November 1, 2022
More than 200 people attended the 2022 MA Food System Forum on Oct 12 in Sturbridge. Attendees met and reconnected with each other over breakfast and lunch and attended lively workshops. Please see below for summaries of the workshops.
Healthy soils are essential to climate mitigation and adaptation, watershed health, and long-term farm viability.
Caro Roszell, the New England Soil Health Specialist at American Farmland Trust, told this Forum panel that Massachusetts and regional soil health efforts are driven by farmers, but that the high cost of land, price of inputs, cost of labor, and low profit margins means that the necessary reinvention of farming practices is a tall order and will take significant investment. The Healthy Soils Program established for the Commonwealth in 2020 is not yet funded. The Massachusetts Coordinated Soil Program brings together people from NOFA/Mass, NRCS, UMass, and more and work so far has included distributed funds, peer-to-peer learning, and on-farm soil learning events. In addition, MDAR’s Climate Smart program funds soil health equipment. Massachusetts is investing less than $1 million in this critical soils work, while in comparison Connecticut has committed $14 million to their state’s soil health.
Three major needed investments are:
(1) Statewide lending equipment program for no-till planting, so that farmers can try equipment.
(2) Increased farmer access to compost, mulch, and biochar because these items are prohibitively expensive.
(3) A larger pool of service providers who speak multiple languages and understand the needs of BIPOC farmers, to provide needed technical assistance.
Apolo Catala from Oasis on Ballou, an urban farm in Dorchester, noted that urban farm soil is often contaminated. He noted that success should not be measured by the traditional bottom line and return on investment but should include what farming does for individual wellness and food access. Grants from MDAR have allowed Oasis on Ballou to add a shed, raised beds, and a 72’x30’ high tunnel.
Keith Wilda of Blue Stream Aquaculture said they received an MDAR grant for solar panels with battery backup which provide 80% of the energy of the year for their trout farm and shade to keep water temperatures down during high heat days. Another state grant supported processing for Barramundi (Asian Sea Bass) that increased the farm’s ability to recover from disruptions to sales as a result of COVID. Other grants supported turning fish waste into soil amendments that should improve soil health. These products, because fish are cold-blooded, have lower risk for contaminants such as e-coli than other livestock, and contain beneficial bacteria, fungi, rotifers, and nematodes. In addition, the farm water has freshwater diatoms, which produce oxygen and keep the amendments aerobic instead of anaerobic. Like many businesses, finding labor is an issue for Blue Stream, and they have moved to automated cleaning and sorting of oysters in response.
Brittany Overshiner, owner/operator of Upswing Farm, explained the importance of grants for new and beginning farmers, given the economic challenges of agriculture in Massachusetts. Grants for high tunnels and caterpillar tunnels, which are highly productive and highly profitable, can also be crucial for early years of business. MDAR’s MEGA grant program provides funding to beginning farmers, and other state grants support infrastructure needs, climate change adaptation, and soil fertility. The APR program helps keep land affordable, and is superior to conservation easements which can be at odds with farming practices and objectives.
Many policy groups, nonprofits, and institutions have begun to prioritize racial equity in their programs and principles. This panel brought together Ludia Modi from The Food Project, Hameed Bello of Agric Organics, and Rebecca Davidson from MDAR to discuss this important issue through the lenses of their diverse backgrounds and expertise. Through thought-provoking questions and spirited input and participation from the audience, the panelists and audience were able to explore inequity in agriculture in depth.
Hameed Bello highlighted the challenges many farmers of color face in regards to accessing resources and, as an example, recalled a loan application which asked for the address of his farm prior to him even owning land. Capacity-building around grant writing, logistics of stakeholder meetings, and timing of grant opportunities all need to be considered with equity in mind.
Rebecca Davidson highlighted the importance of agencies’ work around equity going back to the basics and focusing on trust and engagement of the people being served to build long lasting trust. She highlighted the many steps taken and resources made available by MDAR while acknowledging that much more needs to be done, including a review of how grants are evaluated.
Ludia Modi, who works closely with young aspiring farmers of color, emphasized how important it is to implement equity checks in programming, provide more opportunities for young farmers, and keep ‘intent vs impact’ in mind when approaching recruitment, new program creation, and pathways for young farmers.
Attendees also coined a new term, ‘hollow equity,’ to represent inauthentic and token acts performed by individuals and organizations in the hope that those acts are viewed as an authentic desire for equity, which is extremely damaging and actually promotes inequity. Being able to name and identify an issue is the first step in addressing it, and participants in this conversation were enthusiastic about doing so for this issue.
The conversation was robust and enthusiastic and, with MDAR leaders in the room, represented what all hope will be the beginning of an ongoing conversation about this critical issue.
While public understanding of farming has grown in recent years, and we all participate in the consumption side of the food equation, much of what happens in between when food is grown and when it arrives in our homes is still a mystery to many of us. Large corporations dominate the processing and distribution sectors, but some Massachusetts businesses, institutions, and nonprofits have used creative methods to process, distribute, and sell local foods. The Forum session Between the farm and the plate: Supply chain innovations highlighted three of these enterprises.
Samaita Newell owns Fruit Fair Supermarket in Chicopee. This mission-driven grocery store works to provide their diverse community with fresh, healthy, culturally-appropriate foods. She prioritizes purchasing from local farms and small food businesses. When the pandemic hit, the store stepped up to provide packages of fresh food for local residents, and even did some delivery. To further their commitment to the community’s health, the store has helped launch a local farmers market, offers cooking classes and nutritionists’ services, and has started a rooftop farm on their building.
The Worcester Food Hub (slides) serves as an aggregator and distributor of local produce and other foods for institutions in Worcester County. Executive Director Shon Rainford described the Hub’s additional work as a shared commercial kitchen to help entrepreneurs launch food businesses. Along with the equipment needed to process food efficiently and safely, the Hub offers help with permitting, marketing, and other needs of startups.
City Fresh Foods (slides) in Roxbury prepares meals and distributes them to schools, nursing homes, and other institutions in the Boston area. Executive Director Sheldon Lloyd explained that City Fresh prioritizes nutrition and taste in their meals, all of which are made from scratch, using local ingredients when possible. The organization has grown to more than 200 employees and is transitioning to an employee-owned cooperative business model, helping to build community wealth along with the job training they have provided since their founding in 1994.
Each of the presenters expressed that the biggest challenge for their enterprises is price. While each of them are committed to supporting local agriculture and the local economy, consumers and institutional purchasers prioritize affordability when making purchasing decisions. Efficiencies and scale can help to close the gap, they say, but significant challenges remain in making the supply chain function so that it can both support local production and provide affordable food for all. Each of them have had to rely on grants to help close financial gaps, and indicated that further support from the state for capital and other costs are needed.
This panel session began with a contextualization of increased food insecurity over the past several years due to the pandemic, and introductions from each of the speakers on their work to address this heightened food and economic insecurity. (See slides from the session here).
Melanie Wilk gave an overview of the Chicopee Public Schools Food Service. The department has a budget of $5 million annually and is self-operated, meaning they do not contract with an outside food service provider. Each school has their own kitchen so they are able to do their own cooking. During the early part of the pandemic, their schools shut down and pivoted to a grab-and-go meals program, enabling them to serve 3 million meals.
Catalina Lopez Ospina was leading the City of Boston’s Office of Food Access before she transitioned to Project Bread in 2022. During the pandemic, the City partnered with 21 organizations to serve immigrant communities, served more than 6 million meals, and gave out $2.5 million in grants to community-based organizations. At Project Bread, she has been focused on enhancing the culture of the organization by relating to and valuing people with lived experience. One of the goals of her work is that everything that is released publicly will be designed with people with lived experience.
Pat Baker from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute has been doing food security work since 2000, when Massachusetts was noted to have the worst SNAP participation rate in the country. She has worked on several successful campaigns in recent years, including passing the SNAP Common Application legislation to close the SNAP Gap of people that are likely eligible for SNAP but have not filled out the paperwork to receive the benefits. She has also worked with the Hunger Free Campus Coalition to make SNAP easier to access on public campuses. During the pandemic she worked to ensure the state brought in as much federal money as possible via waivers that make public benefits easier to access. Looking ahead to the next legislative session, Pat said she will be working on implementing the Common Application, a bill to reduce the cliff effect, supporting the Feed Kids coalition to make universal school meals permanent, and re-starting state-funded SNAP benefits for legally present immigrants, which the state had from 1997-2002.
J.R. Rivera introduced the history of Holyoke, the recent history of the city’s farmers market, and efforts he’s made to revitalize the market. Redlining still impacts the segregated urban environment, but the city is home to a vibrant Puerto Rican diaspora, with a density of residents higher than the archipelago itself. J.R. has entered the market into a partnership with a shuttle bus service to help bring people who lack private transportation options to the market. The market offers foods from local farmers and accepts SNAP, HIP, WIC, and Senior Farmers Market Coupons. J.R. has also been working to find a vendor that will offer plantains and mangoes, which are central cultural crops that can help attract residents to the market. J.R. has also been working with Atlas Farm’s mobile market which stops at several public housing developments in Holyoke, to build up more community gardens and tenant unions, and to elect progressive city councilors and a mayor, which all help build food security and sustainability.
During the question and answer portion of the panel, Melanie talked about the food truck that received FSIG funding to bring meals to families that lacked transportation, which Chicopee was finally able to start using earlier this year. The truck met a large need and served 500 students this summer, and will continue service next summer with support from the city. After being asked about what policy was difficult to implement, Pat spoke about the need for power mapping in campaigns to determine where to target an ask, and who to partner with so the decision-maker will hear and understand why a policy is important. Catalina spoke about the need for a new process to change the way food system stakeholders ask for feedback from people with lived experience. J.R. spoke about using door knocking as a tactic to get the word out about the market and SNAP and HIP availability to neighbors who speak Spanish, and how he has perfected his pitch to help people understand the program in a short amount of time.
The panelists recommended permanent universal school meals, making HIP easier and less stigmatizing to use for consumers, increased usage of available federal funding and programs to combat poverty, and deeper, authentic community engagement as next steps to advocate for and for organizations to take.
This workshop focused on how to mitigate the environmental impact of the food system. Jeremy Barker-Plotkin of Simple Gifts Farm, talked about his efforts over the years to use alternative sources of energy. (Slides) The farm began with using fry oil to heat their greenhouses, then transitioned to wood pellets, then a centralized system using wood chips. The farm has two solar arrays and they would like to install more, along with battery storage. The energy audit for their farm showed that more than half of their energy use was for refrigeration and more than a third was to heat and cool their greenhouses. Jeremy continues to think about how to reduce the farm’s environmental impact through sourcing more local materials, including wood chips for heating, and compost, with the ultimate goal of reaching zero external energy use while balancing their budget.
Stephen Herbert, a professor at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst, spoke about his research on dual-use solar – putting solar panels on farmland and continuing to farm beneath them. In their studies they erected panels leaving between 2 and 5 feet of space between them, and planted a variety of vegetables under them to compare growth. During a hot and sunny summer, vegetables planted under the panels did comparably or better than the vegetables in full sun. However during a cooler and wetter summer, plants that were under the panels generally grew to half the size, or less, of the control plants.
Andrew Brousseau from Black Earth Compost spoke about how soil nutrients travel globally, given that agricultural fertilizers contain minerals that are mined throughout the world and transported to the US. If food waste isn’t separated and used to create more soil amendments, we will continue to have to import large amounts of fertilizer. Black Earth Compost collects food scraps, leaves, and other yard waste from households and businesses, and turns those materials into compost at their sites in Groton, Framingham, and Manchester.
This workshop began with an overview of the Collaborative’s project to expand food system education, including a report with case studies and recommendations, and a budget ask for the next legislative session. The ask includes funding for a full time position at Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) and a full time position at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to help provide lessons and resources to teachers as well as connect classrooms to the MA food system. Additional funding would also pay for district level food literacy coordinators, field trips, professional development, and school garden coordinator stipends.
Anna Cynar teaches a full-year, high school science class about sustainable food systems at the Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsborough. She teaches students about their place in the local and global food system, and about the impact of African and Indigenous foodways. Through cooking labs, students learn critical skills and organize fundraisers for food-related causes.
Michael Skillcorn spoke about how the nonprofit Grow Food Northampton teaches elementary school students about land access and food access through farm field trips and in-class cooking classes. Through their partnership with the district, including participating on the farm to school team, they offer around a dozen experiences per year for each K-3 student.
Jessica Lander, a history teacher who teaches primarily refugee and immigrant students at Lowell Public High School, spoke about a project in which each student writes down a family recipe for a cookbook, as a way to practice English and study immigration. The school’s food department has used this cookbook to add more culturally relevant meals to the cafeterias. (Slides)
Panelists said food system education is critical as it offers a connection to the community, improvements in health, and encouragement of students to see themselves as agents of change. The panelists talked about partnerships that enable food literacy lessons to flourish, including through collaborating with parents with a passion for cooking and gardening, and building on students’ knowledge and energy to teach other students, implement a composting program, or improve school meals.
Funding remains a challenge for all of these enterprises. Applying for grants takes a lot of time and effort, and few grants allow the funds to be spent on food, which is necessary for cooking labs. With additional funding and support, panelists indicated that they could pay students who participate in school garden and food justice internships.
The panelists recommended that people who are interested in advocating for more food literacy in their local school find a teacher ally to partner with as well as student groups that might be aligned. For organizations interested in offering food literacy professional development, the groups should meet teachers where they are, show them how to integrate food into the existing curriculum, and pay for the time and the resources needed to implement the lessons.
The most essential resource for agriculture is farmland. But Massachusetts has lost much of its productive farmland over the last two centuries, and what remains is threatened and is often inaccessible to those who want to farm. The Forum session Massachusetts farmland: Protecting the resource, ensuring access for all offered a look at past and current trends in farmland loss, an overview of a statewide planning effort to protect farmland and make more of it accessible, and some personal accounts of farmers’ challenges to secure land on which to farm.
Basing her presentation on the reports Farms Under Threat: The State of the States and Farms Under Threat 2040: Choosing an Abundant Future, Jamie Pottern, New England Program Manager of American Farmland Trust (AFT), (video) noted the significant loss of farmland in Massachusetts in the last several decades. AFT’s analysis projects that if trends continue, Massachusetts will lose 73,800 more acres of farmland by 2040, 60% of that on the state’s best ag land. That loss would represent about 1,200 farms, $91 million in economic output, and 4,900 jobs.
In recognition of these challenges, Massachusetts is developing a Farmland Action Plan, and Collaborative Director Winton Pitcoff presented some of the initial findings of the planning process (slides). While the state has many programs and policies designed to protect farmland and make more of it accessible, those programs are not funded enough to meet demand and in some cases have not kept pace with changes in agricultural practices, particularly as farms have gotten smaller. Inaccessibility of farmland is particularly acute for farmers of color. The Plan will recommend policy interventions and investments to help close these gaps and protect remaining resources.
Two farmers, Mohammed Hannan of Hannan Healthy Foods (slides), and Ryan MacKay of Lilac Hedge Farm told stories about their journeys to find land on which to farm in Massachusetts. While their farms and processes were very different, many of the challenges were strikingly similar. Unclear and sometimes contradictory regulations, limited support services, and extremely high prices posed challenges for both of them. While they have both found land and are operating successful farm businesses, in situations where land is leased the long-term certainty of the operation is a constant concern. In all tenure models the cost of the land poses a significant challenge to the farm’s financial sustainability.
In this session participants learned about tools and programs food system businesses can use to start, grow, and sustain their operations, as well as to respond to market volatility.
Research proves that solid, written, and up-to-date business plans, good recordkeeping, and solid financial projections are key tools successful businesses use to become and remain profitable, especially in volatile markets. They also provide the tools required to access funding that provides the financial resources required to operate businesses during times of disruption.
These tools are so critical that programs offered by World Farmers, The Carrot Project, CISA, LEAF, Common Capital, Farm Credit East, Cooperative Fund of New England, Franklin County Community Development Corp, and other lenders, CDCs, and Community Development Financial Institutions all provide business technical assistance (BTA) for business planning and financial management skills and tools as a regular element of their lending programs. Their programs include assessing and accounting for the social and community benefits that food system businesses provide as well as equity considerations in their evaluation criteria. Most specialize in providing capital to businesses that struggle to obtain traditional financing.
Their work is supported by the Commonwealth through the quasi-governmental Mass Growth Capital Corporation, the non-profit Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, and in a more traditional lending sense through Mass Development. In addition, federal programs through The Small Business Administration and USDA are opportunities that food system businesses might find helpful.
More than a dozen food policy councils in Massachusetts bring people together to create relationships, share information, and advocate to improve the local food system. This panel brought together three leaders of councils to discuss their purpose, engagement methods, policy roles, and organizational structures. (Slides)
Norris Guscott, who leads Lynn’s Food Policy Council, provided an overview of FPCs and their role as effective mechanisms to reforming the food system. Councils are made up of representatives from different sectors of that area’s local food system – distributors, farmers, nonprofits, retailers, consumers, government agencies, and others. They are an effective way to bring together community stakeholders to promote the social, economic, and environmental health of local and regional food systems, and can do so in an equitable way by engaging people and groups who are traditionally overlooked or under-represented.
The panel conversation contained viewpoints from newer councils as well as more established ones. Christine Smith, from the Southeast Food Policy Council spoke about the need for councils to address root causes of challenges and inequities, and spoke to the importance of financial resources to support councils’ growth. She spoke to the importance of SWOT analysis, community food assessments, and network engagement.
Dimple Rana, whose FPC in Revere is still being developed, underscored how important effective engagement of residents and stakeholders has been to her Council’s early success. That engagement helped pass farming and food truck ordinances, and helped create excitement around various food-based programming and initiatives that the state and city offered.
Rochelle Bellin from Franklin County is working to strengthen that council by identifying the right stakeholders to bring together, identifying assets, identifying priorities, and developing a workable structure. She emphasized that this upfront process of crafting a FPC’s purpose and process is crucial.
The panel helped participants gain a better understanding of pitfalls to avoid, the various tools at a council’s disposal, core functions of an FPC, funding sources, and the need to engage the most vulnerable and under-represented community members when setting policy.
This discussion session opened with an overview of what the coalition has done over the past few years, through hosting more than twenty skill shares, creating an email listserv and a shared folder of resources. Results from the pre-Forum survey were also shared, indicating that members of the coalition were interested in meeting in person at each others’ farms in the future, and that the advocacy trainings the Collaborative helps facilitate are helpful. Attendees in the room were asked to review the different topics from previous skillshares on each, and indicate which sessions they had found most valuable.
Attendees were asked what message they would want to share with the broader public about urban agriculture, and what was one positive thing about urban ag. Comments included noting that urban agriculture is a real industry with real impacts and that urban farmers receiving state grant funding should be actively pursuing revenue; the need for greater connections between urban, suburban, and rural farmers in order to not have to recreate the wheel each time someone has an issue with SNAP or HIP; and the need for partnerships with 4-H programs and the youth who are involved with urban agriculture organizations, and to partner together. The city of Boston is focused on food justice, and building a resilient regional food system through increased infrastructure and helping other city departments see the many benefits of urban agriculture.
The group was small but the conversation was lively. Suggested next steps included the need to deepen involvement of service providers who are not farming themselves, and many ideas for future skillshares.
The final session of the Forum featured a conversation between Alexis Walls, Assistant Campaign Director at the MA Public Health Association, and State Representative Natalie Blais about the value of legislative advocacy and how to do it well. Both urged attendees to get to know their local elected officials, teach those officials about the food system work that they do, and help the officials understand what policy and budgetary interventions are needed to help them succeed.
Representative Blais explained the need for persistence and timeliness when advocating for legislative action. More than 5,000 bills are considered each session, and there are set processes that must be followed for legislation to proceed. Legislators need time to understand an issue, write a bill, and build support for it. And they need advocates to build a broad base of support among stakeholders in order to help urge other legislators to join in support as well.
Successful campaigns are built on strong relationships, the panelists agreed. Legislators are most likely to support efforts spearheaded by individuals and organizations in the communities in their own districts who they know, but will also take on statewide issues that will support and are supported by their constituents.
Also important is connecting issues. Food measures that have done well in the legislature are those that have connected with other issues like public health and the environment.
Walls’ slide presentation offered many tips and hints for working with legislators as well.