Regionalizing US Food Systems
Exploring the role of regional models—takeaways from the University of Vermont’s first-ever food systems summit.
Regional food systems that are ecologically sound and economically viable, and that encourage healthy communities were at the epicenter of conversation at the University of Vermont’s (UVM) first-ever food systems summit in June. The cornerstone of the summit was a public conference titled “The Necessary (r)Evolution for Sustainable Food Systems Amplified,” presented to 250 attendees and a digital audience from around the country.
The conference highlighted innovative ideas and initiatives for transforming the food system. Fifteen different food movement experts gave 20-minute presentations on the future of food, including: Stephen Ritz, the South Bronx teacher behind the youth program Green Bronx Machine; LaDonna Redmond, senior program associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a long-time community activist; Robert S. Lawrence, MD, founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future; Niaz Dorry, coordinating director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance; and Irit Tamir, senior advocacy and collaborations advisor for Oxfam America's US Regional Office. Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin, Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross, and 28 young leaders in UVM’s new Breakthrough Leaders in Sustainable Food Systems Program also attended.
Of the many takeaways from this TEDx-style event, five key points emerged as common threads that wove together into one overarching idea: Change the way you see food, and you’ll understand the changes that need to happen. Threads included:
What’s on your plate?
UVM unveiled a new video challenging viewers to see and think differently about the food they eat. Via a simple story of one woman’s “gnawing” questions about food, UVM encourages people to consider social, economic, environmental, and diet and health (SEED) factors. This also extends to looking at, literally, what is on our plates. Dr. Lawrence made us aware of the fact that the current, meat-centric American diet will only be able to feed 4 million people, while a plant-based diet could feed 10 billion. We need to rethink our plate.
Less vertical, more horizontal
Vertical systems concentrate power and only benefit the few—in the food world, “the few” are large companies. Horizontal systems reach outward, and consider the human scale and mutually beneficial relationships. The long-ignored seafood industry is one example of an industry that is improving in this way. Traditionally dominated by a few big companies, there are now 30 community-supported fisheries in the US, thanks to organizations like the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. Niaz Dorry of NAMA reported that Boston recently lifted its ban on fisherman selling at farmers markets, opening the door for more fresh, locally available seafood. Viva la revol-ocean!
Food industry = food insecurity
"No one wants to talk about labor," said Oxfam America’s Irit Tamir. "For too long now, too many of us have obliviously enjoyed our food with no thought for who grew it or served it." Twice as many US food workers rely on the federal supplemental nutrition assistance program compared to other US workers. Tamir asked the group to start looking and changing those statistics: “Ironically, those who work in food are often the most food insecure. Food workers in the U.S. are some of the most food insecure people in the country,” she said. But, she also cautioned: "Laws are not enough to change our food systems." Fair labor practices are necessary. The Equitable Food Initiative is just one way of advancing fair labor in our food systems. (Watch Irit Tamir.)
“It’s easier to raise healthy kids, than to fix broken men.”
So said teacher Stephen Ritz, who—with the help of students and community members—has grown more than 25,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx while fostering extraordinary academic performance among his students. (Watch Stephen Ritz.)
Meanwhile, LaDonna Redmond described that it was easier to find semiautomatic weapons in her Chicago community than tomatoes. She started growing food for her community, transforming it by simply planting seeds: "Every community has the intellect to heal itself." (Watch LaDonna Redmond.)
Short-term is easy; long-term is hard.
Sustainability advocates know that short-term thinking erodes the evolution of long-term change. That idea is just as relevant in the realm of food systems—and on a very human scale (Corie Pierce, a Vermont farmer, discussed the short-term trials, but long-term joys of farming). The presentations emphasized the need to invest in long-term solutions to food systems, as well as the next generation of food systems advocates, rebels, and change agents (through programs like UVM’s Breakthrough Leaders), to ensure long-term change and success.
Governor Peter Shumlin ended the conference on an optimistic note: “Our best agricultural days are ahead of us, not behind us.”
See more videos from the food systems summit.