Food Revolution Day raises awareness of farm-to-table eating

When Victoria Volpe imagines her future, she sees herself running her own restaurant, serving common cuisine with a classy touch, like empanadas and salted cob soup.

Victoria, a 10th-grader at the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies, would spend most of her time in the kitchen, cooking and watching over her staff. But sometimes she would emerge to greet her patrons.

"I like to see the look on people's faces when they taste my food and it tastes great," she said.

On Friday afternoon, Victoria saw plenty of satisfied customers. She was a volunteer at Food Revolution Day Pittsburgh, a festival where 20 restaurants and organizations offered free samples from their repertoire.

At the table for Bar Marco, a Strip District restaurant, Victoria served heaps of grilled chicken, roasted potatoes and baked beans. Dozens of customers grabbed paper plates weighted down with the food, devoured it with plastic forks and expressed gratitude before moving on in search of more nourishment.

A couple tables down, the Pittsburgh Community Kitchen served open-faced pierogies with red potatoes, granulated onions, sausage and gouda cheese.

The Art Institute of Pittsburgh had jerk-chicken quesadillas with pineapple-peach-mango salsa. From Chatham University, it was a black-bean salad with bell peppers and cucumbers, as well as lettuce and cilantro from its student farm.

The festival was run by Pittsburgh Global Shapers, a group of community volunteers, and the Food Revolution Pittsburgh Cooking Club, which offers cooking classes to students from the Obama Academy. One of those students is Victoria. When she joined the club two years ago, she could cook only basic dishes such as spaghetti. Now, she makes homemade pasta, and she's pretty good at rolling sushi.

With an inflatable slide, a reggae band, a water balloon fight, a pillow-fighting ring and a petting zoo, the festival occupied all of football-field-sized Peabody Park, next to the academy. It was much smaller when it was held for the first time last year, limited to a corner of the park. The organizers hope to make it even larger next year.

"We want more people involved. We want more people here. We want to feed more people," said Aimee DiAndrea, a member of the Global Shapers.

Dozens of charities, hospitals and nonprofits were there, too, using activities to spread knowledge of their cause. For example, Team Tassy, a local nonprofit with a mission to alleviate global poverty, had a dunking booth. For a dollar, visitors could get three baseballs, and three chances to drop Carla Martinez of Brookline into the water.

"It's for a good cause," Ms. Martinez said before her first dunking.

Part of the festival's mission was to raise awareness of local cuisine and organic farms -- to "democratize food," as its posters said. But it was also to help Pittsburgh residents learn about what other locals are doing. The free food was a way to draw people in so they could talk with each other, said Robert Fry, who helped organize the event.

"The best conversations happen over food and drink," he said.

At one table, Chris Brenkle stood behind rows of tomato, pepper, lettuce and herb seedlings from his 100-acre farm near Cranberry. In recent years, he's noticed a big jump in interest for locally grown food. It has improved business for his farm, which has been in his family for three generations.

Five years ago, the farm became a community-supported agriculture subscription program. That means locals can buy shares in it, guaranteeing them a portion of its products. He also sells his goods at farmer's markets near the Phipps Conservatory and Bar Marco.

Disregarding what it has done for his business, Mr. Brenkle is happy about the rise in concern for organic food. It will help society overcome health problems like diabetes, he said.

"Some of the biggest problems in our society are related to food -- lack of good food and lack of sitting down and eating food together," he said.

Richard Webner: or 412-263-4903.

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