Pushing for Food for All in Tompkins County

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Tompkins Weekly     10-13-21

By Cathleen and Eric Banford

How do we realize the vision of living with zero food insecurity in Tompkins County? What does this look like in relation to sustainability and Ithaca’s Green New Deal? What is our untapped potential? How do we coordinate and balance our county’s needs regarding food security and food sovereignty and simultaneously support ecological regeneration?

On Sept. 29, the Tompkins Food Future (TFF) team hosted a free community event where results of the Tompkins County Food System Baseline Assessment were shared at the Ithaca Farmers Market.

Over 75 community members were in attendance, with people representing many sectors of the food system and the community. Interestingly, TFF’s last public meeting was in late February 2020 just before the pandemic hit, and many in attendance commented on how nice it was to be together in person once again.

Holly Payne speaks at the gathering. Photo by Sandy Repp.

Each participant received an information-heavy handout titled “Tompkins County Agriculture at a Glance,” which was broken into sections on infrastructure, production, environment, food access, food consumption and food waste.

Concise graphics and bullet points outlined the concerns expressed by stakeholders and community members. The info in the handout comes from a fuller executive summary, which is available on the TFF website, and will be presented to the Tompkins County Legislature.

The evening’s presentation started with Holly Payne outlining some of the challenges of our food system.

“The food system is like a snapshot of all of the steps to feed a village, from preparing the soil to prevent erosion, raising animals and managing manure, sowing and harvesting crops, prepping food for the market, processing, storing, shipping and selling it,” she said. “And if you are a consumer, buying food, sharing food, getting food to those who don’t get enough, or who don’t get healthy enough food. And then preparing and eating food, and handling and composting scraps to make more soil to start the cycle again.”

Graham Savio then gave thanks to community members who have been part of food system work over the years.

“When a large proportion of our community has struggled to afford child and elder care, and when women and men are working so hard that they can hardly keep up with the daily needs of cooking, cleaning and completing paperwork for schools, housing and government, when is there ever time to dream of something better?” he said. “When is there time to problem solve in a slow, democratic process?”

TFF Coordinator Katie Hallas then gave an overview of the executive summary, noting that “tonight, we want to start setting tangible goals that we can hold ourselves accountable to as a community for how we can further our collective vision.”

“The people who grow our food are at the heart of our food system, working in relationship with the land, with the environment, to provide the foundation of food for our community,” she said.

She then shared some statistics, including that 55% of local farms report net losses, and the total number of farms in Tompkins County has been declining. We also have an aging farmer population, which points out the need to train and empower a new generation of diverse farmers to take their place.

Between presentations, there was time for discussion at the tables, with questions as prompts and use of the “Mentimeter app” to share responses, which appeared on the main screen and were collected for sharing on TFF’s website.

Table discussions were lively and informative, with notes taken, emails exchanged and community connections strengthened. Watching the generous flow of ideas appear on the front screen was inspiring and hopeful.

After an overview of the executive summary, Hallas ended the presentation by saying, “We hope to hear from you with more ideas, concerns and questions, and we invite you to help us connect more deeply and broadly in our community by letting us know who to connect with and how we might do that.”

Appropriately, a meal of produce grown by local farmers and prepared by the TFF volunteers was then shared by all.

After the gathering, Hallas summarized her thoughts.

“Improving our food system has always mattered to people in Tompkins County,” Hallas said. “This effort to create a comprehensive community food system plan is helping to crystalize a vision and catalyze needed change by building on a strong foundation. Working at the systems level is providing education about food systems, making stronger connections across different sectors of the food system, elevating the concerns of community members and illuminating the challenges that are often invisible to most of us.”

Hallas said that this process brings energy and urgency to food system challenges and pushes leaders to “enact solutions that will improve personal, community and planetary health.”

Assemblymember Anna Kelles shared her takeaway.

“The most important thing is the implementation,” she said. “They’ve brought all of the data together, now they brought the people together, they have solutions and ideas, and now we need to go through that process. It’s really inspiring because the people here are some of the most competent that I know, and they’re so dedicated to this work. To see how many people showed up in this weather is really inspiring. I believe this will happen and will be a model for the state.”

Holly Payne shared Kelles’ sentiment.

“I thought tonight’s presentation was a fantastic compilation of decades of work to understand the food system,” shared Holly Payne. “It was also an amazing invitation to bring in more voices so that we could understand the food system more deeply and switch it in the direction that we want it to go. We’re still a long way from reaching an equitable and sustainable food system, and we’re a long way from speaking a language that everyone can relate to because we are from so many different backgrounds. But some fantastic ideas came from this mini conversation, and there is so much room for more.”

Payne added, “anyone who is thinking about climate change and the food system, I strongly encourage them to chime in through the Thousand Conversations,” and readers can do so by contacting Ithaca’s Sustainability Director Luis Aguirre Torres at 1000conversations.org.

We need to understand as a community that our relationship with food is deeply connected with the quality and reciprocity of our relationships with each other, with our social systems and with local ecologies.

How do we prioritize the voices of those living closest to the land and those living with the food-security challenges, ensuring that they will help us lead the way toward establishing food security here in our county and beyond?

In conclusion, Katie Hallas added, “I’m inspired by the seemingly infinite trove of possibilities that exist to bring about a more sustainable, equitable, healthy and affordable food system.”

“I’m inspired by the clarity and enthusiasm around what our food system could be, as evidenced by what we’ve been hearing from the community,” she said. “And I’m really grateful for all that’s been contributed to this effort.”

To join the Food Policy Council, volunteer for the Food System Planning Team or simply to share and learn more, visit tompkinsfoodfuture.org/get-involved or email Hallas kh788@cornell.edu.

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