Meet Ben Towill: Restaurateur and Local Food Champion
During summer 2014, Chef Ben Towill of The Fat Radish and The East Pole embarked on a cross-country bike tour, raising over $25,000 for Just Food's Youth Community Chef program.
Throughout his trip, Ben wrote a blog series for The New York Times covering the conversations around food he had with people all over the country. Ben's riding partner and photographer Patrick Dougherty documented their adventures with beautiful photos.
Ben took time out to talk to Just Food this month about the characters he met along the way, why he supports Just Food, and his thoughts on changing our food system for the better.
Q: What inspired you to do A Ride in the Country and what drew you to Just Food?
A: It has been a trip that I have always wanted to do. I am obsessed with American history and especially the settlers who headed west and Lewis and Clark so I thought it would be a pretty magical experience. I had also lived in New York for 10 years and think that although I’ve lived in America, I did not feel I knew it well at all. I also had a friend, Robert Dundas, who had just rowed across the Atlantic, so I thought if he is doing that, it is time to do this bike ride. I was drawn to Just Food because The Fat Radish had been involved with Let Us Eat Local, and I had also attended the Just Food Conference and loved what they were doing.
Q: What surprised you the most about the US food system on your journey?
A: The US food system is a pretty enormous animal and I do not think that there is a one size fits all policy for food. I was so inspired by people’s focus on their community and how change was all about starting small and creating things that were needed in their community, such as Darren Swartz in Kansas producing organic vegetables for his local farmers market, or Keegan and Dory Athey with their truck farm in Idaho. On a less positive note, some of the large scale production, especially of chicken and beef, made no sense to me. You would ride 100 miles across some of the most beautiful grassland and then get to a town that had a feedlot of 10,000 plus animals and everyone lived in misery, the cows were crammed together and extremely skittish, the people lived under a constant smell of cow waste and the grasslands were left empty.
Q: Who was one of the most inspiring people you came across on your travels?
A: The people overall, I was just blown away by how wonderful the people were -- so kind, generous and helpful, whether you needed help fixing your bike or needed a place to sleep. But a couple of people that really stood out were John and Elna Faust, who we had dinner with at the side of a river in Idaho. They saw us camping by the river exhausted and bought us smoked fish from their home and sat and had a picnic with us, telling stories until the early hours. It is moments like this that will stick with you forever. Also, there was an incredible subculture of cyclists that are touring all over the country each summer, sharing tips and places to stay and helping each other out.
Q: How did it feel to contribute to The New York Times about A Ride in the Country?
A: An expedition is a journey with a purpose and I feel that riding for Just Food, and writing for the NY Times turned my journey into an expedition. I was so lucky to be able to do this and so grateful to Jesse Ashlock from the NY Times for allowing us to do this.
Q: What do you think are some of the best ways we can work to create a healthier food system in the US?
A: Individual responsibility and education at a young age about how food affects so many touch points in our lives, letting people understand the basic principle “you are what you eat.” I know that we will eventually get there, but people only seem to fix things when they are broken. I am the same -- only changed my tires when they were down to the thread. It was not until I had 8 flat tires as a result that I would check and change them before it got so bad, but we need to change our mindset. I think this is the smoking of our generation, people know that what we eat and how we feel is undeniably linked and we simply cannot ignore the facts.
Q: Why do you feel Just Food's work is important?
A: Because Just Food addresses food-related issues across a wide spectrum, in schools, at farmers’ markets, through conferences. They educate and empower people, which is how you make sustainable change, and they have a long consistent track record at doing so.
Ben Towill with Youth Community Chefs Navindra and Benia.
Photo by Tommy Mendes.