Grab a fork and dig in, Fork Fest brings the farm to the city


Local First's offices are located in Grand Rapids' East Hills neighborhood. Photo via Facebook

One interesting addition to Grand Rapids menus during the last several years has been the growing inclusion of local farms. Some menus provide a general list of farms with which the restaurant does business, while others provide more detailed information about what products restaurants purchase from farms.

The move is a result of a growing interest, and therefore marketability, of locally grown food, also known as the farm to table or the slow-food movement. Restaurant patrons and grocery store shoppers are beginning to pay closer attention to where their breakfasts, lunches and dinners are coming from because buying local food products helps build sustainable communities.

Besides adding farm names to menus, the growing commitment to local food can also be seen in the recent $2.86 million investment in the Fulton Street Farmers Market, the addition of farmers’ markets around the region, increasing opportunities for dinners on the farm, on-site restaurant herb and vegetable gardens and the opening of Trillium Haven, which is the first farm-owned restaurant in the region.

It can also be seen in Local First’s second annual Fork Fest.

Taking place on Thursday, Oct. 18 from 5-9 p.m., Fork Fest is a celebration of local food and local food systems. Last year’s successful one-night event included 24 vendors and drew a crowd of 250 people to Romence Gardens to sample local food, meet farmers and chefs and enjoy an evening with community members.

This year, 36 vendors are lined up to participate, with 15 of those vendors returning for the second year. Elissa Hillary, Local First executive director, also expects that attendance will nearly double to 400 visitors.

The event will once again be held at Romence Gardens, which will offer up two of its greenhouses to accommodate the event’s growth.

Hillary said the greenhouses serve as the perfect backdrop for Fork Fest, filled with fall flowers, garden-ready plants, two bars stocked with Michigan wines, beers and hard ciders and plenty of room for vendors to network with one another, meet the community and share their vast food knowledge.

One of the main reasons that restaurants, artisan producers, grocers and farmers participate in Fork Fest is to make connections with the community and with one another.

Amore Trattoria Italiana is participating in Fork Fest for its second time after a successful first year.

“We are a member of Local First, and we try to get involved with as many events as we can to promote local business,” said Jenna Arcidiacono, chef at Amore. “It is so important to know where your food comes from. . . . Feel free to ask the servers at your favorite local place which farms they use and support. The slow-food movement is something that started in Italy and promotes the use of products that are sustainable in the region you live in. Now they have gotten even more specific, asking for people to support the land that is the square kilometer around your home. The food is fresher and needs no extra spraying, because it doesn’t travel, which makes it much healthier for you to eat.”

Tickets for Fork Fest are $25 and include all food-sampling items. Nowhere else in town can patrons try so many local food offerings from so many different vendors in one evening, while also learning more about how to use the products they are trying, meeting the farmers and chefs behind the foods and having fun at the same time.

Hillary said that while they are still working on collecting data on the event’s impact on purchases from participating vendors, anecdotally, she has heard that purchases went up after last year’s event.

Grand Rapidians have been known to be a bit reluctant to try new foods, according to some longtime farmers and chefs in the area, but that seems to be changing in recent years. Events like Fork Fest help encourage those remaining reluctant eaters to try something different and often they realize they like it.

Fork Fest is a great place to try something new and to walk away with a new recipe from a farmer or a chef. In fact, Local First 10×10 pledge members are already receiving weekly recipes and tips on eating locally.

“I love to share recipes and will be happy to do so at Fork Fest,” Arcidiacono said.

In addition to all the food available, Brewery Vivant, Vander Mill cider and Art of the Table will have drinks for sale, and The Fauxgrass Quartet will play throughout the night.

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