Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Community Food Security Coalition conference recap

Iowa welcomed hundreds of Sustainable Food Aggies to the midwest this week for theCommunity Food Security Coalition's annual conference: From Commodity to Community: Food Politics and Projects in the Heartland. I arrived in Des Moines on Thursday night and was humbled by the friendliness and hospitality of the Iowan people. I'm sure others can join me and thanking them for volunteering, organizing, and hosting.

The conference kicked off Saturday with a gathering of local and state food policy councils:From People Power to Public Policy. Wayne Robert's of the Toronto Food Policy equated the issues facing communities to a rubric's cube: you don't solve the puzzle by looking at one side. This theme continued throughout the weekend. Further, food system development can be used as the driver in solving economic, safety, beautification, waste, health, community involvement, tax laws, etc and interdisciplinary design of these councils has the capacity to make it a reality. He finished with a powerful blessing by poet E. E. Cummings.

While folks attended the council meeting, others were out exploring the rich cultural and agricultural offerings that only Iowa can offer. A surprise snow storm did not deter bikers from taking their Urban Food Initiative tour. Other tours included visiting a grass-based dairy farm with on-farm processing, Marshalltown: the site of recent immigration raids on a local processing plant, a hog confinement facility, the Iowa Food Bank, Pioneer Seed Company- “world’s largest developer and supplier of advanced plant genetics,” a variety of agri-tourism sites, and even Iowan wineries. From the Farmers Tell it Like it is tour- Andrew Kang Bartlett provides a video of his experience on George Naylor's farm, as he discusses the three main reasons why family farming is being destroyed and how the system encourages GM corn and soybean production.

The next few days were spent in morning plenaries before breaking off into smaller workshops to share knowledge, stories, strategies and camaraderie. The breadth of topics touched on all aspects of the food system- production, distribution, farm to school, farmers markets, urban agriculture, value added products, reducing waste, hunger and feeding programs, food justice issues, farm workers rights, environmental impacts, health care discussion, utilizing media and marketing, changing policy, and building community. The sessions provided practical and applicable advice for community leaders, farmers, consumers, academics, dietitians and government agencies to bring home and put into practice. I spoke on a panel with Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Center and Sarah Hackney from Gorge Grown Food Network on the utilization of local foods as a means to economic recovery. I presented some of the research and opportunities that I compiled this summer for my internship for Farm Aid and shared their commitment to family farms as the means to revitalizing the food system.

The first day, Wayne had asked us to keep track of our "ah ha" moments: moments when a conversation, statistic, challenge, or question spurred connection or understanding that was not clear before. My "ah ha" moments:

1. During Kirsten Simmon of the Michigan Food Policy Council session, I was intrigued by the systemic impacts that the council are having on governmental agencies. For example: recommendations by the Michigan task force led to the Department of Corrections aiming to purchase 5% of their procurement from Michigan farmers over 3 to 5 years. Other agencies that are being mobilized by councils are waste, health, transportation and safety.

2. During a session moderated by Molly Anderson of Food Systems Integrity, I learned a new perspective on the 'right to food' debate. Brewster Kneen or Ram's Horn and Marc Cohen ofOxfam identified the main arguments for a rights-based approach to food security in the US. I learned that holders of rights over the food insecure are ensured by their own rights to maintain personal food security. Further, the US Constitution has civil and political rights, but not human rights. This may be part of the difficulty in passing a healthcare bill based on the right to care.

3. Finally, I came out with a new perspective, strategy, and passion for connecting food and agriculture issues with public health and climate change. Rebecca Klien and Anne Palmer of Johns Hopkins Center for Livable Future and RD's Sue Roberts and Fern Gale Estrow shared their experiences using a lens of public health to transform food and agriculture policy. We talked a lot about work taking place in silos. A follow up session led by Steph Larson, of the Center of Rural Affairs; David Wallinga of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy; and Christa Essig of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention solidified the inherent connection between environmental changes on health and the importance of preventative care, which is currently not part of the national health care debate. As Wallinga said, "we can not afford any more cheap food." What about the way agriculture effects health- MRSA, asthma, pesticides, hormones? What about the effect that agriculture has on global warming (a third to a fifth of green house gases come from agriculture). Climate change will have intense impacts on health- increasing allergies and asthma, water contamination, infectious disease and make it increasingly difficult to produce food. We should demand our health care debate be about more than insurance and actually be about health.

For me, the whole conference was an "ah ha" moment. I am so grateful to have shared my time and experiences with such amazing people. The Good Food Movement is alive and is centered core human values and the ability of community to make change. I want to specifically thank my HEN consortium that have supported, guided, and continually inspired me in field of study that has the potential to change the world. Specifically I want to dedicate this post to Angie Tagtow and Mary Jo Forbord.

I will share a post on the Food Sovereignty Prize winner, a panel discussion with 1995 Nobel Prize Laureate Dr. Hans Herren, as well as the guest appearance of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in coming posts.