Friday, April 27, 2012

Connecting the Food System Dots - The Massachusetts Gleaning Network

The Gleaners oil painting by Jean Francois Millet
Gleaning has been a way to feed the poor for millenia.  The act of collecting leftover crops from fields fell out of our consciousness over the past century or so as farms got bigger and more mechanized, but the movement towards food system localization has brought it back to the fore.

There are many reasons why a farm may have surplus produce: the cost of harvesting may exceed the amount that the product will sell for, farmers market season may be over, some veggies might not quite be up to market quality but they are still edible, or an exceedingly abundant harvest might mean there is just too much produce to sell. In any of these situations food will be left to rot and composted.  At the same time, emergency food pantries are struggling to provide healthy produce to the hungry people that rely on them.  Enter gleaners.

The Massachusetts Gleaning Network held it's innagural meeting yesterday in Worcester. The MGN is the brainchild of Scott Soares, the former Commissioner of Agriculture (who recently left MDAR to helm a cranberry industry group). Soares saw the Network as a way to feed people, but also as a way to shine a light on the importance of farming in Massachusetts.  In attendance were representatives from emergency food providers, buy local organizations, gleaning groups, MDAR and a smattering of individuals interested in starting their own gleaning operation.  I was fortunate enough to be there representing the Southeastern Massachusetts Food Security Network.

The MGN meeting began with a presentation by Theresa Snow of Salvation Farms, who has run a statewide gleaning program in Vermont for quite some time.  She brings volunteer groups in to clean farm fields and then trucks harvested produce to food banks across Vermont.  Theresa started Salvation Farms using the Community Food Security framework and is now looking to mimic the for-profit food distribution system.  Her next step is to work with the department of corrections to produce lightly processed goods (frozen carrots, peas, etc) to extend the pantry shelf life of these locally grown goods.
Apple gleaning photo courtesy of Boston Area Gleaners

We next heard from a panel of Massachusetts gleaning programs.  Duck Caldwell of Boston Area Gleaners, Jamie Tara O'Gorman of Island Grown Gleaning and Debbie Rubenstein of Rachel's Table all shared stories on how their gleaning programs began and how to successfully run a program.  Rachel's Table buses youth groups out to farms, fills the buses with produce (and youth) then distributes it out to pantries.  Island Grown and Boston Area Gleaners rely on individual volunteers for their harvests and use e-blasts to rally gleaners to farms whenever there is a harvest. Check out their websites for more information about these organizations.

We next broke out in to groups organized by region to continue connecting the organizational dots.  The South Coast group had a lively mix of food pantries, SEMAP, and gleaners, and we talked about ways to combine forces.  I was excited to see a flurry of business cards handed around at the end of the session and look forward to seeing what comes out of it.

Carrot gleaning photo courtesy of Salvation Farms
Moving forward, MDAR has agreed to put together a list of resources for potential gleaners and host a listserve so that we can continue to share information.  Theresa Snow also announced that she has been working on a Food Sourcing Guide with WhyHunger and that it will be published online soon.  Stay tuned for that.  All in all there was a tremendous amount of energy around developing stronger gleaning efforts statewide, and I imagine that a gleaning program will be coming to a farm near you quite soon.

If you would like to keep abreast of the Massachusetts Gleaning Network, email Rose Arruda at Rose(dot)Arruda(at)state(dot)ma(dot)us

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tools for Food System Planners

The food system is a complex beast.  It involves the production, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal of food, ideally in an equitable, environmentally responsible way.  The food system also plays an important role in a multitude of disciplines including public health, economic development, environmental stewardship, and urban planning, to name a few.  With so many moving parts, how does one come to terms with the dynamic food system, and more importantly, how do you plan for it?

Numerous communities have undertaken this very task as of late, resulting in a lot of different approaches to the same complex set of issues.  In a paper I co-authored recently published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development, my authors and I put together a list of tools at the disposal of practitioners in this emerging field, and briefly discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each.  You have to be a subscriber to gain access to the entire document, but here is the abstract:
Food system planning is an emerging field engaging planners and planning organizations, civic leaders, citizens, food policy councils, and others interested in creating more sustainable food systems. Planning practices are being developed to address the complex soil-to-soil food system, which spans production to consumption to reuse and recycling of waste. Community engagement is critical to fostering interactions within the full spectrum of food system stakeholders — from farmers and ranchers to planners and local officials to individual and institutional consumers. A growing body of assessment tools is being developed to inform this process. As most of these tools are relatively new, there is little research that addresses the different methodologies or evaluates their use as planning tools. This paper outlines a variety of approaches and suggests further research to evaluate their efficacy.
The tools we profile include foodshed assessments, comprehensive food system assessments and plans, community food security assessments, food asset maps, food desert assessments, land inventory food assessments, local food economy assessments, and food industry assessments.  Check out page 5 for a table that spells out the purpose, methodology, limitations and a few examples of each assessment tool.  This paper should be useful for any food policy council, regional planning agency or food-related organization that is thinking about studying/planning for their local food system.

I'd like to extend a huge thank you to Julia Freedgood of American Farmland Trust and Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center for all of their work as the other two co-authors on this paper.  Also, thank you to Duncan Hilchey & Amy Christian of JAFSCD for allowing us to revise and resubmit 5 times.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Importance of Networks in a Down Economy

It goes without saying that the people that make up your community, both online and IRL matter.  The success of a person, an idea or even a movement depend upon the number and quality of relationships between individuals.   And if you're one of the 18.2% of Americans who is currently underemployed,  your social networks could prove to be the most valuable asset you've got.

Connections on Facebook, visualized
Social networks, while hard to quantify, are themselves important economic drivers.  Strong social networks encourage idea exchanges in In a recent piece for the Atlantic Richard Florida explains the role of social networks in the economy thusly:  "jobs requiring the highest level of social skill are the most concentrated in the very largest metro areas--where, combined with the high prevalence of analytic skill, they underpin faster rates of innovation and growth." To put it more simply (and butcher the old cliche), in creative economies it's not just what you know, but who you know.  

In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell acknowledges the importance of a personality type he calls "connectors."  Connectors, (along with the other two types, Salesmen and Mavens), are responsible for creating social epidemics - the kinds of wide-scale changes that turn quirky styles in to trends, and causes in to movements.  Gladwell defines a connector as someone who knows everyone in the world and how to bring those people together, but I would argue that everyone has a little bit of connector in them.  Even if your network is small, it likely spans different social groups and incorporates people with different areas of expertise.  Knowing who knows what can be just as valuable as knowing that information yourself.

Shifting gears from theory to action, I had the opportunity to attend the annual NESAWG conference in Albany this past weekend.  NESAWG is a collection of food policy advocates, farmers, academics, and eaters that considers itself a social impact network.  After a weekend full of mixers, working groups, and roundtables it's not surprising that my group's biggest action item was to create an online platform where we can continue to collaborate and share resources - i.e. network.  (Stay tuned on this project -- I'm leading the charge and am quite excited about it)

On an even more personal note, my networks have helped me immensely over the past few years.  Whether its a small thing like finding a specific article or something more important like introducing me to a prospective employer, I've been assisted in countless ways by my friends and professional contacts.  And now that I've graduated and am facing some of the grimmest job prospects in recent history, I've found myself falling back on my networks.  Over the past few weeks I've been excited and inspired by the creative ideas coming from my equally overeducated and underemployed friends.  We know there is a lot of work to be done to make our communities more just and resilient, its just a matter of figuring out how to turn that work in to paying jobs.  Both for ourselves and for others.

And perhaps this is all just an elaborate way to justify going out for a drink on a weeknight with a few friends and strangers.  Call it socializing, call it networking, call it slightly reckless.  Whatever you call it, if you're committed to social and environmental change its important to continuously build your  network.  You never know when you'll need to call back on that connection as a resource, 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Job Creating Potential of Local Food Systems

Jobs, jobs, jobs.  Although the recession is technically over, the (nonfarm) unemployment rate is holding constant at 9.1% and the American public are understandably nervous about their ability to find well-paying middle class jobs.  On the federal front, both the President and a new crop of potential replacements are pitching their plans to get America working again.  On the food front, Good Food advocates are shifting their focus to promote the job-creating potential of the local food movement.  On the surface, this makes a lot of sense.  Local food jobs cannot be outsourced, they are Green, the multiplier effect ensures that more money circulates in the region, and you don't need to have years of formal schooling to land one (although sometimes it doesn't hurt).  However, often these jobs are low-paying, seasonal, and physically demanding.  What follows are a few highlights of the local food system job boon, as well as a reminder that the slogan "will work for food" can be both a rallying cry and a disheartening sign of the times.

Researchers and Job Searchers Agree
from the Union of
Concerned Scientists
In recent months, several key reports have come out that highlight the prospects of a national strategy focused on food-related job creation.  A summary report recently released by the Union of Concerned Scientists cites numerous studies to make the case that farmers markets create wealth in a number of ways. Regional studies such as the those conducted for Northeast Ohio or by Ken Meter at the Crossroads Research Center use input-output models to demonstrate where money in the food system is leaking out of the region.  These analyses are helpful for policymakers to determine what areas of the food system need shoring up in order to ensure that food system jobs and money stay in the region.

And its not just the academics who are touting the food system as a job builder.  A whole host of food-specific job sites have popped up, including Good Food Jobs and Sustainable Food Jobs (now defunct).  Industry blogs like Food+Tech Connect and Grown in the City have also recently added job boards.

What are local food jobs?  
Sustainable agriculture certainly requires more people-power than conventional farming methods, but despite the long hours a farmhand might work, they are exempt from overtime pay and are likely not paid at all during the off-season. Beyond the farm, much of the Good Food movement is being carried out by non-profits, who (especially in this economic climate) are increasingly relying on poorly-paid or unpaid interns rather than full-time staff.

Veritable Vegetable, a distributor of regionally
sourced, certified organic produce
But the real story behind local food system job creation may potentially lie in the promotion of jobs in the local distribution, processing, and wholesaling sectors. As the global agricultural system has taken over these sectors have declined in many parts of the country.  While these jobs may be less sexy than the idea of a small-farmer, they are certainly still very necessary to truly scale up the impact of a regional food system.

Earlier this year, Green For All, a green collar job advocacy group released a report called "Green Jobs in a Sustainable Food System."  The report outlines the workers employed in each sector of the food system and spotlights a few innovative approaches to employment in each section, including the fair-wage organic produce distributors Veritable Vegetable, and companies that include workforce training programs as a part of their business model, like Sweet Beginnings LLC.  The value of this report is the reminder that a local food job is not inherently better than a regular old food system job.  Good Food Jobs provide opportunities where they might not have existed otherwise, but also pay well enough to support a family, are conducted in safe working conditions, and provide ample space for personal autonomy and professional growth.

A pessimist might point out that if the economy keeps tanking we might end up creating a class of poorly paid farm and food-workers who provide edible treats for our increasingly wealthy elite overlords. Hyperbole aside, the food system world holds a lot of promise for job creation and community economic development, but it shouldn't be pursued blindly.  Careful consideration needs to be paid to the quality of jobs we are advocating for, not just the quantity.

Monday, August 8, 2011

3 Things Farmers Markets Do Well, and 3 They Don't

I've been working at two different farmers markets this summer, one in Copley Square in downtown Boston, and the other in Medford, a suburb just outside. In a lot of ways these markets have been the perfect summer job: I get to be outside, I get to meet interesting farmers and food entrepreneurs, I get to talk about food all day, and I get to take home A LOT of local organic produce.  During my time at these two markets I've had an opportunity to think about the larger implications of farmers markets. I've come to realize that farmers markets are a dynamic space and do a lot of good, but they shouldn't be the linchpin of a local food or business movement.  Here are my takeaways, starting with what works.

What's Good
A pop-up community space in Medford
1. Enlivening public spaces - At their most basic level, farmers markets are a temporary creative use of a public space.  They provide a festival atmosphere and encourage people to stop and stay a while in an otherwise banal or previously explored place.   The Medford Farmers Market is like a lot of other markets in that it takes place in a parking lot - a place that normally no one would be interested in visiting on its own.  Most market-goers stop to chat with friends and acquaintances they see there, or make small-talk with strangers about tonight's meal plans.  The farmers market builds connections between people by engaging them in this public space, and the community is stronger because of it.

2. New food business incubators - Farmers markets have a very low barrier to entry.  If you make a stellar set of salsas, all you need is a tent, some tables, health permits and the registration fees to start bringing your salsa to market.  You don't need to start a marketing campaign to get your item into the grocery stores, and you don't need to plop down thousands to open up a brick-and-mortar facility of your own.  A handfull of the vendors at the Medford Farmers Market just started business less than a year ago and view the market as a way to sell their product, but also as a way to get the word out and continue to build their brand from there.

Copley Square Farmers Market, photo by Atlas Farm
3. Increasing food literacy - farmers markets are fun in part because there are so many odd vegetables you don't catch at the grocery store.  Kohlrabi! Currants! Pattypan Squash!  These guys have disappeared from shelves in favor of the more standard broccoli, grapes and zucchini, but they are a treat to encounter at markets.  If you don't already know what to do with them, you've got the farmer on hand to answer questions and give tips about how to turn them in to a meal.  Recipe sharing is a big part of farmers markets. Ideas getting sent out through newsletters, websites, painted signs, and between customers.  A fully different form of food literacy is also improved through the very existence of the market in and of itself.  One could consider it a 10,000 sq ft billboard for healthy fruits and vegetables.  Farmers markets are a great reminder that you can still eat healthy and locally, even if you're in a bustling urban center like  downtown Boston.

What's not so good
A farmers market can't compete with this.
image from How Stuff Works.
1. Combatting food insecurity - There is a lot of rhetoric about food deserts lately, and some see farmers markets as a tool to combat them.  Despite the potent vision and good feelings surrounding the idea of a farmers market setting up shop in an underserved community, they aren't enough to fully grapple with the problem.  Markets are open one day a week (two if you're lucky), meaning that unless you do all your shopping then, the rest of the week you're stuck with the regular offerings.  Moreover, imagine an entire neighborhood all shopping at the same place during the same 4 to 6 hour window.  Not going to happen.  Sure, it's a step forward (certainly the additional food literacy helps matters), but other, more consistent healthy food options need to be the main priority.

2. Changing the food economy - Direct to consumer sales get a lot of press for decreasing the number of middlemen between farm and plate and increasing the amount of money that goes directly back to the farmer.  However, in Massachusetts only 8.6% of the $489 million in agricultural sales came from direct to consumer sales (The totals for the whole US are $297 billion in sales, $1.2 billion of which are direct).  One could argue that this means that there should be more market opportunities so that more farms could participate in direct-to-consumer sales, but from an economic standpoint I'm not convinced.  Farmers markets take time away from the farmer to do what they're good at - farming, to spend time doing something that they're not as good at - marketing.  Add that to the amount of time that it takes to set-up and break-down the market each day (3 hours at Copley for only a 7 hour market day), the time it takes to drive from farm to market, and the additional staff hours surrounding the market stand, its easy to conclude that farmers markets aren't a pinnacle of economic efficiency. In terms of promoting local foods, I like Food Hubs a lot better, and to decrease the amount of farm and staff time CSAs are better.  This is all a matter of opinion, of course, and I'd welcome your critique.

3. Diversifying the food movement - I've heard a number of people timidly approach my market stand and mention to their friends that they've avoided farmers markets because they are overwhelming and intimidating.  The rush of people, the unusual atmosphere of the locale and the perception that organic and local food is for white, upper-middle class people, my markets can sometime lack the diversity I'd want to see in a truly thriving communal space.  Some attempts to appeal to more diverse audiences have been made, such as making traditional crops like calalloo and tsoi sim available, which is definitely a start.  I'd like to congratulate both farmers markets for going through the process to be able to accept food stamps, as well.  However, farmers markets don't seem to be the point that grabs people to the cause - they are a place for pocketbook activism rather than movement building.

In the end, farmers markets certainly hold a lot of merit, but will not revolutionize the food movement on their own.  And no one ever claimed that farmers markets were the be-all-end-all in local food procurement, but its been great to be able to come to these conclusions on my own.  If you've got an observation of your own about them, or would like to dispute something above that I said, please do!  I'd love to start a healthy dialogue.