Ryan Iacovacci passionately believes in the power of food to bring communities together and empower people. Working with Local Roots he travels across Central Florida bringing food from Farm-to-Restaurant and connecting the dots in our local food movement.
Photographed in his home in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood of Tampa.
Tell us where you were born, how long you’ve lived in Tampa, where you went to school and what did you study? I was born in Flint, MI and moved to St. Pete when I was five. I grew up in St. Pete lived there until I got into USF. My degrees are in Religious Studies and International Studies.
How did you become interested in local, fresh food? I blame my mother for this. I was always the kid on the football team that had…‘orgaaaanic’ milk. Which at the time was a source of ‘unmanlyness’. Though, it was always an educational opportunity, as my mother had reported several stories on the harmful effect of hormones and antibiotics in animal products.
Tell us about Local Roots: Farm to Table Distribution? At Local Roots we are developing a system for distributing locally grown food. Our goal is to increase the volume of available food, create distribution hubs and make locally-grown food more affordable. I personally drive a 14-foot box truck across Central Florida to bring food from farm to restaurant. We go to local farms and growers, buy what’s fresh and deliver it to some of the best chefs along the I-4 corridor. Eventually we want to create a statewide system. In October, we will be opening a grocery store in Orlando at the East End Market and plan to have a grocery store/restaurant in Tampa and/or St. Pete in the next year.
Talk about connecting people through food. I’ve learned two things working in food service industry most of my working career. First is that everyone loves good food – from Latino farmers in the fields, to blue-collar truck drivers, to warehouse workers, to the servers running food. Second is that local food brings families and communities closer, whether that be the dinner table, a street block, rural or urban. In America families have become smaller and people are isolated from their communities. I want people to come together and food is the best way to do that. We all love to eat good food. Food is bringing our country closer together and at a time when having a community to share with and lean on is really important for all of us.
How did you decide to move to Sulphur Springs? Growing up in a mostly male-dominated, white, privileged suburban lifestyle I never really experienced poverty and the struggles therein. After a trip to rural China I experienced the growing pains of that country and realized that we have issues in our own country. Some friends and I decided to live in Sulphur Springs to become part of this disadvantaged community and work with the residents to try to change eating habits, encourage urban farming and connect people through food. Plus it’s a lot easier to work here than learn Mandarin Chinese and live there! Sulphur Springs used to be a great neighborhood that was primarily agriculture based. I believe it can be a community once again when it embraces its past and works together.
What is your favorite thing to cook? I’m pretty broke these days and live with some great roommates that are all about sharing. Although we live frugally we do get access to some of the best food. We eat like kings! My favorite thing to cook is the item that I’ve never cooked with. Like growing weird things in my yard and saying to myself…ok, what the hell do I do with this?
What are the best restaurants in town to find food made with local ingredients? There are the obvious ones like The Refinery or Cigar City Brewpub in Tampa and the Parkshore Grille in St. Pete. Some unexpected ones are Reservations Gourmet-to-Go in Seminole Heights. It’s really, really good and well priced (though not all local, like most restaurants in Tampa Bay) and Mise en Place for lunch! The lunch menu is great and affordable. Everyone is buying local more and more – it’s really up to the customer to ask questions and relay to the chef that they want to know where this comes from!
Where might we find you hanging out on a Saturday night? The Mermaid Tavern is my default, because it’s so darn close to Sulphur Springs – but I like to go to the Tampa Theatre and walk around downtown, or Seminole Heights house parties with hipster bands. Recently I found myself at a Muy Thai fight in Hyde Park!
How has the local food movement changed in Tampa Bay in the last few years? The Refinery came in and raised the bar in Tampa. Over the past 4 or 5 years more and more places are into local food…and they get held accountable when they aren’t. The citizenry is becoming aware of how important it is to support local economies, but the local food movement has yet to really change Tampa in the way, say the local beer movement has changed our city.
What is your favorite object in your house? I think my roommates would say my smart phone, but I would have to say its my fridge – that’s where all the good stuff is! And without it, life would be REALLY, REALLY hard.
You recently made a trip to Cuba. What did you find there and how was it transformative? I found a lot of cheap mojitos and lobster tails! Seriously though, the food is cheap everywhere. I also found a strong sense of resilience and closer familial connections. I liked that a lot. There are a lot of local food things happening there since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90’s. Food was not readily available in stores so people began growing their own food, even in the cities. I found it transformative because despite their lack of so much (access to credit, materials, refrigeration, etc.) they live very efficiently, and are very creative and happy. Let’s be honest, their life expectancy is greater than ours, both for men and women.
You’re a self-described chameleon. Well, when you go to a farm where the farmer has a Mitt Romney sign in their yard and then to a neighbor who’s a chef, proudly wears the color blue and beat the pavement to reelect the President…you’ve gotta learn to find the best in people, while still being honest and kind. I’ve always been able to slip in to many different situations and blend in.
How has Tampa become part of your identity? I wouldn’t have gone to Cuba if it wasn’t for my love of Tampa. Jose Marti is a hero of mine. Tampa is what motivates me everyday. I stay here because despite climate change, GMO’s, financial collapse, I feel called to Tampa to grow my roots. I love the people that are in solidarity, and there are many. When I hear stories of people taking to action and the community responding, it only reinforces my decision to stay. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side…rather I say it’s what you grow and how you grow it that makes you wanna stay or go.
What’s the best advice you have ever gotten? “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” And lets just say, I love what I do.