Last week’s New England Food Summit was a unique opportunity to bring a conversation that had begun in the northern more production-oriented parts of the region to a place where access, equity and urban ag are leading edges of the conversation. Food Solutions New England (FSNE) is leading a charge that challenges the imagination of people in six states to see and work together for a day in 2060 when we are able to produce (farm and fish) at least 50% of what is consumed here. This challenge takes on unique dimensions in different parts and communities of the region. In Rhode Island, where this year’s Summit was held, this means working with the highest unemployment rate in the country, an ever more diverse population and the reality of very limited space in which to place new food operations.
But as Ken Payne, member of the Rhode Island delegation and chair of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, reminded Summit attendees, a central call is to creatively go about the work of “repurposing space” – physical, moral and economic.
And indeed, that is what we tried to model during the Summit, intentionally choosing spaces to gather that lend a new take on and picture of New England agriculture, including The Met at Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket (home of Farm Fresh Rhode Island) and Providence’s Steel Yard (see image above). This echoes what is already happening around the region, as industrial spaces and vacant lots are being reclaimed for food hubs and community gardens.
In addition, my colleague Cynthia Parker and I re-structured conversational space to go beyond (or perhaps before) talk of tactics and solutions to inquiry about and explorations of the highly racialized opportunities and outcomes throughout food systems, our responsibility to attend to implicit biases and the larger systems of which we are a part, and time to get to know one another at a deeper level. Much of this ideally sets the stage for participants to go forth and replicate and reinforce this kind of creative repurposing back home, to make room for more (and more diverse) voices and ideas. I am struck by how this path forward aligns with a conclusion shared by UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier de Schutter, that democracy and diversity can mend broken food systems.
AND there is growing recognition that we are hard-pressed to achieve our aims if we do not reach the level of fundamental economic re-purposing and re-structuring. We must become much more savvy about how current economic spaces function to benefit relatively few privileged and powerful players at the expense of the rest of us and how we often unknowingly feed existing structures and arrangements through being complicit in dominant definitions of value and mechanisms of exchange. How can we reclaim and repurpose these for the benefit of local communities, equity, and ecosystem health? A growing inquiry is, “How do we scale the important community innovations happening in our region without re-industrializing?” We may well have our theme for next year’s Summit!
The conversation will continue, and we are eager to hear how others are reclaiming and repurposing physical, moral, and economic space for justice and long-term sustainability. Please share!