Setting the Table for Local Foods

May 13, 2009

Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director


Last week, the Dodge Foundation sponsored a two-day workshop entitled, Bringing People and Land Back into the Economy. This diverse stakeholder process is a continuation and expansion of the Whole Thinking Retreat we launched last summer with the Center for Whole Communities (CWC) as a way to explore the connections between agricultural land preservation and local food systems. The workshop invitation from Peter Forbes, CWC Executive Director, framed it as “an effort to strengthen land based movements for change by connecting leaders who are working with New Jersey communities around land conservation, food systems, urban development, and business.”

There’s no way to unpack all of our learning in a short blog post, but there was one moment that particularly struck me. We were talking about “what we longed for around food, land and people,” and one participant said, “setting the table for a formal meal.” I don’t know about you, but I can barely remember the last time I sat down to enjoy a meal with loved ones. This points to a deeper, fundamental issue about the way we over-schedule our lives, but setting the table for dinner felt like a metaphor for how we might move toward an integrated model of land preservation and community food systems.

On the fast food, meal on the run, catch as catch can version of dinner, we talked about the fragmentation of landscapes; the 257 acres per hour that are lost to development; the fact that most of the preserved land in the US is posted “no trespassing”; and the fact that one in four people suffer from clinical depression. We also added notions of industrial agriculture, mono crops that strip our soils, rising food safety concerns, food scarcity, justice and access issues, and farming viability and affordability issues.

In this fast paced overview of information, we did not provide for what CWC outlined as an “architecture of learning wherein we could explore the power of relationship to people and place.” And with that CWC traded knife, fork, spoon, water glass, wine glass, cloth napkins and candles for the following place setting:
• Exploring difference
• Bridging difference
• Power of story
• Leadership and Change
• Imagining it Whole (Dana Meadows contended that you change a system by seeing it whole).

After some practice with the tools, the dinner conversation took off. In thinking about “what we would like to do that’s just outside our current organizational fences,” we heard notions of linking food production to housing development; consolidating urban vacant lots for new urban farms; bridging newer suburban populations with long-time residents and farmers; initiating a statewide food security council; creating a sustainable food distribution model to small retail outlets; and creating an intergenerational local foods volunteer corps.

Now we were, in Peter’s words, “painting a picture of the world people want to go to.” There are numerous factors that will determine whether we succeed in shifting the baseline to a sustainable food system; but for two days last week, that table was set and we savored the relationships built.


For additional reading and resources (beyond CWC), consider the book, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: investing as if food, farms and fertility mattered. The description of the book says that it “is a path toward a financial system that serves people and place as much as it serves industry sectors and markets.” I consider author Woody Tasch someone who believes in setting the table for dinner.