Event fosters meaningful dialogue about food

Meet in the Middle is an annual event that brings consumers and food producers to the table (literally) to eat and drink from an all-Alberta menu and share their perspectives on food

BY TREVOR BACQUE

What do you get when you mix 60 city slickers and 60 agriculture folks in a barn for the night? A rip-roaring good time, believe it or not! Meet in the Middle (MITM) is an annual event entering its third year with the express interest to build relationships and trust between urban and rural people.

The one-night gathering of Alberta’s food industry, from both sides of the city limits, convenes at the Willow Lane Barn near Olds, AB. The goal is simple: Have people from different walks of life talk about food and their values surrounding it while seated around a long table, eating and drinking from an all-Alberta gourmet menu.

Terry Andryo is the head organizer with ATB Financial and describes the event as a platform where people can share ideas in a comfortable atmosphere. “We need more consumers at the table and our purpose is to listen, not to push propaganda down their throats,” he says.

The event grew out of the bank’s A Seat at our Table initiative, a four-way partnership with other like-minded Alberta groups, to foster discussion and appreciation of food production. Event organizers hand-pick people from both sides of the coin — from organic, non- GMO enthusiasts to conventional farmers who use crop protection products and have a strong business approach to their farm or ranch.

“We’re looking for youth, squeaky wheels, people with voices, people with clout on social media. We need them there for different perspectives, or hear where they’re getting their information,” says » Andryo. “We can’t have everybody agreeing and nodding or we accomplish nothing.”

The event format makes certain everyone has ongoing dialogue by strategically seating people with different viewpoints together to produce meaningful conversation. The entire event aims to underscore farming’s importance.

“We get people out to a farm because everything they hear scares them and fear sells. The big purpose is to ratchet down the stories they hear on mass media,” says Andryo, adding that by having face-to-face conversations, true connections and trust are forged.

“Lots of millennials are missing components of human connectivity; they’re so connected to devices. (With MITM) you’ll get an honest reaction because it’s not a prepared statement or speech. This is me and you talking,” he says. “It’s unscripted and it will bring a lot of honesty and true impressions from people. That’s how we see these long table events.”

The venue, Willow Lane Barn, perfectly sets the mood so everyone can disconnect and relax for the evening. People have wide-ranging conversations, depending on their background or career, and usually walk away with one or two nuggets that resonate, such as the farmer who held up one bushel of malt barley and explained how much beer it produces and his profitto- production ratio versus the average cost of a six pack.

As far as changing perceptions of agriculture and food production, Andryo knows that’s the long play, yet the research ATB has conducted around the event determined most people are aligned when it comes to their overall values. People want food that’s accessible, affordable and safe, Andryo says. That was the message from information gathered through social media, which included comments from people from all ages and walks of life.

Andryo believes urbanites would benefit from learning more about food production and he’s been pleasantly surprised by the number of city dwellers who are supportive of the industry. Ultimately, changing consumer perceptions is a long game, and it may be years before there is a shift in purchasing trends, a potential signal that events like MITM are turning the tide and building public trust in agriculture.

Lauren Davis, Bayer’s marketing communications manager for Canada, says he recalls being both excited and inspired by the engagement and format of MITM. “You get to chat with someone in a completely different space than you. I sat beside an organic food blogger on the bus ride after the event. I think it was eye opening for both of us,” says Davis. “Where else would I be able to sit and have an hourlong conversation with a person who has a completely different viewpoint, vantage point or background to what I have?”

Davis also recalls hearing from an urbanite who spends her time rescuing orphan tree fruit with the purpose of feeding less fortunate individuals. “At the end of the day she cares about feeding people, she just goes about it in a different way than our farmers.”

To learn more about the next MITM, taking place on Canada’s Agriculture Day, February 12, 2019, visit www.aseatatourtable.com.