January 5, 2024
250 people attended the 2023 MA Food System Forum on December 8th in Worcester. Attendees met and reconnected with each other over breakfast and lunch and attended lively workshops. Please see below for summaries of the workshops.
This session focused on what is currently working in waste reduction, what challenges this effort faces, and explored the state of food waste reduction in schools. Shoba Reginold, a teacher at the Boston Public Schools talked about her experience with successfully getting food waste reduction added to the state curriculum guidelines. Started with the recognition that growing food that we don’t eat creates biodiversity loss and that educators need to include food waste in their teaching about climate change. Janelle Rolke, the City of Salem’s Waste Reduction Coordinator, talked about her work engaging the Salem Food Policy Council in food waste reduction and her work with Salem residents and the Salem Public Schools.
Successes. Panelists began by discussing interventions they have seen that have successfully reduced waste. Amy Donovan talked about focusing attention on what happens after food isn’t wanted. Shoba Reginold talked about her successful effort to have food waste reduction added to the state curriculum guidelines through petitioning the Board of Education after learning about the relationship between food waste and biodiversity loss. Janelle Rolke talked about the work of the Salem Food Policy Council on waste reduction and her work with the Salem Public School and residents. Usha Thakrar talked about the need to intervene before food waste gets collected for composting- trucking companies often have loads of food waste rejected and have to bring them to the landfill.
Challenges. Panelists then turned their attention to challenges in food waste reduction. Amy Donovan talked about the difficulty of getting different actors in the food waste chain to cooperate. She talked about the biggest challenge as getting people to care and the need for incentive programs that encourage people to compost and recycle as a way of reducing costs. So many people and whole neighborhoods are not engaged or involved in waste reduction efforts. Janelle Rolke talked about needing grants and more funding to encourage schools and residents to reduce waste. More work is needed- The cost for waste disposal is increasing. Shoba Reginold talked about how waste reduction education is often focused on science and sometimes policy, but not on the impact of individual actions to address climate change. It is important to build awareness to motivate change. Shoba asked, “How do we add this into the curriculum without burdening educators?”
Food Waste in Schools. Shoba Reginold talked about what she sees is needed for successful school-based waste reduction programs. She talked about three elements: 1. Custodians need to be willing to support a composting program. 2. The need for student volunteers to help. 3. Students need to be able to easily put food items back from the tray that they don’t want- Kids know what they aren’t going to eat. On this last point, Usha Thakrar shared that town public health rules can be an obstacle to having a “share table” and this needs to be addressed. Janelle Rolke pointed out that cafeterias where students choose which items to take (like milk) reduces waste.
The session closed with the panelists talking about what we can do to bring more light to this issue. Janelle Rolke spoke about the role of city councilors in pushing for attention and change in Salem and the importance for communities to set precedent/ lead by example. Amy Donovan talked about the need to speak with stakeholders in each community- People do care, they just don’t know what to do or need examples. She talked about the benefits of composting at home, and the MA DEP lists compost equipment and municipalities can purchase these items to make available to residents at low cost. Shoba Reginold stressed that individual actions matter and encourages people to make personal changes like bringing tupperware when you go out to eat to take home leftovers. Usha Thakrar closed by encouraging people to buy local food – shorter supply chains have less waste.
Amanda Kinchla, a faculty member at UMass Amherst and MAFSC Steering Committee, served as the facilitator for the Food Security Campaigns Roundtable. The panelists included Pat Baker from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Catherine Lynn from the Greater Boston Food Bank, and Laura Sylvester from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. Amanda began the session by acknowledging the important work done by the panelists to address food insecurity in Massachusetts and encouraged audience participation in finding effective solutions.
Laura Sylvester, representing the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, described her six-and-a-half-year tenure with the organization and her involvement in leadership programs for women and family policies. Catherine Lynn, from the Greater Boston Food Bank, shared her background in public communication and how it led her to advocate for impactful programs at the organization. She highlighted the program’s growth and its support for the community in various important ways. Pat Baker discussed her more than 40 years of experience with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and emphasized the significance of influencing policy to address food security.
The panelists then shared their experiences and successes running various campaigns. Pat Baker mentioned the Feeding our Neighbors Campaign, which had just successfully won $6 million in state-funded SNAP benefits for legally present immigrants. In Chelsea, Massachusetts, La Colaborativa, a lead partner in this campaign, has been providing food for 5,000 to 7,000 people weekly, primarily immigrants, since the start of the pandemic. Pat also discussed other ongoing campaigns, including Lift Our Kids, which aims to lift children out of deep poverty.
Catherine Lynn highlighted the success of the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program (MEFAP), which has multiple pantries distributed across the state. MEFAP supports local farmers by purchasing their produce and basic health products, providing an economic boost to farms and improving the nutritional quality of the program. She also mentioned the program’s increase in funding to $35.5 million in fiscal year 2024, which had a significant impact on their ability to serve the state.
Laura Sylvester spoke about the Cliff Pilot program, which aimed to address the issue of the “cliff effect” experienced by families transitioning from public benefits to better-paying jobs. The program provides support to these families, including assistance in finding well-paying jobs and a $10,000 non-taxable bonus to help them build wealth. She also discussed efforts to increase regional transit accessibility in the commonwealth and partnerships with local schools to incorporate cultural food preferences into nutrition programs.
Amanda then asked the panelists how they reach out to advocacy partners and select their goals. Catherine emphasized the importance of relationship building and collaboration among organizations involved in anti-hunger work. Pat highlighted the involvement of students in advocacy efforts and the promotion of SNAP campaigns to increase participation. Laura also stressed the significance of collaborative work and how connections and partnerships drive successful initiatives.
During the question-and-answer session, the audience raised important points about cultural food preferences and the evaluation of program impact. The panelists discussed their efforts to provide culturally diverse food options and monitor the effectiveness of their programs. They talked about metrics and data-driven research to measure food insecurity and discussed programs that track the impact of fresh produce on community health outcomes.
During the introductions, Jen Cruz, a steering committee member of the Allston Brighton Health Collaborative (ABHC), emphasized the importance of power-sharing in community engagement. She advocated for enabling communities to create their own solutions. Caitlin Marquis, from the Hampshire County Food Policy Council, highlighted their focus on community engagement and the challenges of preventing burnout in this work. Catalina Lopez-Ospina, VP of Engagement at Project Bread, expressed her commitment to supporting people’s basic needs and centering those closest to the impact in program design. Alexandra Mello, a community member representative from the Hampshire County Food Policy Council, shared how her personal experience as a community member turned liaison has shaped her perspective on community engagement and food policy.
The panel then discussed their successes in engaging with community members. Jen Cruz explained how ABHC aims to bring service organizations together to better care for the Allston community. She emphasized the importance of understanding the local context of public health and empowering community members to strengthen their skills and awareness. Caitlin Marquis highlighted her efforts in connecting with existing community leaders and identifying systems of power in order to empower community members. Catalina Lopez-Ospina spoke about the funding her former department at the city of Boston received during the pandemic and their focus on empowering the community to utilize that funding effectively. Alexandra Mello discussed the Hampshire County Food Policy Council’s vision of creating a resilient and equitable regional food system, emphasizing their use of the sociocracy governing model and the importance of accommodating community members’ needs.
The speakers also reflected on the question of how they bring their whole selves to community engagement work. Catalina discussed the importance of connecting with loved ones and practicing self-care through exercise and meditation. Caitlin emphasized the need for setting boundaries and loving oneself while engaging with others. Jen recognized the role of shared resources and the importance of recognizing when to step back and refer community members to individuals with more expertise. Alexandra drew on her personal vision and mission in life, finding alignment with the goals of the Food Policy Council, and gaining strength from her role as a mother.
When asked about shifting power in policy and advocacy settings, the panelists shared their strategies. Catalina highlighted the importance of community engagement, education, and advocating for policies that benefit the community. Caitlin discussed the flexibility of funding through the food policy council and their focus on co-creating solutions with the community. Jen emphasized the need to shift power away from decision-makers who may not have the best understanding of community needs and instead tapping into the grassroots networks.
The panel also addressed community questions. Caitlin shared that the food policy council offers workshops to help communities prepare for system change by providing guidance in goal-setting, budgeting, and proposal development. They view the funding process as competitive and assist community members in putting together their proposals. They also discussed the impact of food prices on their organizations and highlighted the importance of growing food locally, sharing resources within informal networks, and addressing misconceptions around government assistance programs like SNAP.
When it came to community building, the panelists recognized that their work goes beyond regular office hours. They emphasized the importance of sharing food, creating opportunities for non-work-related engagement, and offering assistance to those in need. They also stressed the significance of identifying community needs and finding ways for organizations to meet them effectively.
The panel highlighted the ongoing commitment to community engagement and the various levels of involvement, from consulting to taking the lead in new systems of power. Their collective efforts showcase a dedication to empowering communities, addressing social inequities, and creating meaningful change.
The first question the panel discussed was: How do councils impact food systems work in your local region/government? Sarai mentioned how great they are because they engage residents and increases their participation- she also noted these councils help connect residents and resources to funding initiatives. Liz Wiley spoke how the impact has allowed stakeholders in her region to break out of their silos and bring multidisciplinary views to the work. Kerry Murphy spoke how the impact in Salem has allowed for more effective advocacy and feedback loop for current public health programs. Lauren Drago mentioned how Lynn’s Food Policy Council as spearheaded a first of its kind food center that addresses the social and clinical determinants of health- she went on to say “These initiatives are what keeps a city moving forward.” “I see my role as a municipal planner to be a co-conspirator for projects like this”.
The next question was: What policies, programs, initiatives, or otherwise can municipalities enact to make your future work with councils more impactful with stakeholders in your region? Lauren focused on events/initiatives like Lynn’s annual ‘Lynnside out’ event that featured multicultural performances, bands, tables, community art projects, and food and the convening element of Food Policy Councils. Liz Wiley focused on the importance of long term and flexible funding for the Food Policy Councils. She noted the intricacies of the work meant it required long continuous work which means long continuous funding. Kerry and Sarai spoke to the funding point further and agreed with Liz in regards to it being an area in which municipalities can play a role. Liz O’Gilvie, Chair of Springfield’s Food Policy Council noted Municipalities can help by “joining our battle”, “hearing what people are saying; change the legislation, not people’s minds for a cause that you know, based on data, needs to move forward’.
The last question was ‘What can Food Policy Councils do to help municipalities? Liz Wiley noted that councils should be the voice that represents the people. She said “Councils should be the voice that represents all of the constituency, as discussed before. We should use this system as a model for other agencies, such as public health, housing, recreation and culture”. Kerry Murphy reiterated Liz’s point. Sarai spoke to the importance of Councils telling the stories of the people and Lauren spoke to the power of Councils helping to develop community champions.
During the 2023 growing season, farmers faced several challenges due to natural disasters. A February deep freeze, a late May frost, and flooding and heavy rainstorms in July all caused extensive damage to crops. These events have raised concerns about how to support farmers in a rapidly changing climate.
Ashley Randle, Commissioner of the Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) spoke about how the agency responded to the climate events in partnership with the Healey-Driscoll Administration. They visited affected farms and established the MA Resiliency Fund, a partnership between the state government, The United Way of Central Massachusetts and several community funders. This fund has raised $3.3 million so far, providing several rounds of aid to farmers whose harvests had been impacted.
David Fisher, a farmer at Natural Roots Farm, experienced a significant impact on his farm in Conway. In 2023, the farm was flooded, resulting in the loss of 95% of their crops. They received a grant for $10,000 and additional funds from a successful GoFundMe campaign. However, the farm still faces challenges in covering the estimated losses and planning for next season.
Barnabas Fornia, a farmer at Flats Mentor Farm, a program of World Farmers, experienced similar difficulties. Flooding destroyed a significant portion of his crops. Barnabas found it challenging to access MDAR funds due to bureaucratic processes, which many farmers encounter. He highlighted the lack of support from the USDA, explaining that some farmers consider giving up due to this lack of assistance.
Ben Clark, from Clarkdale Fruit Farms, a fourth-generation farmer, spoke about the challenges for his growing season. Clarkdale mainly grows apples, peaches, pears, plums, and grapes on their 45-acre farm, which were heavily affected by the freeze and frost. Clarkdale received assistance from peach insurers and MDAR funds to implement additional frost mitigation techniques throughout their farm.
Throughout these difficult times, mutual aid between farmers was highlighted. The perspectives shared by farmers shed light on their needs and the type of support they desire. Initiatives such as carbon farming, where farmers focus on reducing carbon dioxide emissions and sequestering carbon, were mentioned as potential strategies. Furthermore, collaboration with universities and technical assistance services, such as UMass Extension, was highlighted as a valuable resource in helping farmers overcome challenges related to increased pests, pathogens, and other issues from the changing climate.
The natural disasters of the 2023 growing season took a significant toll on farmers. While efforts were made to provide aid through funds including the MA Resiliency Fund and the first in the nation state Natural Disaster Relief fund, farmers expressed the need for more comprehensive support. Suggestions were made to prioritize certain crops in terms of subsidies and fund allocation and to reevaluate federal policies that favor larger-scale and monocultural farming practices. After questions from the audience, there was an emphasis on making farming a financially viable and sustainable option for the younger generation.
This session provided the opportunity to hear from a panel of local fishermen about the issues facing their industries, from warming waters, increasing pathogens, and changing market forces, and learn about innovative ways fishermen are adapting.
Overview of fishing in MA:
Overviews of panelists
Sustainable Fisheries uses jigging machines and the Japanese method of handling. Hook fishing catches lower fish than nets. This allows their discharge rate of unused fish to be very low as compared to the others: their morbidity rate of the discarded fish is only 10% as compared to the industry’s average of 80%
Wishes policy makers would: Make fishing permits easier to access, especially for newcomers in order to incentivize the youth to join the industry. Also to incentivize more sustainable ways of fishing
Chatham Harvesters Cooperative has a Community Supported Fishery share. The ability to connect with new and existing customers is important. They conduct social and community events, improve social media presence by putting videos of the fishermen out on the boats.
Wishes policy makers would: Create a state fishery for sustainable fishing of underutilized fish
As a seafood aggregator, Red’s Best is constantly trying to match the supply to the demand. Getting this balance right is very tricky. They have contracts with big universities where just the quantity and rate are fixed, the type of fish depends on the catch received. This helps circumvent near miss situations.
They also share stories of the fishermen, their experiences at the sea, along with the fish. Always looking for ways to get people to try new seafood.
Wishes policy makers would: Acknowledge their hard work
Tips for consumers:
Phil Messier started the discussion by introducing Digger Foods, a mobile market serving the community of Brockton. The organization partners with the Brockton housing authority and private companies that provide subsidized and market-rate housing. Digger Foods currently serves around 600 households and is looking to expand with the help of an FSIG grant. Phil mentioned the challenges of language barriers and building trust with their diverse customer base, and their efforts to partner with organizations like World Farmers and the Boston Food Hub to provide more culturally relevant produce.
Grace Sliwoski, Programs Director at the REC, highlighted their focus on building a just food system in Worcester. REC employs young people through their YouthGrow program, operates community and school gardens, and runs mobile and community farmers markets. They primarily serve individuals who use the HIP/SNAP program and work towards addressing both immediate needs and the root causes of food insecurity. Grace also spoke about her work with the Worcester food policy council, and discussed the intersection of housing and food insecurity, emphasizing that people often prioritize paying rent over accessing nutritious food.
Joy Gray shared about her work with the Boston Farms Community Land Trust, which aims to improve access to farmland and resources for Black and Brown communities in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. She emphasized the importance of decision-making power being in the hands of those most affected by these decisions. Joy discussed the connections between public housing authorities, food access, and stability and wealth building. She highlighted the need for more integrated development, green infrastructure, and support for alternative farming models in city planning decisions.
The panelists discussed the significance of policies like the HIP program, which enables people to use SNAP benefits to buy fresh produce directly from local farmers. Phil stressed the need for equitable access to food and mentioned that Massachusetts farmers have the capacity to grow more food. Grace emphasized the importance of resources being allocated back into the community, especially through Community health Improvement Plans (CHIP), which are required by hospitals and health associations, and Joy stressed the need for support from various sectors, including private equity and healthcare, to the local food system.
The panelists then spoke about engaging legislators on housing and food issues. Joy mentioned bringing legislators to farms and having interdisciplinary conversations to highlight the interconnected nature of these challenges. Grace emphasized the importance of community engagement, especially involving youth members and paying people for their expertise and input. A member of the audience, Shani Fletcher, from the city of Boston’s GrowBoston department, asked the panel for their thoughts on modifying design guidelines for development projects to include food production and the role of private equity, banks, and higher education institutions in facilitating community-centered development.
The panel first discussed: What is a food system leader? What qualities/skills/background will youth leaders need to succeed? Firdaous mentioned a food system leaders takes charge of situation, is passionate, understands the importance of equity, excellent communicator, and understands that their work impacts the larger community. Lauren mentioned food leaders in the context of having a genuine connection with the food system. Ludia reinforced the importance of having good communication skills, Hameed reminded the audience that leadership is fluid and not uniform, and Liz spoke to the importance of developing leaders at a young age, fostering agrarian ideals, and allowing the youth to express themselves (which ultimately turns into leadership).
The next question ‘What policies/programs/initiatives/otherwise can facilitate the development of youth leaders in agriculture across the state’ was met with enthusiasm – Ludia spoke to the importance of age not being a barrier and creating awareness around agriculture, Firdaous spoke about creating inclusive and equitable spaces (especially in schools), Lauren reminded the audience that there isn’t a single element for developing youth leaders and empowerment should be looked at from multiple angles, Hameed was very direct and focused on employers writing proper job descriptions, incentivizing farming as a career, and Liz brought it all together by emphasizing the need and effectiveness of writing policies that recognize the conditions of marginalized communities, in addition to incentivizing municipalities to also get involved with agriculture.
The last question was: What’s the importance of empowering the next generation of leaders, morally, economically, and socially? Firdaous noted this empowerment promotes social cohesion, aids in youth empowering themselves, and creates opportunities for youth who otherwise wouldn’t know what they want to do in life. Ludia spoke passionately how empowering youth leaders lights a spark that every individual youth has. Lauren spoke to stake-building and how empowering the next generation is an excellent way to have youth come from their lived experience and express it on the land. Hameed noted that food system leaders aren’t necessarily all farmers like him- and pointed out policy, programming, and economic spaces within the food system that need to be addressed by the next generation of leaders. Liz wrapped up the session by underscoring that empowerment of next generation leaders yields large social and economic impacts- that the environment of our state can be absolutely integral to the success of this initiative as a whole.
Update on food literacy funding:
Working with our partners in the legislature, we were able to secure $1 million in food literacy funding in FY 2024.
In trying to implement this law, DESE and MDAR have encountered several obstacles, chief among these is that it is not possible to create the DESE, MDAR and district level positions with only one year of committed funding. In light of this, DESE has allocated this funding to:
Questions raised and discussed during the group discussion were:
In a follow up discussion to the plenary, Nate L’Etoile, from American Farmland Trust and Massachusetts Food System Collaborative Steering Committee, moderated a discussion focused on the challenges faced by farmers and the need for accessible state support.
One key theme that emerged was the need for funding opportunities and access to financial support for farmers. Suggestions included advocating for state support that is more accessible and the possibility of creating retirement funds specifically for farmers. Food insecurity was also discussed, with participants emphasizing the importance of funding to support the work being done in this area.
The conversation delved into the idea of a soil-based economy that is resilient to weather and future challenges. Collaboration and cross-talk between the agricultural community and MDAR were seen as crucial for a more sustainable, equitable, and resilient local food system. Participants highlighted the need for policies that support agriculture, including municipal bylaws and agricultural-based state policies.
Other topics of discussion included the quantification of the cost of agriculture and fair compensation for farmers, the importance of local reliable information sources, and the infrastructure needed to support a resilient food system.