Growing a Food Network

October 5, 2011 Leave a comment

“Networks are not just about sharing the pie.  They are about growing the pie.”

– Ellen Kahler, VSJF

It has been a privilege and an inspiration to spend the past two days working with my colleague Beth Tener and the amazing team at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) to help launch the Farm to Plate Network.  Over 150 people came together to connect and take the conversation deeper around how they want to work together to double local food production in the state over the next 10 years, as a way of boosting economic development, increasing jobs, and ensuring that every resident has access to healthy food. A big rallying cry has been the devastation that Tropical Storm Irene wrought on the farming community. And as we learned from former Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee during a very enlightening presentation about the Great Flood of 1927, once again Vermonters responded in ways that have impressed those (including the American Red Cross) who came to help, with their self-organizing and neighborly efforts to get one another back on track.

In an encouraging speech to launch the proceedings, Governor Shumlin highlighted the challenges and opportunities that stem from the changing climate that is predicted to increase precipitation 20% in the state in years to come. “Our best days are ahead of us if we can pull together,” he said. Shumlin and the heads of Commerce, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services were all on hand, building on the collaborative inter-agency work they have already demonstrated prior to Irene and that has been important in its wake. Together they delivered the message that, “We must build a food system that is safe, sustainable, ecological, economic, and equitable.”  And all recognized the value of “the network” to move the state forward, beyond what formal leadership could enable. The Governor left network members with the following challenge – “Let’s rally around this question: ‘How do we unify around diversity to strengthen Farm to Plate?'”

Then it was on to robust conversations among people representing multiple sectors of food production, aggregation, access, distribution, marketing, consumer education, and workforce development, to figure out the structure to guide and connect the work.” Beth and I have helped VSJF, as the convenor, to pull together a proposed structure, based upon input gathered by VSJF staff from hundreds of Vermonters through focus groups and interviews, and guided by the pioneering efforts of the RE-AMP Network.  And we have worked to model and teach network leadership throughout, always careful to highlight how much has already been done and how much is already known in the state, as demonstrated by the stories that we captured throughout via video and table conversations.

So many lessons bubbled up over the course of the past two days about what has made networks and collaboration successful in Vermont in the realm of local food, and what it will take to go to scale.  A few snippets and tips:

  • Honor and embrace a diversity of approaches as a key to innovation and resilience.
  • Leave ego at the door.
  • Be practical and systemic in outlook.
  • Suspend cynicism.
  • Show an interest in/listen to what is happening at the edges.
  • Look for opportunities for the greatest return on the least amount of effort.

And certainly more, hopefully much more, to come.

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