You never know where Open Roads will take you…

Virginia Food Heritage Project, Interview with Tanya Denckla Cobb
By Becky Allen

I heard about the Virginia Food Heritage Project from my friend, Patty Wallens, who knows about seed-saving and such things. I was intrigued by this idea of “Knowing our past—Growing our future,” and Patty put me in touch with Tanya Denckla Cobb, a UVa professor who teaches food system planning at the School of Architecture and is an environmental mediator in the University’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation. This project was born when co-teacher Tim Beatley introduced Tanya to the idea of food heritage as a topic worthy of study. As far as I know, this is a prototype project, singular to Virginia in general, and Central Virginia, specifically.

Talking with Tanya about the project excited me; here’s an undertaking that creates a win/win for all involved. Thank you, Tanya, for sharing your story with our “Open Roads” family.

“The project started several years ago when I was co-teaching a course on food system planning with Tim Beatley, a professor at UVa. For the semester project, we asked students to do video interviews about food heritage with people at the Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA). Tim introduced me to this idea of food heritage and its importance. He also introduced me to Gary Nabhan, who is a food heritage guru in theUnited States.Garyteaches at theUniversityofArizonaand is involved with Slow FoodUSAat the national level. He set up a program called RAFT—Renewing America’s Food Traditions.Gary’s very latest publication is on Appalachia, drawing mostly from interviews and work inNorth Carolina; this has everyone very excited as it explores the food heritage of a region close to us.

“Garyheavily influenced me, personally, in understanding the power of heritage food, and helping us to build a local food system using place-based foods, which creates a sense of uniqueness. This is something planners everywhere are trying to fight for; what I mean is planners are trying to retain – or rebuild – a sense of place or uniqueness in their community, to counter the momentum of sameness that has overtaken our country.

“So, I started looking at some of Gary’s publications and we had him come and speak to our class. Then I thought, why don’t we pull together a committee of community stakeholders who might be interested in seeing if there’s a viable future for something like this, even though I wasn’t sure what ’this‘ was. It was a fishing expedition, if you want to know the truth. I called a number of key people from the community and we started having meetings and talking about capturing food heritage histories and about the possibility of creating a food heritage story corps, similar to NPR’s StoryCorps. We had a lot of different ideas, which led me to write a small grant proposal that I submitted to the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. We were awarded $2,000 to seed the project. At that time Gary Nabhan came to speak to my class and to meet with this planning committee we’d pulled together. He really fired people up. He’s on fire himself about food heritage. He also gave a public talk that was attended by 100-150 people; he talked about heritage food in the context of climate change, explaining why heritage food and retaining biodiversity in food crops is even more important as a kind of insurance to protect our future food supply. That’s the backdrop for the project.

“Since then the community stakeholder committee has grown; more people have gotten involved and we’ve become more focused in our goals. So this project now has three or four key elements to it. The first is documenting what our food heritage is—that’s always the beginning point. When Gary Nabhan has gone into communities in different places in the nation, he always tries to identify what he calls threatened, endangered, or even extinct heritage foods. They develop these long lists of cultivars of fruits, nuts, herbs, vegetables, mushrooms, fish, fowl, —it includes all types of foods. This is the starting point.

“So our committee wants to first identify our place-based food heritage. We’re calling it the Virginia Food Heritage Project because we envision someday that this will be a project for all ofVirginia. Our current focus is on the central Piedmont region, specifically the 5-county region of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, which includesAlbemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Nelson, and Louisa counties, plus the City of Charlottesville. We’re seeing this as a pilot project for what we envision could be a larger project where each area of Virginia would someday undertake the same effort. We know, for example, that the Eastern Shore is going to have a very different food heritage from central Piedmont and very different fromSouthwest Virginia, etc. We know there will be very distinct regional food heritage.

  1. Let’s identify the place-based food heritage. Let me say that we’re not necessarily going to focus only on the threatened/endangered/extinct. We’re not sure we can be as rigorous as Gary Nabhan was—unless we get more funding, and that would be Phase Two. So our identification of place-based food heritage will be fairly broadly construed.
  2. We want to map it. We went to two events, the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticelloand Old Farm Day in Fluvanna. We had the maps of each county there and we created a map key, if you will, or a code for different types of things that people could identify. People told us about special places, special farms, canneries, production places, granaries and we mapped them. We might have some special heritage food restaurants. We were told about and recorded some heritage foods, so we started that process. We’ll make these maps available online as the basis, we hope, for some form of agri-tourism. We have a heritage music trail in the southwest; wouldn’t it be cool if we had a heritage food trail? We know that in other places, likeArizona, once they’ve identified a heritage food, it enables people to revive that food. For example, mesquite was a heritage food that had been lost. The first step was to provide farmers with the seed for mesquite. So farmers started growing mesquite. Next, they needed a mill, and they got money for that. Then they had the grain which could be made into food. It took a number of years, but, now mesquite has been integrated into restaurants, and other places that sell heritage foods now sell mesquite flour. That’s a longer term process, but it will not only be for agri-tourism; we’ll actually see some revival of these foods in other entrepreneurial ways.
  3. We want to capture the stories of food heritage, so we’ll be doing interviews. We hope to interview people who are knowledgeable, especially those whose knowledge may soon be lost. We know there are elderly people whose stories we definitely want to capture. We want to record them with video, but we also want to write up the stories. The committee thought this work could be done by students, so I’m creating a brand new class around food heritage and one of the things the students will do is conduct the interviews, create short YouTube videos, and write up the heritage food stories. I applied for and received an internal UVa Academic Community Engagement grant for the class and I’m now in the throes of developing the syllabus. In the spring, we’ll hold the first Food Heritage Planning class at the UVa School of Architecture.

“One of the arguments made in favor of creating the class was that this project could be a bridge between young and old, getting students out of the classroom and into the community. It would help them develop video skills, an increasingly important tool in today’s world and also give them experience with story telling in a non—academic way.”

This project has potentially far-reaching affects. Anytime we honor that call to connection—with each other, ourselves, the earth, we’re better able to find creative, collaborative solutions to challenges. As we look into the future, we can also look to the past for traditions that not only continue to have relevance, but can work as solutions to some of the challenges we face today. And what bigger challenge do we humans face than figuring out how to provide for our most basic need—healthy food that’s abundantly available? What sweeter way to meet any challenge than holding hands and walking together, metaphorically as well as literally, in community formed by bridging the gap between generations? What better tools do we have than the wisdom and experience that comes with age coupled with the enthusiasm and vigor of youth? In this waning age of mass produced food, this idea takes on even greater significance. Ed.

If you’re interested learning more about the project, check in at, where you can find their contact information:

phone: 434-924-1970


Comments on: "Virginia Food Heritage Project, Interview with Tanya Denckla Cobb" (2)

  1. […] in the University’s Institute for Environmental Negotiation…. ”  read the Virginia Food Heritage Project interview by Becky […]

  2. […] “Virginia Food Heritage Project, Interview with Tanya Denckla Cobb“ Becky Allen, Open Roads Blog, January 1, 2012 […]

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