Cooking Up a Healthy Food System

April 7, 2010

Michelle Knapik, Program Director

Better World Cafe website

(Click on the image for the Better World Cafe website)

I recently returned from a 2.5 day food-land-people adventure that started in the “sustainable kitchen” of Elijah’s Promise, an anti-hunger organization in New Brunswick that buys fresh produce from local farmers, trains culinary professionals, and runs A Better World Café (one of only five “community café” programs in the country). The adventure came to a close in Burlington County, where farmland preservation has become a mantra, and where an inspired county government supports a vibrant Community Agricultural Center, complete with a farmers market and a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm.

The “who” of this particular adventure included regional environmental justice advocates, community organizers, federal government representatives, hunger alleviation advocates, educators, public health officials, leaders of faith-based organizations, conservationists, organic farmers, and Sustainable Jersey leaders. This growing cohort, now three years old, also includes local food distribution innovators, restaurateurs, urban farmers and people from various other food system entry points who are committed to pushing back against the naysayers who think the food system is too big, too powerful, and too political for local groups to change it. (Click here to read about the previous retreat).

Center for Whole Communities website

(Click on the image for the Center for Whole Communities website)

Our cohort has been partnering with the Center for Whole Communities (CWC) to undertake the work of re-imagining a healthy regional food system. In essence, we are assembling the ingredients at hand to craft a social change recipe. To do this, we need not only the right ingredients, but some lessons in fusion cooking that will help us bridge the divides and fragmented mess of our current food system. We also need to focus on relationships and alliances, and deepen our network of leaders.

We started with the basic recipe for a successful social movement:

Recipe Box by the Farm Chick

• 1 cup compelling call to a moral vision and action

• 1 easily understood set of symbols and stories

Combine and simmer over low heat while adding a steady stream of inclusiveness

(Malcolm Gladwell’s work often speaks to the successful characteristics of a social movement)

Sounds easy enough, but mastering this cooking art is no small task. Utensils old and new are lined up on the counter:

  1. A vessel to help us “hold difference” (think back to the multiple entry points of our participants and add efforts to “bring together the most connected with the most affected.);
  2. A sharp eye to recognize the phenomenon of “emergence” (more on this in a minute);
  3. Dialogue (this replaces an often misused tool of “discussion” and moves us from the divisive position of asserting our own opinion to deep listening that builds collective meaning); and
  4. Story (as in the power of story and the art of storytelling that enables us to see one another, to “open ourselves to the claims of another,” to understand suffering and create empathy, and to “imagine something different”).

The necessary cooking skills include transformational leadership (here we are replacing the more conventional form of transactional leadership with a collaborative/adaptive form of leadership) and a number of techniques that may be familiar in other settings, but have not been commonly been applied in our kitchen stadium. These include:

  1. Hospitality (basic hospitality like how we greet each other, create comfortable conditions, etc.)
  2. Ritual (new shared practices)
  3. Inviting Spirit (aligning personal and professional transformation, spirituality, etc.)
  4. Awareness Practice (consciousness, attention, observation, watching, looking, seeing, etc.)

If you are a foodie or healthy ecosystems person of any sort, you might find yourself drawn to this healthy food system dish we’ve been working on, though it may be an acquired taste. Good thing this group has each other for recipe sharing (best practices), dinner parties (meetings) and taste testings (lessons learned). You can probably rustle up most of these ingredients, and join others to try the cooking techniques (though I do recommend an immersion experience with CWC or facilitator of your choice), but if you were like most in our group, you might be a little stumped on where to source “emergence.”  At the moment you need to find a specialty store to procure it, but I have a feeling that consumer demand will push this product to main retail outlets soon enough.

Our CWC facilitators described emergence as a “new behavior in a system that can’t be predicted.” Think of it as adding 1+1+1 and getting 9. Basically, it is a “cascading reaction that creates sudden transformation rather than incremental change.” If you were in Emeril’s kitchen, it would be the moment when he says “Bam!” For the ecologically oriented, think of the movement in a school of fish. In a flash, the school of fish can change directions based on complex linkages and spontaneous order and self organization. But I dare you to try to find the fish who gave the signal to “break left.” There’s no pinpointing it, but clearly something triggered the shift. These same dynamic relationships exist in our world and can result in potent social change – and if you are able to see what’s happening, you can help with the leverage points.

Are you starting to feel as if this cohort can actually create a new regional food system? Clearly, something is happening out there – just look at the surge in farmers markets, in restaurants branding their local food dishes, in farm to everything movements (school, fork, institution), in “know your farmer, know your food” devotees, in “grow your soil” efforts, in urban farming and so on.  A federal bill on “Greening Food Deserts” was also recently introduced (HR 4971). This is 1 + 1 +1, and the “equals something more” (i.e., the change we seek) feels like it is emerging.

This NJ, PA, NY cohort is already serving appetizers. Honeybrook Farm is connecting with Isles on farming internships (I love the rural-urban connection here). Greater Newark Conservancy, Camden Children’s Garden, Isles, Ironbound Community Corporation and others are leading the urban farming charge in NJ. Fair Food is advancing farm to institution work and bringing food distribution innovators like Red Tomato to New Jersey. Adult and youth farm tours (experiential education) are being set-up. Heritage Conservancy is combining land preservation with land use that includes a restaurant that sources food locally. The list goes on and new projects and strategic partnerships are being added all the time (please respond to this post with your example!), as are new ideas that include working with banks to move foreclosed properties to active ag use or engaging large scale office campus owners in farming ventures.

Our cohort started a project map of six-month, one-year, three-year and five-year “game changing” projects. The “Bam!” factor is coming. (Click here to read about ways in which funders are supporting these efforts).

We’ll need to support each other in the practice of hospitality, ritual, spirit and awareness work – in fact, we’ll need to expect each other to work in these new ways. We will also need to invite new people to the table, visit the table of others and use our stories from the field to understand and measure our ability to advance the compelling vision of a new regional healthy food system. What are you cooking up on this front?

Recipe box image courtesy The Farm Chicks

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