January Spotlight: Reflections on the 2017 Community Food Systems Conference

Written by: Tom Lewis

UC Davis’ Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program defines a sustainable community food system as “a collaborative network that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management in order to enhance the environmental, economic and social health of a particular place.” During my time as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Food & Health Network, I’ve had the chance to learn about and also see first-hand how valuable community food systems are to creating equitable community development. So, when I was given the opportunity to travel to Boston for the 2017 Community Food Systems Conference, I was understandably excited. The conference, hosted by the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, took place in the historic Boston Park Plaza Hotel. The conference was three days long and filled with workshops, a panel moderated by Big Hunger author and former director of the Community food Security Coalition Andy Fisher, many beneficial networking opportunities, and a keynote address by the highly influential First Nations environmentalist, economist, activist, and writer Winona LaDuke.

Participating in the workshops at the conference exposed me to many talented individuals from around the country, new and innovative ideas, and an opportunity to compare our programs at the Food & Health Network with other organizations. The workshops featured a variety of different themes that touched on local food procurement, economies of local food systems, diversity and inclusion in the local food movement, farm to school programs, funding for community food projects, and several others. My favorite workshop I attended was titled “Creating a New Economics that Supports Community Food Systems” and featured a presentation by researcher and writer David Bollier. I would recommend his book Think Like a Commoner to anyone interested in learning about the commons and understanding how commons-based strategies can inform future community development. David’s presentation focused on how community and urban gardens can be a helpful tool to creating a new type of holistic-oriented development in our neighborhoods. To view additional workshops featured at the conference check out the conference guide here.

During the third day of the conference, a panel was hosted and moderated by Andy Fisher. It featured Suzanne Adely, Northeast Regional Organizer at Food Chain Workers Alliance, Malik Yakini, Co-founder and Executive Director of Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and Aleya Fraser, Co-founder of the Black Dirt Farm Collective. The panel featured a lively discussion about ensuring diverse representation in community food systems. Hearing Aleya talk about her work connecting beginning farmers with land in Maryland and Malik speak about the transformation food is having on many neighborhoods in Detroit was extremely inspiring. Additionally, Suzanne demonstrated that no community food system could be fully just without improving the working conditions of food chain workers. The panel confirmed for me that ensuring diverse representation and leadership roles of the individuals most affected by the flaws of our current food system should be a top priority for the community food movement going forward.   

My favorite moment was Winona LaDuke’s keynote address. It provided a continuation of the themes that we’d discussed throughout my time at the conference . Her speech mesmerized the audience for the entire ninety-minute presentation. She touched on everything from her upbringing to her current role as a farmer and activist fighting against pipeline expansion in Northern Minnesota. Winona talked about the importance of tremendous agro-biodiversity and the benefits of being connected to your food sources. Her stories of activism inspired me to continue to enhance my roll in fighting for a more just food system. Overall, the conference introduced me to many new ideas and people. I hope to be able to take the knowledge I gained during the conference and benefit my own community.