Author Barbara Brown Taylor and Chef/Farmer Matthew Raiford will be two featured keynote speakers at Georgia Organics 20th Anniversary Conference in Atlanta.

By Sally Bethea

Alice Rolls is passionate about food: good food, local food, organic food.

When she says that the food movement is about joy and bringing eaters, farmers and advocates together, her energy is palpable. You want to pick up a fork, a hoe or a phone to call your local officials and talk food.

For the past twelve years, Alice has served as the executive director of Georgia Organics (GO), a nonprofit organization that she has grown into a powerhouse influence throughout the state, attracting the support of Gary Black, Georgia’s Commissioner of Agriculture, and many other leaders. They realize that growing good, local food and ensuring that it reaches local tables is not just good business; it also helps build healthier and stronger communities. As GO says: “Food is the answer.”

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, GO believes that a sustainable local food system is critical to the future of Georgia’s health, environment, and economy.

A decade ago, two books fundamentally changed my own view of food: “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan and “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” by Barbara Kingsolver.

I can still remember the shock I felt when I read that the average American meal travels about 1,500 miles to get from farm to plate – to my plate. I began to wonder about the provenance of the lettuce in my salad, the beans in my soup, the salmon on my grill and the beer in my glass. The answers were often startling.

This long-distance transportation of food consumes large quantities of fossil fuels and generates massive carbon dioxide emissions, increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and accelerating climate change. Our food’s long commute also ensures that eaters are rarely, if ever, connected to farmers or to the land that produces sustenance for themselves and their families.

GO’s accomplishments are many, including its Farm to School program. Nearly a third of the school districts in Georgia are participants; that’s 53 districts and more than one million students eating thirty-nine million local meals. During the 2015-16 school year, the districts held more than 8,000 taste tests of fresh, local food; tended 575 edible school gardens; hosted nearly 2,000 hands-on cooking activities and taught 3,400 garden, food and nutrition lessons.

Georgia Organics Director Alice Rolls (L) provides organic certification cost share to Christi Hansen and Matthew Bagshaw of Hungry Heart Farm.

Last summer, Georgia passed a landmark when the 100th farm was certified organic. There are now more certified naturally grown farms in our state than any other in the country, thanks in no small part to GO’s leadership.

On Feb. 17-18, you have a chance to become part of the joyous food movement at the 20th Anniversary Georgia Organics Conference & Expo which is being held in Atlanta at the Georgia International Convention Center near Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

More than 1,000 conference attendees will come together with diverse supporters of the organic food movement. They will tour farms, cultivate new skills and discover more than eighty exhibit booths with innovative food and agriculture-related information that will build stronger farms, school gardens and communities.

Here’s a taste of a few things you can do at the two-day Conference & Expo:

  • Be inspired by New York Times bestselling author Barbara Brown Taylor who will talk about the sacred connection between humans and humus, food and earth, farmers and faithfulness
  • Hear stories from sixth generation farmer and chef Matthew Raiford, owner of The Farmer and Larder in Brunswick
  • Learn about wild foraging in the city, kitchen knife skills, healthy-eating choices, holistic crop rotation, canning, herbal medicine and more
  • Tour farms from Acworth, Cumming and Decatur to Chattahoochee Hills and Oxford.

Register now to be part of what Alice calls “the beautiful spirit” of this conference and the growing food community. Everything you need to know can be found at Early Bird discounts end on Jan. 6, 2017.

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper , a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect and restore the drinking water supply for nearly four million people.