ON THE SCENE: Food justice tackled at the Wild Center
March 8, 2019


The North Country Food Justice Working Group, a coalition of various agencies growing, marketing, and consuming locally grown produce, held its second annual Food Summit at the Wild Center, Thursday, Feb. 28.

The coalition included nonprofit and for-profit organizations, community members, local businesses, farmers, farm workers and government agencies. The theme was "Feedback: Cultivating Action," an initiative to build on what was learned at the first summit through sharing the experiences of others.

The overarching question was, "How do we make locally grown organic food accessible, affordable and desired by all residents of our region, no matter their economic or social circumstances, and while doing so enable the farming community to meet its own financial, social and spiritual needs?"

Keynote speaker Dr. Frances Westley set the stage. She is the University of Waterloo Canada J.W. McConnell Chair of Social Innovation and the author of "Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed" and "The Evolution of Social Innovation: Building Resilience Through Transitions." She is also a board member of Craigardan, a nonprofit educational program in Keene focused on creating and advancing sustainable systems through agriculture, the arts and humanities, and human imagination.

Westley was a brilliant choice as she and her colleagues have thought long and hard on how to foster change within complex systems. The insights she provided were presented within the frame of food justice but could be applied to tackling climate change, social justice within our legal system, education reform and the growing challenge of refugees and immigration.

Westley said that to achieve any such goal we have to change the system dynamics that created the problem in the first place. She said there are three fundamental problems, those that are simple to address, those that are complicated, and those that are complex. She gave baking a cake as an example of a simple problem, one that can be solved through following straightforward steps in this case found in a recipe.

A complicated problem was President John F. Kennedy's May 1961 challenge to send Americans to the moon and return them safely to Earth by the end of the decade. It took the combined efforts of more than 400,000 people to design and build the spaceship, lunar module and spacesuits, send Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin to the moon, and bring them home. The problems to solve were complicated, with success at one level leading to others to address, such as the loss of the Apollo 1 crew. Even so, the goal and solutions had a contained focus.

Westley used raising a child as an example of a complex challenge. While experience and the assistance of others help, it's complex because we live in an ever-changing physical and social environment. Plus, no two children are exactly alike, even identical twins; what may work for one child may not work for another. Westley pointed out that taking on a complex challenge, like climate change, is difficult because people don't all share the same perspective. While many believe humans are the cause of the severity of climate change today, many do not. These differences are revealed in the space between relationships and are characterized by tensions and paradoxes.

Westley said that our opportunity is to identify the patterns behind the anxieties and stressors and to focus our energy there.

Westley showed how there is a layered approach to addressing complex problems which consist of multiple dilemmas. She said that it's important to identify what one is good at doing. Some people are innovators. Others are good at connecting people and communicating ideas. Some can gather the needed resources. Others are skilled at implementing and evaluating. And few are good at all aspects. It's important to know your forte and to understand that any action has its consequences, its shadow.

"Our first challenge is to understand the system we wish to change," said Westley. "It's through that understanding that we can identify opportunities for leveraging change. You can drive that release phase, that launch towards where it needs to go through innovation. Until you make sense of the system, you can't innovate, can't apply strategies, can't find capital to invest in new ideas, and can't shed ideas that don't have a life - that don't work. One other thing, watch out for shadows. Every innovation has a shadow. The brighter the sun, the bigger the shadow. All you can do is be aware of it. Often it's not until we probe a system until we fully understand how it works. It's not an if, but a when. Don't see the shadow as a failure but as a trigger for the next round of innovation."

Following Westley's presentation, attendees had a choice of workshops held within three series of breakout sessions featuring people who are experienced in addressing various aspects of food justice with a networking lunch held in between.

During a session on access, we learned that an increasing number of people, representing a wide range of economic circumstances, don't purchase fresh foods because they have little experience cooking. Thus, farmers markets that post recipes and feature cooking classes, coupled with shifting their time and location of operation, can help get more good food to more people.

We also learned that for many Adirondack families, hunting and fishing is a vital means of acquiring protein in their diets. As a means of increasing their access to vegetables, some libraries are giving out seeds and holding workshops on gardening to encourage people to grow their own.

"I think the whole summit is shattering expectations," said Brittany Christenson, executive director of AdkAction. "I think the conversations were authentic and true to the realities and opportunities of our food system. I'm excited to see what kind of connections come out of the summit."

"I hope that everyone hears Dr. Westley's message around how we find our role within system change and they can apply that thinking to all the information they're going to hear today," said Michele Drozd, executive director of Craigardan. "The goal of the working group is to send everyone back out to their respective jobs and communities and to keep moving this initiative forward. We want to change the system. We want people to understand there are different components of the system and how complex that system is. That's why I'm so excited to have Dr. Westley here today."

"The opening session was excellent," said Greg Pedrick, of Wilmington. "The sign of a good keynote speaker is that their message starts to ripple through the day. I heard a lot of that. Another takeaway is that there is a lot of dormant energy, that if people can communicate with each other and learn what's not being done and start collaborating, then there is some horsepower here."

"I thought there were many vibrant discussions," said Jake Vennie-Vollrath of the Adirondack North Country Association. "A lot of people challenged perceptions, challenged ideas and looked at existing ideas that were working and examined how we can improve on them. Others proposed actions. People are moving forward. It was very inspiring."

Asgaard Farm & Dairy, AdkAction, Adirondack Council and Craigardan were lead sponsors.


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