By Stephanie Oeslgigie Jordan, Project Manager, Chef
Can a community decide how it will access food for its members? Is there democratic participation in our food system? What mindsets frame the future of our local food systems? These questions and more kicked off a fascinating lecture-discussion led by Dr. Gail Feenstra and Dr. David Campbell of UC Davis on October 25. Coordinated by Sustainable Solano, the talk was part of an ongoing program hosted by Heritage Presbyterian Church in Benicia, titled “How to Make the World a Better Place,” which features presentations and learning opportunities for people of all ages in Benicia.
Structured as an interview akin to Terry Gross’ “Fresh Air” program on NPR, Drs. Feenstra and Campbell asked provocative questions to each other, to get at the heart of issues surrounding local food systems. The idea of “Local Food” has grown exponentially in the last couple of decades. Dr. Campbell pointed out that in 1997, he and his research team could find only 100 articles on local food, and in 2011 there were over 2000 articles! (In fact, the USDA LFPP grant that Sustainable Solano was awarded didn’t exist 10 years ago.) So, what is all the fuss about? Communities are becoming increasingly interested in how food will be produced, distributed and sold. Over the years, competitive grants programs began to pop up (i.e. Placer Grown, Solano Grown) along with other programs that help communities start businesses and projects that assist local farmers/growers.
When running a food project, Dr. Feenstra had 3 important tips for success (she called them the “3 Ps”): 1) Partnerships are key, and the more diverse your partnerships, the better; 2) Public Participation is necessary for a solid community base and the development of leaders; and 3) maintaining high Principles & Values will help projects achieve social and environmental justice.
Sounds easy, right? Well….there are some challenges according to Dr. Campbell, when asked about planning future food systems. There are 3 different frames of mind out there, each with a different focus. The first is driven by the question, “How are we going to feed 9 billion people?” This perspective is driven by the idea that we need “more”, and incorporates the latest farming technology to increase volume and production. The second group has an environmental focus, driven by climate change. A local example includes the fact that crops are changing location in California, due to increased heat, drought, and changing weather patterns. (We might add that sustainable vs. unsustainable farming methods would affect this problem as well.) The third group is focused on social justice, asking “Why doesn’t everyone have access to healthy food?” and “Who is really running the elements of our food system?”
Not surprisingly, the solution lies in the need for these 3 frames to work together, instead of compete for attention. But how? Dr. Campbell suggests that local communities have advantages of doing work that integrates these elements. Referencing Daniel Kemmis’ book, Community and the Politics of Place, Dr. Campbell theorizes that it is this common love of place that can serve as a foundation to bring people together and allow communities to better tackle issues and develop their own systems. At the same time, communities must have peripheral vision – they must learn to see what’s around them, and develop diverse partnerships with people who can contribute their own unique experiences. If you are too local, you will fight the symptoms, but not the root cause.
And remember those 2000 articles that now exist on local food systems? All that research has illuminated three challenges, which communities must keep in mind: 1) Economic challenges which dance between paying the farmer enough money (so that he/she can continue farming), yet making food affordable for everyone, 2) Social challenges, addressed by numerous studies showing how middle- and upper-class white people are the only ones who can afford healthy food, and 3) Political challenges which highlight the lack of cooperation between one side of the food movement which wants to make changes within, and the other side which wants to “blow up” the system and start something entirely new.
In spite of all these challenges, Dr. Campbell subscribes to what he calls “hopeful realism.” The talk finished with a video of a UC Davis urban agriculture project, where youth work at a community garden in Oakland. Instead of having the director of the program lead a tour through the garden, UC Davis asked the youth to talk about their experiences and knowledge while the camera rolled. At the end of the video, teens and youth were using words such as “love” and “happy” to describe how they felt about their work in the garden. When diverse groups of participants come together and cooperate to solve issues, everyone has the opportunity to benefit in some way.
About the speakers:
Gail Feenstra is the Deputy Director of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP), a program of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis and the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR). For Dr. Feenstra’s full biography, click here.
David Campbell, a political scientist, is Associate Dean for social/human sciences in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis. He was appointed Associate Dean in October 2014. For Dr. Campbell’s full biography, click here.