Last month, I had the privilege of attending the 4th Annual Urban Farming Conference, held at Northeastern University, co-hosted by the Urban Farming Institute (UFI) and City Growers. It was a sold out convergence of 400 people, all of them passionate about strengthening the food system, and all of them doing this work in Massachusetts. That alone felt so invigorating; to have 400 people come together to learn together about how to better nourish our communities right here. But more than that, it was a day that put community-building at the forefront, and that amplified the voices of those often lost in the food movement. To reference an MLK quote shared by the keynote speaker, Greg Watson, “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” To me, it was a motivating day filled with incredible black and brown leaders in the food movement sharing their stories, frustrations, wisdom, and vision. It was a day where a woman I had just met thanked me for feeling, as tears of inspiration streamed down my face.
“Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” -Dr. MLK Jr.
Of the nine FoodCorps service site organizations in MA in partnership with The Food Project, there were five organizations of our service site partners present–Nuestras Raices, Groundwork Lawrence, Mill City Grows, CitySprouts, and The Food Project–with a handful of staff members from each of them and even some youth coming from as far as two hours away in Holyoke!
There were 28 sessions over 4 time slots, plus the keynote, and closing panel. The keynote speaker was Greg Watson, Director of Policy and Systems Design of the Schumacher Center for New Economics. He eloquently shared the history of the agroecology movement in Cuba. Watson spoke of the multi-directional agricultural revolution born out of science (practices including polyculture, mulching, compost, nitrogen-fixing plants, intensive planting) and organization (strategies including land distribution, family farms, urban agriculture, farmer to farmer knowledge sharing, gender equality, cooperatives, resource efficiency).
The second session I attended was a panel on growing community (and not just food) moderated by Dave Madan of theMOVE. The panel included Belene Tesfaye, Director of Education at City Soil; Luisa Oliviera with the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development for the City of Somerville; and Karen Washington of Rise and Root Farm in NY. There was a call to better listen to the youth voice, not just as a shallowly seen and not heard, “window dressing” for raising money from panelist members. This sentiment was reinforced by members of the audience, including two inspiring young people from the Groundwork Somerville and Lawrence Green Teams. Washington calls for a whole new food economy that does not replicate capitalism. She demands that we look at the systems we are creating as advocates for food change. We must use the resources we have and also identify when it is time to give up the power that we are holding. With an air of jest but in complete earnest, Washington shared her practice of calling people out for being too attached to their jobs. Her meaning was to point to those of us in the room coming from a place of privilege, whether that be white privilege or otherwise, to give up our jobs and find someone from the communities we are serving to take our places. Because at the end of the day, those of us sitting in places with systematic advantage, will be fine and figure out how to find another way to pay the rent.
Washington calls for a whole new food economy that does not replicate capitalism. She demands that we look at the systems we are creating as advocates for food change. We must use the resources we have and also identify when it is time to give up the power that we are holding.
In the third session I attended, there was a focus on cultural crop production, markets and profits, featuring Anne Cody and Neftali Duran of Nuestras Raices and Frank Mangnan of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMASS Amherst. Most poignantly, Duran reminds us to adopt food ways not just through the food itself. Beyond that, we must learn about the context of a crop in how it is grown and what it means to the people who grow it–to know the monetary, social, and personal value of a crop before you start selling it. He cited the Irish potato famine as a staunch example of appropriating a crop native to the Andes, where there were thousands of varieties impressively adapted to each aspect of the microclimates, to where one species was grown and failed massively across Ireland. Cody encouraged doing research online and asking around to learn what produce is in demand.
Duran reminds us to adopt food ways not just through the food itself.
That said, for folks who run farmer’s markets, there is much opportunity to expand crops available by better knowing what makes up the diets of the communities being served. This is even happening within our FoodCorps MA sites: Nuestras Raices grows gandules, ajicitos dulces, spicy peppers, calabaza, and culantro. CitySprouts has grown bok choy, fenugreek, thai basil, lentils, okra, shiso, lalo, and black eyed peas. And the Food Project grows tongue of fire shell beans, asian cucumbers, asian cabbage, and collards.
Professor Magnan has spent a significant time growing seeds not conventionally grown in the United States with his students, to provide to Nuestras Raices and others interested. His students created a locally aired television commercial (above) which advertised making sofrito — a latinx sauce base of tomato, garlic, and onion– from scratch to avoid the significant number of added ingredients in processed sofrito. The commercial was very much reminiscent of the garden education that FoodCorps service members do: in the encouragement of creating a culture around food of care. This includes breaking down the food that we eat to understand what we are eating from a nutritional, cultural, environmental, and social point of view. Raising a nation of young people that care about the food they are putting into their bodies and know how to do basic food prep is creating a nation of more resilient people.
Raising a nation of young people that care about the food they are putting into their bodies and know how to do basic food prep is creating a nation of more resilient people.
The last session I attended related to the way education in the classroom can be backed by what is available in the lunchroom. Jen Faigel and Seth Morrison from Commonwealth Kitchen, Nico Lustig from Franklin County Community Development Corporation, and Tim Wilcox from The Kitchen Garden Farm, spoke about getting value-added products to market. For FoodCorps, the piece of interest in this session was the opportunity that opens up for farm to school processing. Processing facilities like Commonwealth Kitchen and Franklin County allow farmers to focus on being farmers. These facilities can also turn their produce into value-added products to grow their market niche and extend sales past the growing season. It also lets farmers sell vegetables that might have aesthetic blemishes but can be turned into a high quality prepared food item. Joe Czajkowski Farm has worked with Franklin County Food Processing Center to sell to Chicopee, Holyoke, and Gloucester Public Schools of the FoodCorps communities. Commonwealth Kitchen is talking with the Boston Public Schools FNS and Mass Farm to School about possibilities for a healthy breakfast item, like a muffin baked with local apples.
The closing panel featured Greg Watson, Karen Washington, and Lydia Sisson of Mill City Grows. What are the ways we can build a new economy infrastructure and keep community building? After telling her story of how Mill City Grows came to be, with a community expressing a desire and her figuring out what she could do as an outsider, Sisson emphasized listening. Washington reiterated her point from her smaller session earlier, that we have to share power first and then give it up to those who don’t have it. She acknowledged, this can be scary to realize we have to do this. She also shared her wariness for short term engagement from programs like FoodCorps and parachuting quickly in and out of communities. So to be in the position of a FoodCorps service member, requires being humble and doing so much listening like Sisson vocalized. It requires not coming in with an agenda but listening ears. Sisson shared her discussion with her co-founder Francey Slater in the car on the drive to the conference that day about their exit strategy and how to figure out how to best pass on their organization to the community of Lowell. I left the conference feeling a little bit better, a little bit more assured that we will figure it out. And as Washington said, “Boston is in the house.”
She also shared her wariness for short term engagement from programs like FoodCorps and parachuting quickly in and out of communities. So to be in the position of a FoodCorps service member, requires being humble and doing so much listening like Sisson vocalized.
Photo credit- Bailey, Craig. “4th Annual Massachusetts Farming Conference.” Urban Farming Institute of Boston. 2014. Web. 11 Apr. 2016. <https://urbanfarminginstitute.org/2nd-annual-massachusetts-farming-conference/comment-page-1/>