Building blocks to a Sustainable Food Community
I've often referred to my independent study on sustainable food systems as my un-accredited PhD program. Over the past seven months, I've handcrafted an education program that brought together learning experience and opportunities that would be the most meaningful to me...interning on organic farms, taking short courses and workshops and interviewing experts in the field.

Last night, I had the chance to present my findings and solutions for building a sustainable food community at the Tools for the Table speaker series in Truckee hosted by the Genesa Living Foundation. It felt like I was defending my thesis but fortunately, the audience took it easy on me and didn't challenge my proposal ;)

The pyramid to the left sums up my theory in a nutshell. To have a sustainable food system, you must have the building blocks to support it. First, you need a foodshed assessment in order to measure your community's food security against its dependence on the national food system. A foodshed assessment will provide a food policy council the information they need to develop a food plan for their society. The formation of a regional food hub will provide a market which will encourage more local food production. And those new food producers will be born from farmer and specialty-food incubator programs.

Once there is a solid foundation, equity will start to be seen in the supply chain starting with the grower all the way to the consumer. As more land is put into agricultural production and partnerships are developed with food, abundant, regional neighbors, the community will become more food secure. Financial incentives which encourage consumers and businesses to spend money locally will be implemented to build the regional food system. Regional networks  keeps money circulating locally. When money stays local it stimulates the local economy to make it more prosperous and resilient. Whatcha get is a sustainable food community!

Me sailing to my blue sky dreams for a new food future :)
As I've moved through this food journey, I've called upon my blog to help me clarify my thoughts and work through perplexing questions. Now that I'm back in Tahoe and building a career around food, I find myself calling upon my dear friend "sustainability" way too much in order to explain what it is I'm doing. I know it's an overused word and in the moment before I say it, I'm hopeful that I will think of a new word or phrase. But alas, out it comes.

Regardless, it's a great word and I believe in what it means! In its solitary form, sustainability represents "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (as coined by the World Commission on Environment and Development). Toss in food and my favorite definition for sustainable agriculture is...and I admit, I forget where I got this from..."land management practices which balance food production with the conservation of ecosystems through soil biology and biodiversity." Therefore, I conclude that the sustainable food systems we build today will create an equitable supply chain from grower to consumer both now and in the future. Equitable being the operative word!

Let me develop that a little further...If the land, the farmers, the workforce and the consumers are treated fairly and with respect to their needs and services there will be equity in the marketplace. When there is justice in the food system everyone wins! The soil can sustain itself and support a healthy and vibrant ecosystem. And the marketplace can take care of its workers and customers because the economy will realize we are all customers. And it is in our valued interest to meet the needs of the people first before profit. By taking care of our ecosystem services, the return on investment will be a thriving community not a dividend.

My vision for a new food paradigm
I want to build food-focused communities. Communities that are invested in their food security. It begins with how and where the food was grown. To be food secure, you first must know the land can provide indefinitely. Only sustainable agricultural practices can provide that. Once we secure the food and the land is happy, we need to make it accessible by creating an equitable marketplace for farmers to sell their food at a fair price and at a price the community can afford. Food access includes educating people about diet, scratch cooking skills as well as food buying decisions at the home, school and institutional level. An informed eater will realize the positive impacts that buying local can provide and that sustainable agriculture is as much about sustainable, economic development. Food sovereignty is when food security and food access coalesce. It results in communities that are engaged in food policy. They come together to design a system that works for them ecologically, culturally and economically.

When I hear, "How are we going to feed the world?". I say, "We first need to think in terms of building self-reliant communities that can feed themselves." If ever community did that, we will have fed the world. Start by evaluating all available land resources to see how each region can grow as much of their own food as possible. It will require saving farmland from development, creating more urban gardens, using greenhouses to extend the growing season and establishing vertical gardens in re-purposed vacant buildings. In the process, it will have created jobs for new farmers, new specialty food producers and all the people along the supply chain. Trade with other areas will of course still exist but local economies will be stronger and more resilient if able to provide more for themselves.

In my community, I want to leverage all available food services in the Sierra Nevada in order to build a regional food system that can support the majority of our food needs. It will increase trade regionally between communities bolstering local economies. Money will circulate in the region encouraging more, small farms and area food producers but it w will also spark job growth and new business in other industries because that's what happens when money stays local. Economic drivers that promote a 25% shift to buying local will be implemented. By keeping money in the region, it will stoke the fire to ensure the model's longevity. I've quoted Mother Jones magazine on this one before and I'll do it again..."Fix the food...fix the country."

That's my BHAG: Big-Hairy-Audacious Goals! Gotta have'em!

Oran Hesterman of the Fair Food Network and me
Over the past month, I've quoted and commented from the book, Fair Food, by Dr. Oran Hesterman PhD. On Monday, I had the unique opportunity to drive with Oran from Ann Arbor to Detroit to attend the Fighting Hunger Summit hosted by United Way of Southeastern Michigan at the Gleaners Food Bank.

Oran's book offers insight, case studies and strategies for "growing a healthy, sustainable food system." A sustainable food system is fair. It's fair to the earth, the animals and the people. Our current system is not exactly fair. It is built on profit instead of equity. Both can lead to economic vitality but a profit-based system leaves a wake of inequities in its path. Those marginalized, however, can bring value to the system celebrating the cultural, biological and economic diversity of our planet and our society. Oran reminds us...Diversity on the farm and diversity in the marketplace builds resilient, equitable, local economies.

My 50-minutes of car time gave me the opportunity to soundboard ideas that have been collecting along my food journey. His book germinated all kinds of new ideas and our conversation gave me the straight talk I needed to steady my course.

Gleaners Food Bank - Detroit, MI
Arriving at the summit, Oran headed on to keynote, speaker duties and I made my way around to all the organizations tabling during the breakfast reception. I quickly filled a bag of brochures and handouts. I was ready to learn from a city of people who have been fighting hunger since the conception of the food stamp. Detroit was one of 40 counties nationwide in the 1961 pilot program before the act was later established in 1964. By holding the summit at a food bank, the conference grounded people to the issue. No fancy, banquet hall to separate attendees from the job in front of us all...food justice.

Detroit is quickly shifting its spotlight away from depressed, former-boom town to the new face of urban living. At the heart, is Detroit's vibrant community garden program. And at the helm, is The Greening of Detroit who supports over 1000 gardens as well other educational and advocacy programs to green Detroit like their tree planting initiative. Not only does Detroit know the pains of hunger but the victories of rising up. A battalion of other organizations sit side-by-side The Greening of Detroit in their effort to make Detroit a more prosperous and equitable city like Forgotten Harvest, Detroit Food Policy Council, Double-Up Food Bucks, etc.

"Fair Food" proudly displayed on the shelf at the Ann Arbor Whole Foods store
The summit convened. The objectives were clear...the United Way of Southeastern Michigan wanted to better understand the barriers to food access. By calling together the area's food leaders, they would be able to glean the necessary items to build a strategy for improvement. Breakout sessions on five, different barriers would pave the way. As each group presented their findings, a trend emerged...better collaboration between community non-profits working on food related issues. My recommendation...United Way should do an assessment of all the organizations in Southeast Michigan and evaluate where their is duplication, low-lying fruits and missed opportunities. Create a coordinator position which audits these actions and develops a communication system to leverage these efforts and build relationships. Through this process, United Way will shift from being an just agent of "social services to social change." **

** Credit for this quote goes to my table-mate, Shane Bernardo, who works across the street from the Gleaners Food Bank at Earthworks Urban Farm as the Outreach Coordinator.

NPR coined it best when they came up with the series, "This I Believe."  We all have a voice. We all have big thoughts. We all have an opinion. But often don't have a place to express ourselves outside of private journals and coffee talks. "This I Believe" makes writers, orators and philosophers out of all of us - the proverbial soapbox. I'm a believer and deep thinker. And perhaps that's why I started a blog. I needed a clearinghouse to sort through and process all that I believed in.

One thing I believe...is that the way we grow, manage, distribute and market food can change the world! "Change" being the operative word. A lot needs to change in order for that to happen making the food question very complex. You could put your hand in a sack full of important issues related to this topic and write a book about how each one could contribute to this change, i.e. farming practices, sustainable agriculture, food justice, pest management, diet and nutrition, local food, dairy production, soil management, food safety, farm-to-table, feed the world, etc…The tricky thing is linking up all these issues. What needs to happen first? And in what order? I'm not claiming I have the solution but I am going to offer my suggestion on what I think we need to focus on in order to see positive impacts in our food system.

To help me make sense of complex issues like our food system, I strip them down to their most basic. From there I create a foundation upon which I can stack all the related information in an organized manor. It's like a big flow chart in my head. A filing system of sorts. Yes, I'm a "Type A" personality but governed by a left brain. I like creative order! If such a thing exists. The first complex issue I was given was in Mr. Hanley’s eighth grade class. We literally put our hand in a sack and pulled out a topic upon which we had to prepare a one-hour presentation. I drew “oil.” I used up more poster board and transparencies than the drug store could supply. I could have spoken for six hours with all the research I did. I think that project scared me for life and is probably why I’ve been an over analyzer ever since. It’s helped me though…like when I was a mountain bike instructor. If I gave my students too many, “do this, do that’s,” they would look like Tiger Woods in a yoga pose. So I would break each skill down into just three main points so they would not over think the task. For instance, when approaching a rocky downhill section, I would coach them by saying, “weight back, off the front brake, look ahead.” They would make it through ever time.

When looking at the food complex, I will rely on my "power of three" methodology using the three core principles of Agroecology: environmental, social and economics. We could break it down even further into just two, social and economic, because it is their demands upon the environment which drive how we treat it...We ask the land to provide high yields but often at an expense, we want to sustain our natural resources but exploit them at the same time,  we want to create more jobs but our farms require less workers. For the purpose of this exercise, I'll pull in some visuals to relate all three principles (if I only had an overhead projector and some transparencies). Imagine a scale with food production on the left (representing the environment) and food access  on the right (representing social). And at the fulcrum point is the economy. When you strip down the food economy, producing and access are at the core - food has to be grown and eaten. Equitable food production and food access creates a fair and balanced economy because value is built all the way through the supply chain. The focus is not on the profit but investment in the land and people...the two things at either end of the food system. Place ecologically sound farming practices in a regional food system and local economies will strengthen. More money stays in the community which in turn creates jobs, improves food access and develops infrastructure for a new food system. Healthy land management leads to healthy economies.

p.s. I'm not sure what I can footnote but somewhere between pages 126-208 of Oran Hesterman's book, Fair Food, I came up with this theory so it must be his or those of the people he interviewed. Thanks guys!