Reflection Pool: Takeaways from Two Food Systems Conferences

Racial Equity, Ownership, Relationships and Language: Takeaways from Two Food Systems Conferences
In addition to supporting the Food Systems Leadership Network, a central part of my job at the Wallace Center is to connect the dots between local, regional, and national-level conversations, and to be a conduit for information, ideas, and inspiration to travel through. What are food systems leaders across the country excited about? What are they challenged by? Where is there momentum? Where should there be momentum? One way to stay abreast of the trends, challenges, and hot topics faced by leaders is by attending conferences.
In the past two months, I’ve been privileged enough to attend two food-focused conferences – the 26th Annual Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference in Jersey City, New Jersey (NESAWG) and the Community Food Systems Conference in Savannah, Georgia (CFS).

It’s hard to distill five days of Conference sessions into a few tangible themes - there were so many important insights and discussions taking place. Folks shared programmatic success stories and lessons shared around topics like institutional procurement, securing alternate sources of capital, nuanced farmers markets that empowered the community and producers, and more. Looking back at it all, though, two macro-trends and two actions stood out to me and felt particularly relevant to the work that Food Systems Leadership Network members are engaged in.


Racial Equity: While part of me has been fearful that ‘racial equity’ may become another misused buzz word coopted in order to appear woke, it was encouraging, educational, and important to be part of genuine conversations centered around racial equity at both conferences. On an individual level, there seemed to be a growing desire by white people to move from being a passive bystander to an ally to an accomplice, while organizationally, a number of discussions, questions, and experiences were shared around shifting white-led organizations (including the often hard work of bringing organizational leaders on the journey) so they more fully represent their communities. Both individuals and organizations were focused on truly walking the talk. Together, this has the power to result in real systems change.

Ownership: The second trend I noticed was around ownership. Ownership of land, assets, monies, and, importantly, decision making was a core part of  the discussions on resource allocation, land reparations, and gentrification. In multiple conversations, attention was brought to whose land we were on, how it became colonized, and steps to take towards reparations. All of these topics are intricately linked to racial equity, and I’m glad that conference attendees are genuinely and humbly leaning into these conversations. It was also exciting to hear how organizations in cities like Newark, NJ were addressing and overcoming these issues through community advocacy trainings and sustainability projects.

Participants at both conferences seemed ready to engage around the uncomfortable realization that local food systems can play a role both in perpetuating and fighting gentrification. As a panelist during the Solidarity Economy and the Food System workshop at NESAWG lamented, “community gardens can be an effective way of resisting land acquisition – they’re a venue for organizing and community building – but they can also be an invitation for gentrification and displacement.” One development strategy that I was excited to learn more about as it actively addressed this presumed Catch-22, was the evolving Equitable Food Oriented Development (EFOD) paradigm. EFOD is a development strategy that organizations across the country have been practicing – it “explicitly seeks to build community assets, pride, and power by and with historically marginalized communities,” as described during the Community Control Through Food: The Emerging Field of Equitable Food Oriented Development at CFS. During this session, I was inspired by organizations like Liberty’s Kitchen and Sankofa Community Development Corporation in New Orleans that have been practicing EFOD and shared how their projects are resulting in more equitable community ownership.

I’ll admit, I am not the most patient person and can be prone to pessimism, so at times I wonder if the system we’re up against is just too powerful; but having candid conversations around gentrification, racial equity, and ownership, and hearing the fire in the voices of food systems leaders across the country as they shared their experiences, perspectives, and program innovations, left me with a renewed inspiration for the impact of this work moving forward.

Relationships: If you ever thought relationships were not key to food systems development… think again. Speakers reiterated time and again the importance of developing and investing in deep, intentional relationships to advance systems change, both interpersonally and inter-organizationally for better collaborations and greater impact. When, during a lunch panel at NESAWG, a youth in the audience responded to this sentiment by directly asking to connect with one of the panelists, also from his neighborhood, I was reminded that mentorship, and the exchange of knowledge between elders and youth, is just as important as a community organization’s relationship with city council. While this may not be a significantly new insight, other relationships, especially the relationships we have with ourselves as well as between the self and land, culture, heritage, and community offered particularly thought-provoking considerations that brought a nuanced sense of humanity and connection into the food systems conversations. Ultimately, these more subtle relationships form the foundation upon which inter-organizational relationships can be strengthened.  

Language: At CFS, culinary historian and Keynote Speaker Michael Twitty, dissected the word “yum,” a relatively well-known American English word commonly used to describe an appreciation of food. Upon further investigation, “yum” means “food” in some West African languages including Fulani and Wolof, has similar connotation in Jamaican Patwa (and even in Cambodia as an attendee commented). “Yum” was brought to the United States by enslaved peoples, passed along by enslaved women who became nannies to slaveholder children. But the history and evolution of that word is rarely told. Whether intentional or not, we so often craft narratives to match our world view. Language and words have immense power – and history – to them; and we have a great responsibility to understand them as well. Whether you’re at a place-based or a national organization, it is essential that we think critically about the narratives we create, share, and perpetuate, and recognize the lasting impact they can have. Being at a national organization, I have come to learn just how profound this responsibility is. We must continue to ask ourselves what stories, and whose stories, are being told or not being told and who’s telling those stories. And as we develop and pass down narratives, we can’t assume we’re all on the same page – taking the time to develop a shared understanding of what may appear to be commonly understood words, and to ensure that inclusive, unintimidating, and anti-racist language are used, are necessary first steps.

I’m certain that I have not included all the key trends that emerged and specific industry statistics that were shared during the CFS and NESAWG Conferences. But I am convinced that the above four topics – racial equity, ownership, relationships, and language – will continue to be intentionally interwoven in many of the conversations, programmatic innovations, and policy decisions in the coming years. They’re too important, and the movement is too loud, to let them go by the wayside.

As a first time attendee at CFS and NESAWG, it was an absolute honor to be among so many intelligent, passionate, and dedicated people. I’m grateful for the opportunities to hear from excellent panelists, converse with food systems leaders, and challenge myself to better understand the past, present, and future of this good food movement.

PS. A few more of my favorite quotes from food systems leaders at these conferences:
  • “One of the best ways to heal oppression is to celebrate who you are.” – Michael Twitty, CFS Evening Keynote
  •  “Cities aren’t developed with people in mind.” –Migration, Displacement, Organizing and Resilience: Building and Protecting Community Food Systems in the Face of Gentrification with Brandy Brooks, Tobias Fox, Mark Winston Griffith, and Kele Nkhereanye, NESAWG Opening Plenary
  •  “Equitable Food Oriented Development explicitly seeks to build community assets, pride, and power by and with historically marginalized communities.” –
  •  “Seek out the outliers; the stories that show we could’ve been better.” – Michael Twitty, CFS Evening Keynote
  • “We all have connections to colonial ruptures, don’t skip over the ancestors who caused harm.” – Migration, Displacement, Organizing and Resilience: Dispossession, Restoration, and Reparations with Heber Brown III, Stephanie Morningstar, and Chief Vincent Mann, NESAWG Afternoon Plenary
  •  “We were struggling with attendance at our Food Policy Council meetings so rather than calling them Food Policy Council meetings, we started calling them Food Council meetings and more people started showing up. Food Council is softer and more inclusive wording.” – Culture Shift Through Multi-Sectoral Teams: Policies, Procedures, and Tools for Success, CFS