Networking to Strengthen the Local Food System

By Dan Hoffman, 

GreenStar Community Projects Board Member and GreenStar Council Member

12-12 Brandon_Glen
Glenn Bergman, General Manager of Weavers Way Co-op in Philadelphia, with GreenStar General Manager Brandon Kane, at one of the recent networking sessions. Glenn spoke about the innovative programs supported by Weavers Way to expand food security and promote food justice in Philadelphia.

 

All across our county and our region, organizations, businesses, and individuals are busily engaged in an inspiring variety of efforts to build a food system that is more locally and regionally based, that is more ecologically sound and sustainable, and that is more just. Now, as a result of a pair of exciting gatherings in November and December, it appears that there will be an ongoing network to foster communication, cooperation, and collaboration among these efforts in our area.

As the final component of its 2012 Food Summit, GreenStar Community Projects (the tax-exempt affiliate of GreenStar Co-op) assembled representatives from more than 60 local organizations, farms, and other businesses for two all-evening networking sessions — each of which included a shared meal based primarily on locally grown foods prepared to perfection by the GreenStar Deli. A total of 70 people took part in the sessions, with most of them attending both nights. The Park Foundation and GreenStar Co-op provided financial support for the event.

Speakers emphasized the importance of keeping multiple objectives in mind:

• the need for a more equitable food policy and system, where traditionally under-represented constituencies are centrally involved and the elimination of food insecurity is a priority;

• the need to move away from a system where most of our diet is dependent on long-distance transport, giant corporations and/or unhealthful products, and toward one where the emphasis is on healthy food that is locally and regionally produced;

• the need to promote and support sustainable agricultural practices and policies.

Participants learned about each other's efforts — from the Caroline Chicken Coop Project to the Dryden Community Garden to the Trumansburg Farmers Market to the Collegetown Food Learning Hub, and from the NY Coalition for Healthy School Food to the Youth Farm Project to the Crooked Carrot Community-Supported Kitchen to the Wide Awake Bakery (to mention just a few).

Several in-depth presentations highlighted models from near and far.

Steve Holzbaur, from Challenge Workforce Solutions (which operates Finger Lakes Fresh), unveiled the exciting news that in 2013 Challenge will be constructing a 25,000-square-foot "food hub" in Groton that will aggregate, store, process, and market the products of local farms, thus ensuring a more reliable supply and extending the "season" for locally grown items. The facility will create at least 30 new jobs and will rent out space where local growers can store and/or add value to their products.

Jemila Sequeira, from Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, explained the goals and efforts of the Whole Community Project, which include achieving "food dignity" for all, and encouraging the establishment of a food policy council that would craft a local policy and plan regarding food, for adoption and implementation by governmental bodies.

Glenn Bergman, General Manager of Weavers Way Co-op in Philadelphia, described the range of innovative programs supported by the Co-op and its own tax-exempt affiliate — including several urban farms and healthy eating programs in eight city schools.

Anne Rhodes, a member of the local Building Bridges effort and a consultant to GreenStar Community Projects, led participants at the first session in an exercise where they considered the "big picture" of a food system (including natural resources, production, processing, distribution, gardening, retail, education, and "support"), then wrote and posted (on the wall) comments identifying features that already exist locally, as well as gaps. When they were done, the wall dramatically illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of our system — lots of supporting agencies and organizations, but far fewer resources in the realm of "political" connections or the infrastructure needed for storage, processing, and distribution.

It was noted that various areas of the county were represented at the sessions, but there was less racial and income diversity, and many attendees emphasized the importance of an intensified effort to broaden the scope of the food-based movement to engage marginalized populations as well as others, such as churches, funders, and legislators.

At the second session, the focus was more specifically on how an ongoing network could benefit its participants, what it could do, and what it would take to maintain it as a vibrant entity. Anne Rhodes spoke of what a network is ("a change in our thinking about how things get done") — and what it isn't. She explained that a network exerts no authority over its members, that its leadership tends to be "distributed" rather than hierarchical, and that its agenda is "always arising." Jeff Piestrak, from Mann Library at Cornell, shared some of his extensive research on and experience with networking. He said, "Communities are built on connections" (such as those a network can make), and that successful networks provide "platforms" that allow and promote new growth — comparing them to the effect coral reefs have on species diversity and bounty.

There was strong support for continuing to get together (not necessarily always in such a structured way), to share ideas and to look for ways to collaborate and reinforce each other's efforts. Representatives of GreenStar Community Projects and the broader Planning Committee that organized the sessions indicated that these groups had similar objectives, and would be willing — with help — to continue to play a facilitating role. At least a dozen attendees volunteered to help with specific, future networking activities.

Please stay tuned for further networking developments. To add your name or that of your business or organization to the contact list, please email me or call me at 607.273.1323.

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