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Interview with Lisa Armstrong, New Owner at Eat Local West Michigan

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What did you exactly do in Sacramento? I created a start up culinary tourism lisacompany, Local Roots Food Tours 7 years ago.  My company offered culinary walking tours in 3 different cities and different neighborhoods within those cities.  Each tour consisted of 6 to 7 stops on a 3 hour walking journey.  Participants would meet local chefs, learn their stories and consume fresh local ingredients in seasonal menus while learning about the farms that were being sourced locally.  Tours were offered 6 days a week.  My company also offered farm and wine tours with the same format but with
transportation and meeting farmers and artisans/winemakers in a full day’s tour with a full catered meal and wine pairing included.  My background is 16 years in the culinary industry with a Bachelor of Science in Marketing.  Local Roots Food Tours was one of my 3 start up companies which I sold to someone locally this past December.  My other 2 businesses were in the culinary arena of owning a catering/private chef business as well as a gourmet food business which I started up over in the United Kingdom.

Why did you move back to the Midwest?
 My family and I wanted to get back to our roots.  My spouse and I both were born and raised in the Midwest (Indiana) and wanted to come to a state that offers great agriculture, outdoor recreation and friendly hospitality.  We were looking forward to experiencing 4 seasons again, just like we were raised in back in the day!

11061679_801143529938878_1593089369275979387_nWhat do you look forward to with regard to your new role at Eat Local West Michigan? As the new owner, I am looking forward to expanding the company in some new directions and continue with the resourceful food blog that has been ongoing on our website.  I am looking forward to offering signature culinary tours and special venues to local farms and restaurants throughout West Michigan and hopefully expanding beyond in the upcoming year.  I want to grow culinary tourism in West Michigan and eventually for the entire state by driving more awareness and offering more resources for incoming travelers as well as locals searching for ways to support eating fresh local ingredients and supporting local producers and artisans.

What are five things you would like people to know about local and/or organic foods? 
1.  There is a difference between supporting “local” and supporting “organic” when it comes to food selection.  Speaking directly to local farmers is the best way to gain insight as to which description is “healthier” or “worth the price”.  Going directly to the source is key.  Many misdemeanors when it comes to “local” and “organic”. When you shop at local farmers markets, it can be overwhelming to those who just want to start eating healthy.  Eat Local West Michigan is striving to keep the dialogue going as far as what is the difference between the two by offering many resources for all consumers to utilize and partake in.

2.  Focusing your diet on local and fresh ingredients by stepping away from all processed foods is a big step in the right direction.  Educating yourself on what fresh produce and fruits should be sourced from organic farms vs. those that are fine consuming with just a local label is an important conversation we all need to be involved in and learn what the difference is. Bringing awareness to this is critical to everyone’s healthy dietary decisions.

3.  The economics of what happens when more people start sourcing their food by turning to local farmers, local specialty producers and demanding freshness in their consumption will help bring the cost of organic/local ingredients down and more money in the farmers and producers pockets in stead of the big box supermarkets.  Supply and demand is key.  As local grocery markets and restaurants source locally because of the demand of its consumers, the price points will begin to come down and should be affordable to all who choose to source their food as natural and healthy as possible.  We are already starting to see those transitions happening today and they will continue to happen as long as the consumer drives the demand.

4.  The health benefits of eating whole foods in their natural state as much as possible is something that this world is beginning to move towards.  Eat Local West Michigan is striving to bring more awareness through its weekly blog posts, tours and resources on it’s website to educate how, why and where to begin making healthy choices in their daily meal plans.  Educating the public on what processed foods are doing to our bodies and having conversations between all of us is growing in demand on social media, group gatherings at local food events, non profit food organizations….etc  It is definitely a movement that is growing and will continue to make a difference in the global economy as more consumers become educated on the differences.

5.  Local and organic foods can be sourced from many entities in our local communities.  The more consumers demand these ingredients, the more accessible they will be.  Eat Local West Michigan’s website points out valuable resources on where individuals can purchase local and organic ingredients as well as where they can connect to the farmers who grow the produce and fruits as well as to local chefs who source their menus from the local farmers.  We promote farmers markets and local farms, community supported agricultural shares, restaurants and chefs that source locally, specialty producers who take fresh ingredients grown in Michigan and create amazing products to consume and use in our homes.  Our goal is bringing awareness and educating our communities about why Michigan is ranked #2 in diversified agriculture in the nation, only 2nd to California.  Very exciting!

orgWhat is the greatest challenge/learning experience you have had in your career?  My greatest challenge was taking an idea and growing it into a brand name by breaking down a lot of barriers that were set before me.  I had to build trust among farmers and their families, chefs and their restaurants and consumers buying our tickets immediately and the service I was offering had to be bulletproof in order to gain that trust.  I worked endless hours making sure every step along the way was professional, offered something that others were seeking and surrounded myself with individuals who were capable of representing my ideas and communicating those ideas effectively.  I took negative stigmas about how people viewed “food tours” as a “tourist attraction” and turned them into positive experiences by offering various culinary tours that not only educated my customers but created a sense of connection in the local communities.

Do you have a favorite culinary experience? Being a private chef who has over 16 years in the culinary field, I have way too many to list but some of my most memorable and favorite experiences have all had one common denominator….when the individuals I am consuming great food with are incredibly happy and smiling and mentioning how amazing the food before them is.

Why is it your favorite? Food connects people and when I witness that connection it become incredibly powerful.  It is priceless!

Who is your inspiration? My inspiration goes back to my roots and how I was raised by my family, especially my grandparents and great grandparents who were all hardworking farmers.  They inspired me to honor and respect the food that was provided to me and not ever take it for granted.  Don’t be wasteful in the food that was grown in our own backyard and fields.  Respect the animals that were raised for meat.  Preserve the bounty of the seeds that were sown. When I got away from these lessons in life, as a young parent, and began not sourcing my food from local farms as much as I should have, I lost a part of me that effected my everyday life.  It was critical that I got back to my roots after I realized what I had been missing.  It is what drove me to create Local Roots Food Tours and what drives me today to grow and expand Eat Local West Michigan into something great for the state of Michigan.

What does the food scene have to look forward to? I truly believe that the food scene in West Michigan, and for that matter, the entire state of Michigan, is only going to get stronger and gain more global recognition as the months progress.  It is a hidden gem from most of the country, for sure.  I have been simply amazed at the diversity of agriculture, the passionate farmers and their generational farms as well as the depth in taste of what they are producing. The abundance of restaurants striving to source locally and Michiganders hiding this well kept secret from the world has been such a positive highlight for me to witness moving into the area.  If consumers think California is the only state that pumps out the fresh produce and fruits then they will soon realize that there is another state to be beckoned with and that is Michigan.  Eat Local West Michigan hopes to be part of that conversation and instrumental in marketing these hidden gems to those coming into our state as culinary tourist and for locals seeking out the next best place to pick their blueberries!  So much to look forward to indeed.

Is the trend toward local and/or organic still going strong?  Absolutely.  As stated in many of my answers above, I believe the trend is no longer a trend but a mainstay in a growing population across the globe.  Consumers are demanding to know where their food is coming from, what is in their food and how to live a healthier lifestyle compared to even 10 years ago.  Wouldn’t it be great if 5 to 10 years from now you won’t even hear the words; “local” or “organic” because our world has changed from food with highly processed ingredients to simply whole, natural and straight from the root foods on their tables, in the stores and at the local markets?  The more awareness and resources we are given as consumers on how to achieve this lifestyle of eating and way of life, the closer we all will be of getting back to our roots and not a trend that comes and goes!

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