Building a Food Movement Requires People Persons

April 4, 2013

Early last week, I was interviewed by a graduate student in NYU’s Masters of Food Studies program. We had a great discussion – she asked very detailed questions about DVRPC’s food system plan and I asked her about her interest in pursuing such a specialized graduate degree.  This particular student grew up in Israel and found food to be tangible and universal: creating opportunities to explore diverse cultures; speak seriously about racism and oppression; remember personal and familial histories; work with our hands and build rich soils systems; care for animals that give so much to us; support both local and global economic opportunity; and lest we forget it – nourish our bodies.

As someone working in food system planning and food policy, I meet many smart people who want to work on food system issues, possibly motivated by the complexity of systemic challenges and intellectual curiosity.  In addition to being really smart, I think these people are “people persons.”  Not necessarily extroverted, social butterflies, although there are plenty of those interested in food systems; but individuals who are motivated to collaborate with other people; they have a knack for working with others.

Another thing strikes me about the food systems people I meet.  Many people are interested or are currently working in government and on policy, but they are not in politics. At least at this point in their lives, they are not envisioning running for town council, or state legislature, or the US Congress.  But why, then, are they interested in government and policy?

Who Leads a Movement?

I am reminded of a recent article on Civil Eats written by the founder of the Community Food Security Coalition, Andy Fisher. Andy thoughtfully touched upon recent changes within some national food organizations’ leadership, some missteps by the movement, and some major political battles lost, specifically, the defeat of California’s Proposition 37. His argument was that while there is lots of activity, as evidenced by the new nonprofits, well-established organizations, institutions, and professions taking critical notice of food, and numerous on-the-ground community-based projects, there is no national movement or recognized organizational leader, no policy leader, no political leader.

The equally thoughtful and considerate discourse in the Civil Eats comments section illustrated how social and political movements are changing, literally moving online.  While decision-making, for the most part, is still done via staid public meetings, lots of policy debate and policy-making is happening online.  And while I have heard the arguments that online communities can foster extremism on either side, on multiple issues, it strikes me that the food movement is exceptionally well networked and exhibits very nuanced and opposing opinions.  Some technophiles might say we are participating in a “peer network”. And the food system peer network offers great promise.  Jeff Piestrak of Cornell University has proposed and is working on creating the Northeast Food Knowledge Ecosystem – an online platform to connect food system practitioners to local, regional, state-based, and national efforts.

Local vs. National

As someone who works at a regional level, I have always found it exceptionally hard for an organization or an individual to be focused and effective on both local and national policy.  I may be wrong, though.  There are a few shining examples of organizations (and individuals at these organizations) who have their feet firmly planted on the ground in their communities, while their heads are in the clouds of national policy.  They are connected to grassroots efforts to bring the conditions of food insecurity to light, increase a community’s access to healthy food, and are becoming increasingly comfortable walking the halls of a state capital or testifying to Congress.

But there’s no political quick fix to social injustices, economic failures, health disparity, or environmental degradation.  The food system is riddled with unintended consequences, like any other policy field or issue area. So, can we learn from other fields?  There is not a singular organization that represents the environmental field, or women’s rights, or cancer research.  Why should there be one organization that is leading the national food movement?

It seems the only way to create systemic change is to work simultaneously from the bottom and the top, and with and within multiple organizations.  Movements need to have multiple opportunities for engagement, communication, demonstration projects, and sustained projects. Like a farmer with multiple distribution channels (contract sales, selling directly to consumers, and participating at an auction) or a news outlet with multiple platforms (print, online, twitter).  But how does an organization or a movement do that?  With people.

Real People Time

The more my work moves online, the more important in-person meetings have become.  An impromptu 10-minute meeting in the hallway, one-on-one meetings over coffee or lunch, one-day conferences, regularly scheduled meetings.  All of these are physical places where I know I’ll see a certain someone and hear an important update or get a personal pick-me-up.  While we are all susceptible to meeting fatigue, great stuff happens when people get together in a room.

One of my favorite in-person meetings was the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group’s conference.  After having to reschedule from an October date to an atypical February date, due to Hurricane/Super Storm Sandy, the conference proved to be resilient, and provided me with a much needed Winter pick-me-up.  In addition to brushing up on some meeting facilitation skills and learning about what other places throughout the Northeast are doing, I also realized the value of building a peer network.  And not just online, but in person, connecting with the three, or ten, or 20 people who are doing things very similar to what I am.  These are the people who I want to shoot a quick email out to get feedback on a half-baked idea… or ask a new friend in Vermont to review an online survey we’re designing for Philadelphia.  Having an online portal introduces me to those peers’ work, but doesn’t create a personal level of trust.  Investing in relationships, either online or in real life takes time.  But maybe only trust can be created in-person.

Measuring the Movement

With our society’s ever-increasing demand for “fast”, possibly created by ubiquitous technology and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s important to realize that both systemic change and an individual’s behavior change take time.  Small sustained changes lead up to big changes.

Yesterday, I spoke to a friend about farm to school programs, school food reform, what’s happening across the country and in our local school districts.  She made the observation that a school district (big or small, rich or poor) has a very hard time sustaining big splashy changes a la Jamie Oliver. She thinks there may be more promise in working with a 20-year veteran in food services who constantly watches his budget’s bottom line, supports his frontline staff, and makes little things happen.  This food services director could become the leading school food reformist without even knowing it.

And I’m often reminder that the most meaningful change may be at the individual level.  My friends at the Center for High Impact Philanthropy reminded me that we, as a society, are interested in reducing childhood obesity, not for aesthetic reasons, but for all things that childhood obesity affects, such as school attendance, personal education attainment, chronic health issues, and access to economic opportunities as adults.

And when it comes to behavioral interventions or educational programs, we may not see positive outcomes for decades – until that individual is an adult, interested and passionate about her own causes… and possibly running for political office… in 2040.

Alison Hastings is an urban planner, a food system thinker, and a people person.