sourcing local, sustainable organic supplies without making the barriers to entry too high?
We wanted vendors to serve the same great food they always do, but connect them with local farmers and producers. We worked with the vendors to ensure that they were sourcing at least one or two ingredients from local, organic or sustainable producers. One interesting thing we found was that many of them were already using local produce. One of the biggest successes we had was connecting vendors with local ranchers to help them source responsibly-raised meat.
It’s clear that the eaters benefited. But what was in it for the vendors who participated?
It gave them an opportunity to be introduced to a larger audience. It also made them feel like part of a community. They connected with one another in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise. They feel like part of a legitimate community now. Showcasing these local vendors increases their business opportunities and keeps money and jobs in the community. The event was a great way to highlight the importance of our interdependence and have a great time.
For people hoping to replicate such an event in their communities, what were the biggest challenges in pulling it off?
Money. It’s not as simple as the trucks pulling up and opening their windows. There’s a huge infrastructure that has to be put in place. Things like health permits, fire marshal requirements, parking, space rental, electricity, water and marketing. It’s really about relationship building and working together with the city, the sponsors and the nonprofit organizations.
What was the most inspiring thing about the event?
There were so many: the number of people who entered the canning competition (we had around 100 entries and we thought we’d get around 30); the thousands of people who watched a butchery contest on Saturday night; the diversity of the crowd; and the fact that everyone donated their time. Not one musician, chef or entertainer was paid.
What was the most surprising thing about the event?
The attendance! We thought we’d get around 25,000 people but were hoping for 30,000. We actually got something like 70,000, throughout the weekend. The amazing thing is that, for the most part, the vendors didn’t run out of food. They just prepped more on Saturday night and early Sunday morning. This was after working from 10am-9pm serving food to thousands of hungry people. It took a huge effort by so many people to pull this off. It was such a success that we’re going to make it an annual event.
To learn more about the culture of street food and efforts to preserve street food culture worldwide, go to streetfood.org.
This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.