RAFT is a coalition of groups combining their efforts to reclaim and preserve food traditions found all over America. On their website, they explain they are “blending our respective expertise to develop programs that support farmers, chefs, breeders, producers, and our food system as a whole.”
Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Coming Home to Eat (W.W. Norton, 2002) and editor of Renewing America’s Food Traditions, explains the plight we are facing:
In the last 100 years, more than 1,000 varieties of uniquely American seeds and breeds, fruits and fish, greens and game have declined and are currently at risk of extinction. More than 76 food varieties have vanished altogether. Some, such as the wild Atlantic salmon and the sugar maple, are threatened by environmental factors ranging from damming of rivers to climate change. Gone are flavors, aromas, textures, and colors we can hardly imagine: historic delicacies from the sea such as white abalone and shortnose sturgeon; the Cui-ui sucker and the Colorado pike-minnow from our rivers; Gaspé flint corn, Chapalote popcorn, Jack beans, and sumpweed sunflowers from our fields.
Nabhan and others in RAFT remain hopeful that many of these diverse food sources can still be rediscovered and revitalized. They advocate seeking out rare apple trees and wildflowers and helping to recreate environments where these food sources can grow. For example, Nabhan describes how the bison, which almost became extinct due to overhunting, is now being raised on large prairie landscapes, and their very presence there then affects the environment to allow certain wildflowers and creatures to thrive, some which are also then food sources. He claims he can taste the “terroir” in the bison meat he eats, just as some can ascertain what land certain wines come from. “They broaden my sense of what it means to be truly nourished by the American earth,” Nabhan says.
One Hopeful Example
The Pacific Northwest stands as an example of how to go about successfully preserving local native plant and animal food source diversity. Because various groups in the area, such as the Portland Farmers Market and Chefs Collaborative, have made this a priority, evidences of success include the fact that:
• Downtown Portland restaurants use more than six million dollars worth a year of local produce, meats, and dairy products
• The number of farms in Oregon has actually increased by 44 percent, instead of declining, as is common elsewhere
RAFT Is Born
RAFT began in 2003, as a nation-wide coalition to “recover the diverse, imperiled foods of North America” and to (along with engaging others to help) “find, recover, and celebrate these culinary rarities.” Nabhan reports that 669 food varieties are currently considered endangered, and another 348 are considered threatened, while 76 “uniquely American foods” have already been lost. But, as Nabhan urges, much help from others is crucial. “This is conservation with a human face.”
RAFT’s mission is to bring “food producers, chefs, and consumers together to develop and promote conservation strategies, sustainable food production, and awareness of our country’s unique and endangered foods and food traditions.” They use what they call an “eater-based approach,” which they define as “reintroducing the stories and flavors of America’s traditional foods to larger audiences, so people are once again growing and consuming them sustainably.”
Some of RAFT’s projects include:
• Creating regional food communities and identifying foods that are at risk of being lost
• Restoring at-risk plants and animals, including an heirloom vegetable recovery project, an heirloom fruit tree recovery project, and a heritage breed recovery project
• Celebrating America’s food traditions—“connecting the stories, flavors, fragrances, and textures” of the foods with people, toward the goal of creating “eating, purchasing, and recreation habits that once again support the food’s producers.”
How Can You Get Involved?
The RAFT website lists resources for you to learn more, a calendar of relevant events you can attend, and encouragement to participate in keeping alive the diverse array of stories and experiences of traditional American foods. You can grow RAFT-listed foods in your garden or yard, organize field trips in your area to view rare foods and educate others about this issue, shop and eat at businesses that use and promote the preservation of these foods, and plan your own meals at home using these foods—and their stories!