Family Dinner: Brenda Nations and Art Bettis discuss food justice over food

Art Bettis and Brenda Nations eat dinner. — photo by Helaina Thompson

The good news concerns zucchini: There’s plenty of it. Arguably too much of it, although environmentalists Brenda Nations and Art Bettis (armed with an abundant CSA share and a very tasty summer squash galette recipe torn from the pages of a Better Homes and Gardens) do not seem to mind.

The bad news is the scorching, unpredictable weather this husband and wife duo of local food growers have observed this summer, a sign climate change is real and happening. Nations, Iowa City’s sustainability coordinator, has been tracking continually rising temperatures in the Iowa City-area, among her many other responsibilities (like planning the annual Farm to Street Dinner, coming up Aug. 16). Bettis, a recently retired University of Iowa environmental science professor, calls it “the doom and gloom” of their professions.

“It’s a pretty serious situation with the environment, but you gotta have hope,” Bettis says. “What I liked about teaching environmental science is there were always young people who were really fired up, and really had faith in doing something and were willing to do it.”

Young people like farmer Kate Edwards, owner of Wild Woods Farm, two miles north of Iowa City, who grew the vegetables featured on Nations and Bettis’ dinner table this evening. Weekly, the couple receives a delivery of seasonal produce from Edwards, who said, weather-wise, this year has been her most unpredictable year of farming.

Nevertheless, “her vegetables just taste so good,” Nations says between bites of just-picked kale and beet salad, topped with goat cheese and maple-candied walnuts still warm from the cast iron.

Photo by Helaina Thompson

A slice of the flakey galette awaits, brimming with zucchini and lemony ricotta and Parmesan cheeses.

Dinner shared between the two environmentalists easily turns to conversation about food justice: How accessible is local food in Iowa City? How should meat factor into one’s diet? How are Iowa’s crops affected by rising nighttime temperatures?

“I think my work really affects my private life,” Nations says. “With Art being in environmental science, and both of our jobs, we kinda have to walk the talk. You try to do the right thing, but it’s not always easy.”

Nations and Bettis see the privilege tied to supporting the local food movement — “We’re lucky we can make those choices,” says Bettis — and they say it’s time for greater equity in sustainability.

“The whole thing about sustainability that I find the most interesting is, they say, ‘people, place and prosperity,’” Nations says. “And I get the environmental stuff, but the people and the economics is really important too. The whole reason you want to do things for the environment is … for people.”

And, of course, for good food.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 247.

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