It still felt like summer on Friday, September 13, but just barely, as I drove toward Mt. View Orchards. The sky was blue and the breeze was warm but promised to turn chilly before the evening was over. I parked at the Mt. View Orchards venue in front of trees heavy with near-ripe pears. Mt. View Orchards, owned and operated by Katrina Alexander, was hosting the annual Gorge Grown Harvest Dinner.

“The Harvest Dinner is our only fundraiser event,” said Hannah Ladwig, communications and outreach manager for Gorge Grown Food Network. “The goal is to celebrate local food and farming, raise awareness about our work, and garner support from the community.” This dinner, and this organization, is about so much more than a “farm to table” ideal. “Farm to table is a lovely image, but it leaves out the complexity of a resilient, inclusive local food system which requires healthy soil, living wages for farm workers, efficient distribution, access to quality food, awareness of how to cook and prepare it. That’s why our approach is multi-pronged,” Ladwig explained.

The list of volunteers and donations that go into making this dinner happen is a long one, and includes breweries and wineries that donate their beverages and volunteers who serve dishes prepared by Ben Stenn of Celilo Restaurant. Stenn uses local ingredients to create his menu featuring the hero ingredients of the season — tomatoes, greens, kale, beets and beans — working directly with the farmers by sourcing and featuring what’s in abundance and building a menu from there.

“The farmers grow beautiful vegetables and Gorge Grown helps share them with the people,” Stenn said. “The service to the farmer is to support the challenging and fickle nature of Mother Nature. The service to the people is connecting those who may not have a knowledge of vegetables with the best possible produce available to them.” It’s the way Stenn and his staff work at Celilo every day, but it’s also very specific to this special dinner. The dinner is a celebration of the hardworking farmers who spoil our region with their produce, and of the community who supports them.

The dinner is also about highlighting the work that the passionate team at Gorge Grown is carrying out. They care deeply about our local food system and the ways in which our food reaches our community. One of the ways our food reaches the community is through Kiara Kashuba and Jenny Twohig and their Mobile Market van. In the last year, Gorge Grown held more than 100 mobile pop-up markets and delivered produce from 27 farms to some of the most food-insecure, isolated parts of the Gorge. Kashuba was set up on the front edge of the event with the van selling t-shirts and talking about their work.

Next to the van, Suzi Conklin, Gorge Grown board chair, was checking people in for the dinner, greeting them with warmth and familiarity. People began to stream into the event space: a large covered area with long tables set with simple place settings, fresh flowers, and wine glasses ready to be filled. Volunteer servers carried trays of hors d’oeuvres including melon with chili and lime, crab salad, and smoked salmon (to name a few), as well as trays of Golden Row Cider, Columbia Gorge Organic Apple Cider, and Blue Bus Kombucha to sip. Bridgid’s Cross played music, filling the air with the hum of “I’ll Fly Away.” continued

While people sipped cider, I pulled Conklin aside to talk about Gorge Grown. She listed some of the essential work that they’re doing. She told me how they’ve worked hard to build a base of local famers — providing classes, workshops, and resources for them. She told me that 98 percent of the food grown here is exported and how they’re working hard to shift that percentage. She told me that one in three residents in the Gorge are food insecure, so they created a food coalition, enlisting healthcare providers to write “veggie prescriptions” that work as coupons, and ensuring that SNAP is accepted at farmers markets. She told me how the organization’s Farmland Preservation program is focusing on land use and preserving the integrity of our farmland. As she talked, my understanding of the depth and breadth of the work Gorge Grown is doing began to expand.

After a farm tour led by McAlexander, everyone was invited to take their seats. She kicked off the event with a welcome and a quote, “A significant part of the pleasure of eating is one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which the food comes,” by Wendell Berry.

Platters of White Salmon Bakery bread and bowls of hummus and baba ganoush were placed on tables while Stenn took his turn at the microphone. He explained that dinner was being served “family style” which meant that it was to be shared with neighbors and friends — it’s easy to find the connection between those words at the dinner and how they relate to the larger picture of our local food system.

By the time the next plates of cannelloni bean and white beet puree topped with jewel-toned tomatoes and fragrant pesto were being served, Sarah Sullivan, Gorge Grown executive director, was saying her piece. “Most people know Gorge Grown Food Network for our first project, the Hood River Farmers Market. You may not know we’ve also helped start and support 10 other farmers markets in the Gorge. We believe that access to fresh, local food is a human right,” she said to applause. “What we choose to eat directly impacts our community. With each meal, we decide whether we exploit or uplift others, and whether we honor the land or pollute it. I believe that when we come together around tables with strangers, we are eating — and acting — in solidarity, in support of all of those who not only grew this food, but those who picked it, processed it, raised it, caught it and prepared it for us tonight. Gorge Grown is committed to building this kind of food system, based on dignity and integrity — a resilient and inclusive food system that honors the land, where everyone has a seat at the table.”

Sarah invited everyone to raise a glass, and they did, the echo of clinking glasses punctuating her words. More beautiful food continued to be served: deep green salads; smoked salmon with sweet peppers; Albacore tuna with corn, peppers, fennel and tomatillo salsa; and cheesecake for dessert. More local wine was poured.

The sky started to dim, everyone pulled sweaters and blankets around themselves, and I headed home. Halfway down the drive I turned back, taking in the humbling view of Mount Hood rising majestically above a group of people creating, serving, supporting and enjoying the bounty of the Gorge — celebrating what the Gorge Grown team is doing to protect and uplift our local food system. Gorge Grown is doing sacred work for our community, and I for one am going to find ways to be more involved and engaged in supporting them.

For more information, go to gorgegrown.com.

Kacie McMackin is a food blogger, writer and photographer at gorgeinthegorge.com.

She is a frequent contributor to Savor.

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