The Natural Connection
Food/people/ecosystem in North Cascades Institute’s Foodshed Initiative
By Ian Ferguson
Just as Buddhists seek enlightenment at ancient monasteries high in the Himalayas, northwesterners who want to learn about nature have their own mountain temple. The North Cascades Institute (NCI), nestled among the Picket Range on the shores of Diablo Lake, is a mecca for environmentalists. It’s a place where sustainable approaches are woven into every possible action, from how structures are built to how food scraps are used, and of course, where the food comes from.
For head chef and Foodshed Initiative manager Shelby Slater, getting hired at NCI caused a radical shift in his worldview. Originally from Anacortes, Slater is energetic, with a steady gaze and salt-and-pepper hair. These days, he is reconnecting people with the earth and creating lifelong stewards of the environment one delicious plate of locally grown food at a time. But he wasn’t always an advocate for sustainable cuisine.
For years, Slater worked on a fishing boat in the Bering Sea that was more like a floating factory than the quaint Alaskan trawlers we usually think of. He managed a kitchen that fed a crew of 165, and four semi-trucks full of industrially manufactured food supplied the vittles for each voyage.
“When I got out of fishing, I was kind of looking at how I fit into the world,” Slater said. He was late to the slow-food movement, but when he got the job as head chef at NCI, he caught up fast, teaching himself about a food system that was completely different from the one he was used to.
“I started working with local farmers, and it changed my whole perspective on the food industry, human health, the environment – everything,” he said. “When you go from a fishing boat where everyone is there to make money, and you go up to an environmental learning center where people are there striving to change the world, that’s a drastic change, and it’s catching.”
More than anything else, NCI is a school. Communications manager Christian Martin describes NCI’s mission as twofold. The first goal is to introduce people to the amazing ecosystem that is the North Cascades. Scientists and experts give nature walks and lessons on everything from volcanic and glacial geology to birds, bugs, lichens and carnivores. They might teach about how wolves have returned to the ecosystem, grizzly bears may or may not be wandering down from Canada and the wolverine is on the rebound, for example. “It’s an extremely wild place, and it’s right in our backyard,” Martin said.
The pivot, and the second goal, is to get people to understand their role in protecting this wild place and others like it.
“We want people to understand that it doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the park or the national forest. This natural wonder spreads all the way back into our communities, back into Seattle and Bellingham and Fraser Valley and over into the Methow Valley… We want people to go home feeling that they want to be good stewards of the ecosystem.”
NCI accomplishes these goals in a variety of ways. The Mountain School program brings elementary and high school classes to the learning center in North Cascades National Park for three- and five-day programs. A residency in partnership with Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University offers curricula for graduate students seeking a Master of Education in Environmental Education. Field programs, a speaker series and overnight stays for adults and families allow the public to book a stay at the environmental learning center and tag along on a variety of outdoor learning adventures. Instructors are also active throughout Washington, bringing the message home to schools and communities.
Food is a major part of that message, and that’s where the term foodshed comes in. Scientists study watersheds to determine what’s going into the water from source to sea. The Foodshed program does the same for NCI’s food system, aiming to provide food that is not only healthy and delicious, but also responsibly sourced. Nearly all of the food served at NCI comes from local farms that make a big effort to go easy on the land.
Why the emphasis on local food?
Walk through the produce department of most grocery stores and you’ll find apples from New Zealand, asparagus from Chile and carrots from California, even though all of those fruits and vegetables grow just fine here in Washington. It took a lot of fossil fuel to get that produce here. Because of this and other unsustainable farming practices, it is estimated that for every 10 kcal of fossil fuel energy we put into our food system, we get 1 kcal of energy back as food.
In addition to being better for the environment, using local food connects NCI with the local community. Slater is on a first-name basis with all the farmers he works with. He visits the farms once a month and talks to them every week to see what’s fresh. He makes sure the farms he’s using are in line with the environmental goals of the institute.
“I ask a lot of questions,” he said. “How’s their water supply? How’s their runoff? Where are they buying their seeds? How are they treating their animals and farmworkers?”
In turn, Slater uses the food he gets as an education piece for the groups that come through the learning center.
“The more I look into the world and our impact on it, the more it’s clear that food impacts the world more than anything we do,” he said, and he’s right. A recent National Geographic article stated that agriculture accounts for 40 percent of all global industry, far more than any other human endeavor. Food is a driving factor behind everything from oil consumption and water use to healthcare and social justice.
Slater’s hands-on approach is challenging. He admits that it would be easier and less expensive to truck food from an industrial supplier up to the institute every week. Instead, he travels to local farms on his days off and fills his car with food. Anne Schwartz of Blue Heron Farm hands off a load of produce to her husband, a park ranger, who drops it off in Marblemount. An NCI co-worker brings it the rest of the way. Regular trips with an NCI van pick up whatever else is needed.
On top of the logistical challenges of getting the food to the kitchen, Slater and his staff of four to 10 must constantly adapt the menu to what’s available.
“I keep a fluid menu, and it’s always based on what’s available that week. It keeps us on our toes and makes us get really creative. It’s lively and fun,” he said.
Slater cooks with a light touch to let the flavors of the quality ingredients he uses shine through. He firmly believes that local food, grown without inorganic pesticides, herbicides, carbon-based fertilizers and genetically modified seeds tastes a whole lot better than conventionally produced food.
“I’m a very basic cook now, because I don’t have to do anything to cover up these flavors,” he said. “You’re not going to see me using heavy sauces or seasonings, because it takes away from the wonderful food I’m getting. It also takes away from the farmers. They put their lives into this food, and I want to honor that, because all the credit belongs to them.”
In between feeding an average of 75 people per day, Slater tries to improve his local sourcing. At times, it can be overwhelming.
“I spent three days on napkins, trying to get the most environmentally friendly compostable napkins, trying to figure out where the wood was coming from… I was looking into juice one time for a week, and the oranges were from Chile, the apples were from Argentina. At one point I was like, ‘How can I source all of this stuff?’ But it’s a learning process, just as it is for everyone here.”
For Slater, the payoff isn’t just seeing the smiling faces of the people enjoying his food. It’s seeing them make the connection between themselves and the natural world. That connection is the essence of the Foodshed Initiative.
“If we can get people talking about food issues and thinking about how their choices impact themselves and the natural world, that’s a big deal,” he said. x
For more information about North Cascades Institute and the programs they offer, go to ncascades.org.