Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Friedman & Slow Food Tufts is Well Represented at the “It Takes a Region Conference” in Albany

On an early Thursday morning in mid-November, carloads of Friedman students (and many Slow Foodies) headed across the Bay State to reach their destination in Albany, New York for the weekend. This was the designated spot for the annual conference of the Northeast Sustainable Working Group (NESAWG), where nearly 400 people gathered from across the Northeast to talk food. The meeting was organized so that all activities would take place in a fantastically quirky hotel just off the freeway, complete with 18th century d├ęcor and the air of a colonial village.

While the hotel made for an amusing scene, the annual meeting was really meant to get people to work. After all, the conference is a working conference and NESAWG is a regional network of people who work to address an array of regional food system issues. This year’s working sessions were a continuation from the last conference and covered topics like infrastructure, food safety, regional supply chains, research and assessment, labor and trade, food access, food planning, and messaging and outreach. This means that the breadth of diverse interests held by Tufts students’ was largely covered.

Sticking to tradition, many Friedman students not only attended the conference, but also served as scribes for the various working sessions. That way, interested folks can review notes from each group and become up-to-date on progress. A smart approach, since the nature of the sustainable food field implies lots of overlapping areas of expertise and interest.

Day 1 was set aside for pre-conference trainings, and this year there were four: 1) Alternative Supply Chain Development hosted by Red Tomato 2) New Leaders in the Food Movement including Friedman’s very own Amanda Beal who represented Eat Local Foods Coalition of Maine, 3) Systems Planning; and 4) Advocacy 101: from Local to Farm Bill and Beyond.

The sessions were well represented by Tufts students and it was the general consensus that compared to the shorter working sessions, there was more of an opportunity to achieve concrete goals. I attended a seven-hour long Red Tomato workshop, during which I learned a great deal about the nuts and bolts of the operation as well as the more complex issues that Red Tomato faces. Interesting discussions revolved around the questions of how to grow a distribution infrastructure for expanding and complex local food system networks and how to scale-up without losing integrity.

The Greenhorns hosted a festive evening of old time string band music, local cheese, and some wildly tangy pickles. I think we would all agree that the mixer served as a valuable opportunity for networking and having plain old fun.

The next day, the Opening Plenary was an appropriate way to kickoff the busiest of the conference days. NESAWG Director Kathy Ruhf clarified the purpose of the working conference – to bring together a diverse group of sustainable food supporters and facilitate discussion, planning and goal setting. This was followed by a theatrical and rather amusing presentation by some of the Northeast’s most outspoken leaders. The presentation was a hard act to follow…unless you come from Columbia University’s Urban Design Lab, which uses an impressive design-based approach to shape the future of sustainable urbanism. Attendees were blown away by a presentation of cutting-edge graphics of New York’s food system. Their newest endeavor is the National Integrated Regional Foodsheds Model that will offer exciting opportunities to identify and eliminate barriers across the food chain for achieving integrated regional foodsheds.

Breakout into the various working sessions ensued, and attendees scrambled throughout the hotel to find the session that they felt would best suit them. The working sessions were remarkably short and productivity was heavily dependent on the effectiveness of the facilitator and the dynamics of the group mix. (This is where the comprehensive notes taken by Friedman scribes come in handy). Next came another enjoyable evening of a multi-course dinner and an a cappella performance.

The second day of the conference was designed to allow for a continuation of the working sessions. Attendees were encouraged, but not required, to stick to their original decision. More clamoring and swapping occurred. During these meetings, people seemed refreshed and eager to engage in productive conversations, possibly feeling the pressure of leaving the conference with maximal learning.

It took me until the end of the conference to achieve a better understanding of a working conference: it is not necessarily intended to generate tangible and momentous work, but rather to serve as a forum for important face-to-face discussion and collaboration that would continue throughout the year. With this in mind, it appears that the NESAWG conference was quite successful. After all, I learned more about what was going on in the Northeast, met some admirable leaders in the sustainable food system movement, and was given the opportunity to engage in a yearlong process to achieve goals specific to different working groups. And, nearly as important, I had the chance to bond with members of the Tufts community in an eccentric hotel and enjoy a change of pace from my usual deskwork.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Friedman Symposium Attendees Learn from Sustainable Food & Ag Leaders

The 2010 Friedman Symposium and has come and gone and there were many, many highlights this year certainly worthy of writing about on the Slow Food blog. For one, unlike last year’s focus on pediatric obesity and nutrition labeling, the recent Symposium served as a forum for enlightening discussions about sustainable agriculture practices and policy, USDA initiatives, regional food systems, and food security. The list of distinguished conference speakers is lengthy. The Friedman community was certainly welcoming of Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan’s short-but-sweet return to the school. She stood at the podium, as she had done time and again just 2 years prior, and spoke of the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, which she continues to defend amid an often hostile political arena.
On Saturday morning, a quartet of speakers really brought attention to Slow Food’s core principles of clean and fair food.
Kate Clancy spoke first. She was remarkably personable and professional during her lecture and conversations with the Friedman community. Clancy has no doubt racked up a lengthy resume as a food systems consultant and Senior Associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. In her lecture, Clancy refers to the large investments taking place in Europe in regional food systems research. “The U.S. really needs to bring research and planning up to par,” she said. After all, our food systems framework has major impacts on social welfare and food and environmental security. Clancy explains the potential for engaging in food system activities at the regional level, but admits that there are too many assumptions that have to be made. She calls on academics and researchers to develop methodologies and indicators for assessing regional food systems. An exciting new project (in which our very own Tim Griffin is actively involved) will assess whether greater reliance on regionally produced foods would enhance food security in the Northeast. The project involves an inter-state, inter-disciplinary research collaboration and it hopes to answer the fundamental questions of what a resilient food system would look like in the Northeast and what research and governance structures are needed at a regional level.
Next, Oran Hesterman, President and CEO of Fair Food Network, gave an informative rundown of his organization’s dedication to re-designing the food system in a manner that would achieve access to healthy, fresh and sustainably grown food for all (hence the “fair” in Fair Food Network). He explained how the Double Up Food Bucks project provides families who receive SNAP benefits with the means to purchase more Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. What should the Tufts community be reading to tap into his way of thinking? Hesterman recommends checking out a recent Report to Congress, Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food, as well as two newer books on climate change, The End of the Long Summer and The Coming of Famine. And, stay tuned for Hesterman’s own new book, Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, which will be released next year.
And who better to continue the conversation than the illustrious Fred Kirschenmann from Iowa State University and the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture? As many folks in the Friedman community know, Kirschenmann is a longtime leader in sustainable agriculture. But what many may not know is that he also oversees his own 3,500-acre organic farm in southern North Dakota. Kirshenmann offers his stance on sustainable food production. “Organic is one ecological approach and we don’t know what would happen if everyone farmed organically. Let’s develop and try out a variety of options and choose them in terms of our best understanding of how the options might play out in the future.” Kirshenmann also aimed to set the notion straight that not all farmers in our history were organic. “My grandfather was a slash and burn farmer and that is far from being organic!” The agriculture veteran calls on universities and professional societies to engage in research that would focus on models and alternatives to minimize energy inputs and ecological impacts. To learn more about Kirschenmann’s philosophy check out his new book, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher.
Last and certainly not least was Tim Lang from the City of London University who presented via livestream on the future of food policy from a European perspective. The presentation was quite humorous owing to the need to work out technological glitches and Lang’s quick adoption of the role of comedian. Nonetheless, his comic interjections were appropriate and he successfully enlightened the audience about food system problems in Europe that closely parallel those in the U.S. “Just like your country, we are not linking policy related to public health, the economy, social justice, and the environment,” he explained. He also spoke of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a massive system of EU agricultural subsidies and programs that continues to focus on a reductionist paradigm of producing more. “CAP is on the defensive about money, just when we should be turning it into a public health policy…” Lang joked that Americans think their farm bill is big and have no sense of the sheer size of CAP! He also explained that while the EU may be slightly ahead of the game in food systems research investments, there is a critical need for developing new indicators for nutrition and food security that could translate into future policy.
The Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems track of the Friedman symposium was very well planned and executed. The speakers topics and viewpoints all complimented each other quite well and if their experience was anything like mine, conference attendees left the auditorium with an enhanced and reinvigorated viewpoint on the sustainability of food and agriculture.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Terra Madre 2010 report

Ciao, internet.  We're back from Terra Madre 2010, the fourth edition of Slow Food International’s gathering of food producers, educators, activists, and cooks in Turin, Italy.  We joined over 6,000 delegates from over 150 countries for four days of discussion and networking.
We were inspired by the work of our fellow delegates, from fellow Slow Food chapter leaders to those far removed from our lives.  Standing in line for lunch one day, we spoke with an Israeli couple who grow organic fruit on a kibbutz, a government agronomist from Chad who helps subsistence farmers handle drought and desertification, and an Afghan horticulturist employed by the European Union to analyze local varieties of wheat suited to the different regions of his country.

Our big takeaways were twofold: policy and justice.

By policy, we mean the 2012 farm bill.  We were thrilled to hear from Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel that the national organization, which has been so successful at recognizing local innovators and building networks at the grassroots level, aims to be a major voice in the coming policy debate.  With 200 chapters and tens of thousands of members engaged in local-level efforts to build good, clean, and fair food systems, Slow Food USA is in a perfect position to highlight what works and lift it up to the national level.

And as we heard throughout the week, food justice needs to be central to this conversation.  At a meeting of the full U.S. delegation, Raj Patel reminded us of the Black Panther movement which, recognizing the centrality of food to social justice, pushed for school breakfasts in Oakland as their very first act.

Later, the Fair Food Network’s Oran Hesterman, in a packed workshop, presented a vision of food justice that includes not only equitable access to good, clean food, but also to the means of producing it, including land and water, and to good jobs in the food system.  Linking the issue with the upcoming farm bill, he laid out a menu of specific, achievable strategies that would incorporate both food justice and local food system supports into existing farm bill programs. 

As Slow Food Tufts members and graduate students of food and agriculture policy, we are ready to lend our energy and knowledge to this fight.  Tufts students – if you’d like to stay in the loop, write to ronit.ridberg@tufts.edu to be added to our e-mail list.

-Jesse Appelman and Ronit Ridberg
Co-chairs, Slow Food Tufts