I’m writing this from the Sustainable Ag and Food System Funders (SASFS) policy conference in Sacramento, California. I sit among a group of foundations and philanthropic funders who envision a world in which food and agricultural systems enhance and sustain the well-being of people, animals and our planet—now and into the future. I am here as the executive director of the UNFI Foundation whose mission is to advance organic agriculture in North America. As I participate in the discussion, I realize there is much to be hopeful for as we move forward into an era of great political change.
The challenge of the 21st century is how we will live within our economic and environmental parameters. Food systems are where ecology meets economy every day as consumers make different choices. The choices a farmer makes in managing soil, water inputs and livestock inform and influence the food that is available.
It is through these choices that we will determine how we exist as a planet and as a country in the years ahead.
From Sacramento to America’s heartland or in DC, we can be a major force for influencing public food policy and contribute to the development of more equitable food and agricultural policies. How can the good food movement educate and influence stakeholders to take the lead in advancing solutions for a sustainable food and farm future? We have many opportunities in the coming year.
We must build coalitions: The organic and sustainable food and farming movement must have a united front with a consistent message, using grassroots pressure for change. Organizations that have a common vision can pursue different strategies to achieve the same vision. Our cause should include many divergent voices—be it urban, rural, commodity groups, producers, consumers; it’s all bipartisan.
Our congressional leaders want to hear a coordinated message speaking coherently on each of our priority areas. It is imperative that we move forward in unison: no more squabbling, no more circular firing squads! We must work together lest external forces pull us apart.
We must positively vision our narrative: What you believe in either hinders or helps you. If you feel the organic and sustainable movement is too small outside the inner workings of DC or too disjointed, then we become immobilized. We do nothing. If we truly believe that by farming and eating sustainably we can preserve the earth and that this strategy is worth rewarding, then we embrace the motivation to make change. The narrative we create moves us forward.
We must develop a strategy for agricultural literacy: Many children have no clue where that gallon of milk comes from other than the dairy aisle. Students in Vermont’s Green Mountain College found killing the farm’s oxen to serve as meat in the cafeteria "ethically repugnant," not realizing that is what happens every time they eat a hamburger.
As we serve our children beets, broccoli, risotto or ham, they must realize all these once sprang forth from the soil. Everyone must recognize that our food is grown by a small army of dedicated souls who cherish the biology of soil, sunshine, water and seeds. We must value the larger legion of workers who pick, pack, harvest and serve forth that which nurtures us—our food. Let us teach the benefits of organic mac and cheese over the residue-laden conventional version. Everyone eats—so good food and agriculture policy must be front and center in our education.
We must think long-term: Yes, we have an administration and Congress that may fixate on fossil fuels and corporate profits, but now is the time to lay the groundwork for what needs to happen over time in food policy. Discussions are already underway that will form the priorities of the 2018 Farm Bill. This is one of the largest omnibus spending bills, second only to the defense bill. This is where the National Organic Program is funded, where conservation and nutrition spending lie. Farm Bill priorities are front and center now, so work with your state secretary of agriculture, with OTA and NSAC to advance our priorities over the next five years.
We must stay engaged: You have to show up in the room if you want to influence, and if you show up you must build relationships across the fence and across the aisle. Be optimistic; don’t abandon hope. Look to your federal, state and local government to enhance our agenda. We can make a difference!
I realize that now we must snap out of our post-election hubris—don’t agonize but organize! We may feel nervous about food and agriculture at the moment, but the only way to move forward is to include all voices to build a bigger tent, all that need to be served. Since we all eat, that’s a pretty big camp.
Don’t be timid about a stating your vision of organic and sustainable agriculture in the months and years ahead. It is in our boldness that success will come.