January 4, 2022
The 2021 MA Food System Forum was held December 3-9. Hundreds of food system stakeholders participated in discussions focused on how the various parts of the food system intersect and support each other, how they sometimes put pressure on each other, and how stakeholder work can help the local food system be more sustainable, equitable, and resilient. These summaries capture some of the highlights of the Forum discussions.
Our food and farm system is dynamic and diverse, interconnected and interdependent, but the way we approach the work within the food system is too often siloed, limiting innovation and stifling impact. Since the green revolution began, the risk of large scale monocrops have become ever clearer. We sacrifice a short term gain (vast amounts of food) for a long term loss (practices that weaken our health and the environment). We have been monocropping our solutions to food insecurity and health too, with similar outcomes – an overreliance on food banks and emergency surgeries, rather than a diversified diet, an economy linked to local farms, and a healthcare system that recognizes food as medicine.
Holistically approaching food systems work helps foster a broadened knowledge base, opens doors to strategic alliances, invites diversity, and decreases dependence on any single solution to feeding a growing population that is becoming more food insecure and sick by the day. Just as we can’t feed the country on corn and soy alone, we can’t meet the challenges of our food system with singular, siloed solutions.
Jessica O’Neill is the Executive Director of Just Roots, a food justice non profit organization in Greenfield, MA, located in Franklin County. Jessica helped establish the organization which is best known for reinventing the Community Supported Agriculture(CSA) model to be equity centered and accessible to an economically diverse membership, operating the largest SNAP enrolled CSA of its kind in MA. In this presentation, she explores approaches to food systems work through a holistic lens, examining the challenges of and opportunities for cooperation across unique but aligned sectors. Watch the presentation here to hear Jessica’s presentation on the potential for transformative systems change within our food system when we shift to working the way we grow – diverse, informed, integrated, planned and measured.
This panel featured four supply chain stakeholders who incorporate local food, sustainability, and scale into their business model in a variety of ways. The goal of the session was to gather supply chain businesses and nonprofits to better understand how food system supply chains operate and where there is room for greater intervention to build a more sustainable, equitable food system. Jen Faigel, the Executive Director of Commonwealth Kitchen, a nonprofit food business incubator in Boston that works with BIPOC businesses, facilitated the conversation. Jen pointed out that the COVID pandemic has caused challenges and opened opportunities across supply chains, including opportunities for local solutions, justice, and equity to come to the forefront.
Dylan Frazier, the Director of Strategy at the Boston Area Gleaners, discussed his organization’s recent launch of the Boston Food Hub, a for-profit arm of the larger nonprofit that will work to consolidate products from local farmers to sell to universities and other wholesale accounts. Angel Mendez, the Executive Director of food distributor Red Tomato, talked about how they are actively looking to collaborate as they’ve become large enough to do so while still carrying and promoting local foods. Mike Webster, the Director of Dining Services at Tory Hill Dining LLC which services the Hotchkiss School and several colleges in western Massachusetts and public schools in Connecticut, discussed how Tory Hill sources locally produced, mostly whole animals from regenerative farmers to shift school purchasing to local animals without increasing their tight budgets.
During the discussion, themes around innovation, structure and competitiveness emerged. Several of the panelists shared experiences demonstrating that larger players aren’t as nimble as small and mid-sized distributors can be. That advantage meant that when trying to build relationships with new institutional buyers, they were able to emphasize how they aligned on values, which helped build trust. Once that trust is established the business can evolve, as “change happens at the speed of trust.” One speaker valued competing on reliability, price, and quality, and how local food needs to build a network that delivers service, quality, and price.
Inflation has made local food more competitive and should be leveraged to create long-term relationships. Public policy can also help boost local food and distributors’ competitiveness, said the presenters, like supporting more central or regional planning, directing school food dollars to local food, providing adequate funding for the Food Security Infrastructure Grant program, and encouraging local sourcing for food banks.
This panel featured three municipal advocates who led campaigns or programs in their cities. Municipalities have real power to impact how the food system operates through zoning, licensing, program operation, and more! 2021 has brought a new crop of city councils, town meeting members, town managers, and mayors that advocates will need to engage with to build relationships, create programs, and pass policies.
Gina Plata-Nino is the Staff Attorney at the Central West Justice Center, and spoke about her work with Worcester Together and the Mayor’s Task Force on Hunger. During the pandemic Worcester Together created a centralized resource hub where someone with COVID would only have to make one phone call to be connected with resources they needed, instead of having to contact multiple service providers. The Mayor’s Task Force measures and reviews health programs, and provides recommendations to city leaders to make them more effective. The Task Force is identifying gaps in services, making sure that funds are being distributed in a way that is equitable and effective, and sharing culturally relevant information to end hunger in Worcester.
Cynthia Espinosa and Chelsea Gazillo are Organizers with the Holyoke Food and Equity Collective, and spoke about their work on passing a hen ordinance in the city of Holyoke. Passing a hen ordinance was first proposed in June 2010 by a city councilor, and became controversial due to stereotypes and systemic racism about Latinx people keeping chickens. That proposal did not pass.
In March 2020 the Collective was formed to respond to COVID and to support food security. A Councilor approached the Collective to support hen ordinance, which was re-introduced in April, and they worked with partners at NOFA-Mass and AFT to assess best practices from around the area, as several neighboring towns already had hen ordinances in place. The Collective proposed a permitting process that was straightforward and would cost $20 annually as part of the ordinance. The city held four public hearings with an interpreter at each hearing.
Unfortunately, the opposition was similar to 2010, with the same stereotypes, violence, and misunderstanding of food insecurity. In the fall, the Collective wrote an op-ed to put pressure on city councilors to pass the ordinance. The council wanted to amend the ordinance to require a special permit to keep hens that would have cost $300-$500 per household, which prompted the Collective to stop advocating for the ordinance as it was no longer equitable. The ordinance failed to pass in February 2021. The Collective is now strategizing on what’s next: how to work with the new city council to revive an equitable hen ordinance, creating a new Holyoke Food Economy Coalition, and considering how to change the political landscape to advance good policy.
Kerry Murphy is the Health & Wellness Coordinator at the City of Salem, and spoke about the city’s Mack Park farm and urban agriculture ordinance. After the city completed the Salem Community Food Assessment, it was found that fruits and vegetables are difficult to find near residents’ homes, and there are low rates of fruit and vegetable consumption and high rates of food insecurity. A recommendation to combat this finding was to use vacant municipal land for agriculture, which Mayor Kim Driscoll was supportive of.
The Salem urban agriculture ordinance focused on beekeeping, hens and ducks, and health requirements. In the spring of 2021 it moved to the public health subcommittee, but the Zoning enforcement officer is against the ordinance and hasn’t offered any feedback. The city council voted to move it forward without their input. Since the election in the fall, the city council is more progressive, with four councilors involved in writing the ordinance, along with a very supportive mayor. There will be a vote in January 2022 on the ordinance, and community advocacy in support of the measure is strong.
Panelists encouraged local organizations to advocate for ARPA funds, secure promises from candidates on the campaign trail, and follow up with electeds once they’re in office. Advocates can support grassroots groups that engage in policy advocacy, building robust community involvement to create systemic change.
During this session panelists and participants talked about changes in long-term weather patterns (climate) that look to most impact the weather farmers deal with every day. In addition to weather, sea level rise was discussed.
The topic was broken down into:
Conversation centered on three primary forces and their impacts:
Extreme precipitation events: More instances of excessively wet or dry soils are likely to be the most impactful change in both the short- and long-term. This includes storms with coastal flooding and storm surges, which can not only make soil too wet but also too salty. Intense precipitation is projected for winter and spring when soils are particularly vulnerable. Excessive water also increases nutrient runoff.
Strategies for mitigating these impacts that were discussed include reduced- and no-till planting, growing cover crops, building organic soil matter, installing field drainage and irrigation, growing in greenhouses and high tunnels, wetland conservation, and growing more periodic flooding tolerant and salt tolerant crops. Each of these solutions means incurring additional costs and labor.
Policy strategies discussed include implementing better crop insurance options, more investments in technical assistance and grant programs, shared no-till equipment programs, more supports for transition periods when farmers are implementing new practices, and greater resources for and from USDA incentive programs for conservation practices. A bill currently under consideration in Massachusetts that proposes to increase regulation of on-farm compost was cited as a potentially negative policy change.
Rising temperatures: Massachusetts average temperatures are now what they used to be in New Jersey. The ground is thawing earlier, and more perennial plants are breaking dormancy early. There is an increased risk of crop loss due to swings in temp, particularly during delicate pollination periods such as with fruit trees. The changes in temperature means new and increased disease and pest pressures, which are only likely to increase. In addition, the changing growing season means changes in labor timing and overall need due to longer and less consistent seasons.
Strategies for mitigating these impacts that were discussed include protected production such as greenhouses and high tunnels, planting of different and more tolerant crops, and improved local processing infrastructure.
Policy strategies discussed include more technical assistance and funding supports for different crops including less common perennials, better crop insurance, more supportive labor regulations.
Rising sea levels: Sea level is increasing faster in the Northeast than the global average, at about one inch per every eight years. It is already affecting coastal farms in our area. In addition to lost coastal farm productivity, sea level rise may result in population migration which will create greater development pressure on inland farmland.
General policy improvements across all climate issues that were discussed included:
During this session, organizational staff and community leaders shared their approaches to working more closely with community partners, as well as some of the challenges they have faced along the way. Casey Burns, Director of the Coalition for a Healthy Greater Worcester spoke about the Worcester Food Policy Council, which began in 2005 and advocates for policies that address the root causes of hunger such as increasing the minimum wage and affordable housing, but has struggled to include people with lived experience with food insecurity. During the pandemic, the group worked with other organizations and was able to direct donated funds to emergency food responses, such as partnering with local BIPOC restaurants to deliver food to those who were quarantining. As they are shifting from programming back to advocacy, the group is including many of the people and priorities from the community: they are advocating for DTA to expand SNAP to allow users to purchase prepared meals, and for DTA to engage the communities before closing or relocating local outreach offices.
Sarah Primeau at HealthLeads helped gather community input on food needs in Boston. One of the takeaways was that people wanted a neighborhood-focused, community-led program to address food insecurity. From that, two Neighborhood Food Action Collaboratives were created. Ric Henry co-leads the Hyde Park/Roslindale branch. The members of the group collectively set goals including improving existing programs and coordination, increasing access to produce, and more SNAP application assistance. So far the NFAC has organized a weekly pop-up with food and resources, developed a food resource guide which is available on the city’s website, hired staff to provide SNAP application assistance, and created a safe space for community members to share their perspectives. Some of the learnings from this project include that residents care about their community but often don’t have a seat at the table, that reclaiming dignity is important, and that the process to thoughtfully engage people takes time.
Kia Aoki from Northampton spoke movingly about going through a period when she and her children didn’t have housing and she felt judged and not respected. She now participates in the Hampshire Food Policy Council where her expertise is valued. Professionals and community members collaborate on this council and there is a strong foundation and everyone’s opinion is heard, she said. Caitlin Marquis from Healthy Hampshire, which helps lead the council, spoke about the Amherst Mobile Market which was developed through a food justice planning process. Community members are part of the planning committee and help staff the market.
The discussion included the importance of engaging the community and how the engagement process can also be very challenging and take much longer, making it difficult to secure the necessary long term funding. Some talked about how they felt as though they were walking a fine line between supporting versus controlling a group or process, and that being transparent about who is making decisions is important. Engaging the community can take many forms and can build on itself, and thinking about people’s needs and showing respect for their time and opinions are critical. Small wins can also help motivate engagement.
Massachusetts Senator Jo Comerford opened this session, speaking about the work of the legislature’s Food System Caucus and their priority bills and budget items this session. She urged stakeholders to continue lifting up food system issues to their local officials, and to seek to find connections between food issues and other legislative priorities, such as health care and the environment.
Advocates from the Collaborative and six other organizations spoke about their priority bills currently being debated at the State House, ranging from support for farmland protection to SNAP access, from soil health to school food. Each explained their bills’ objective and encouraged attendees to support the bills by contacting senators and representatives.
Finally, former Senator Barbara L’Italien offered tips on how to be an effective advocate. She stressed the importance of building long-term relationships with elected officials, and that personal stories are much more impactful than form letters and petitions. Advocates are experts, she said, and legislators rely on them to help keep them informed and to steer them toward issues of importance.
Most of the work being done to alleviate hunger comes in the form of emergency food provision, but more organizations and advocates are emphasizing the need to stop hunger from occurring in the first place. These efforts to develop systemic solutions to food access integrate issues of systemic racism, wages, access to public benefits, and local supply chains. Jean McMurray, Executive Director of the Worcester County Food Bank; Cynthia Espinosa, Senior Project Manager in the Department of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Holyoke; and Jessica del Rosario, Director of Community Initiatives at Massachusetts Department of Public Health participated in this discussion about how to best strike a balance between meeting immediate needs, and working toward long term solutions to hunger.
The COVID pandemic demonstrated that the means to significantly reduce hunger exist, when the circumstances and political will demand them, Jean pointed out. The number of food insecure people decreased as the government invested in SNAP, unemployment, and stimulus, raising the question: “why can we only do that in a crisis?” Cynthia agreed, adding that people struggling with food insecurity need to go to policymakers and point out that the crisis is still very real for many people.
From the perspective of a state agency, Jessica affirmed that voices from the community can influence policy, pointing to the Food Security Infrastructure Grant program as an example of an idea that was generated by stakeholders and implemented quickly by the state to address immediate need. Being able to have that kind of impact requires a long-term investment in relationship building and organizing, added Jean, but it has the potential for much greater impact.
Nobody can solve hunger on their own, all of the panelists agreed, making partnerships essential. Each highlighted the connections with groups ranging from unions to problem gambling programs, and with issues ranging from transportation to broadband access. A systemic solution requires finding a wide range of connections.
This session took an in-depth analysis of what being an ally truly means, and looked at BIPOC partnership empowerment from four different levels: on the ground, institutional, organizational development, and systemic.
Nicole McClain kicked off the conversation with an on-the-ground look at what empowering BIPOC partnerships and organizations looks like. Given her background of founding and leading North Shore Juneteenth (a nonprofit that educates the community about Black American culture and contributions to our country) through various collaborations with organizations (both food and not), she offered a unique view. Nicole stressed the need for ally organizations to be intentional in outreach, resource sharing, and intentionality.
Anne Hayes, executive Director of the Food Project then addressed the issue of empowerment at the institutional level. Anne spoke to the need for organizations to look internally to ensure they are actually living out equity in their work, and to ensure they are holding themselves accountable by knowing when to ‘step up and step back. Anne urged organizations to create and measure equity indicators and to promote diversity in leadership and commitment at the board of director level to equity, and spoke to The Food Project’s Board of Directors commitment to their JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) work.
Scott Knox then spoke about empowerment of BIPOC organizations at the organizational development level. As the leader for Root North Shore, a young non-profit that focuses on culinary job training and transitional employment in the North Shore, he highlighted the importance of being intentional with recruitment and outreach, not working in silos, bringing humility to partnerships, and the art of knowing when to stay silent.
Traci Talbert wrapped up the conversation with a look at equity at the systemic level. Traci masterfully threaded the themes discussed by the earlier panelists and wove a quilt of what equity in true raw form looks and feels like at all levels. Traci reminded everyone that equity work is not intellectual work – it is emotional, tedious work. She highlighted the need for BIPOC organizations to be able to ‘push back freely’ in collaborations. She reminded the audience of the difference between real vs performative allyship and how impactful or damaging that can be. Traci underscored emphatically that imbuing equity is akin to disrupting and dismantling oppression and should be looked at as such.
Following the four-level analysis, panelists responded to questions about empowerment of BIPOC organizations and partnerships, ‘ceding the spotlight,’ being intentional with recruiting and outreach, promoting diverse leaders, resource and opportunity sharing, and being comfortable knowing that equity work is a journey, and one that takes commitment.
Aligning with a new project of the Collaborative to expand food system education, this panel featured three educators who integrate lessons about agriculture, nutrition, culinary skills, and food justice in various ways.
Brittany Borchert is the Foods and Nutrition Teacher at Norwell Middle School. All middle schoolers there take a food and nutrition class every year, including topics such as essential nutrients, food safety, where their food comes from, baking and cooking skills, culinary traditions, and food access. Students also participate in a food truck competition, designing a concept, testing recipes, and making a business plan.
Hailey Small, a Garden Educator at Backyard Growers, spoke about their program to support people and schools to grow food. Based in Gloucester, they offer schools throughout the state lessons and support to allow students to have experience harvesting produce and connecting the gardens to social studies and science lessons.
All 9th graders at Four Rivers Charter School in Greenfield take an environmental science class; the first semester is focused on food justice and farming. Laura Stamas is a High School Science Teacher and helped design the hands-on program, which includes working on a farm, going gleaning, debating food system issues, and helping in the school garden.
The panelists highlighted some of the benefits of food system education including allowing students time to be in nature, to connect with their community, and to bring their healthy skills home to their families. Time is a consistent challenge, from the amount of time that it takes to develop the relationships with school and community partners to set up these experiential learning opportunities to the fact that there is not enough time in the school day to fit in everything that students should learn. It can be difficult to find lessons that are up to date and align with the standards and many of the programs that work with schools cost money.
In breakout groups, people mentioned sources of good lessons – such as the Green Team – as well as the importance of working with a district’s wellness policy and committee. Groups also discussed additional ways to think of food system education, as a critical life skill as well as a way to be mindful of the trauma some students may have experienced around food.