Envisioning a Community-Driven, Equitable, and Sustainable Food System

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly – March 26, 2012
by Rachel Firak

When you envision a food system that works for everyone, what do you see?

What kind of food do you see? Who produces that food? What kind of lives do those producers have? How and where is the food produced? How are the animals and plants that produce our food cared for? What about the people, animals and plants who live near where the food is produced? Who does the food nourish? What kind of lives do those consumers have? What kind of relationship do consumers have with producers?

An ideal food system would nourish consumers and producers equally, sustaining their bodies and minds to support healthy, safe, and fulfilling lives for themselves and their families. All community members would have access to wholesome, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods, and all who desired to produce food would be able to secure the tools, education and resources do so. Our natural gifts of clean air, water, land, and natural resources would be cherished, protected and shared equitably.

How do we make that food system a reality? For my organization, Groundswell, it all starts with education. The Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming is an Ithaca-based agriculture education organization. Our mission is engaging diverse learners and empowering them with skills, knowledge and access to resources so they can build sustainable, land-based livelihoods and equitable local food systems. Our trainees are the next generation of farmers and knowledgeable “food citizens” — community members who are rebuilding the food systems in their own neighborhoods. We approach our mission with guiding principles of community, equity, and sustainability.

Relationships are the key to a brighter future. As part of our regional community, we know that we work hand in hand with others who work for positive change. When one of us is lifted up, we are all lifted up. Engaging voices from all parts of our community not only enriches us greatly, it is the only way to a more just and sane future. We engage community leaders as instructors and advisors, with the understanding that local leaders are the most knowledgeable about the specific social and environmental landscape we work within. We seek broad and robust representation from every pocket of our community in order to create real dialog and people-centered decision making at all levels of our organization. Though we recognize that we are part of a national community, we have a specific responsibility to, and shared fate with, those in our region. Thus, it is our firm belief that local ownership and control of enterprises and resources, in which all people can participate equally, is the most beneficial form of development.

All people should have access to high-quality education and the resources to build a better tomorrow. In order for education to make a real and lasting difference in the world, it should be practical and applicable to learners’ lives. This means recognizing inequity and working as much as possible to equalize resources and access, including long-term access to and ownership of land and infrastructure. A socially just food system will require the elimination of structural poverty, structural racism and all of the other “isms” that have plagued our economic and social relationships. This is a community effort; how could it be otherwise? We work to change the face of farming and of control of the food system, with the understanding that only then will we see equity.

Sustainability can mean many things: social justice, ecological awareness, working with instead of against natural systems and communities, conserving natural resources like fossil fuels and water, and the maintenance of a steady and stable system that does not change wildly from year to year. Our farmers and instructors approach sustainability in many ways. Some focus on animal or people power instead of machines. Others focus on food miles or community-supported (and supporting) agriculture programs. Some approach sustainability through the concept of permaculture: “permanent agriculture.” Permaculture can be thought of as three intertwining components: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. We recognize that there are many ways to approach sustainability, and that each approach has merit and worth.

Our vision for a food system that works for everyone is both broad and deep. It will require hard work, commitment, and patience. But we can’t let that paralyze us or make us retreat; we must believe that we can make it a reality. It’s time for us to jump in and get our hands dirty. Will you join us?

Rachel Firak is the New Farmer Training Coordinator at Groundswell, where she has the best job ever: supporting aspiring and beginning farmers. She can be reached at rfirak@gmail.com.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles