Of hope—and how you can help—organic and sustainable agriculture

The good food movement must move forward in unison to fulfill its many opportunities to educate and influence stakeholders.

Melody Meyer, Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations

December 20, 2016

4 Min Read
Of hope—and how you can help—organic and sustainable agriculture

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.

Related:What are the best ways for retailers to engage in food and supplement politics?

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.

About the Author(s)

Melody Meyer

Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations, United Natural Foods Inc.

Melody Meyer is the vice president of policy and industry relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI). She is responsible for communicating and educating all stakeholders on critical industry issues and is active in advocating for fair and equitable funding for organic agriculture.

Melody’s career spans several decades in the organic and natural foods industry, including nine years of international trade and development. She began her career in 1976 working in an Iowa Natural Food Cooperative. Her early years in the retail segment of the burgeoning organic industry provided valuable experience buying from local farmers and providing fair returns in order to increase their organic acreage. This experience led to a lifelong dream of changing the way people eat and farm.

Melody founded her own business in 1995, Source Organic, which joined organic producers all over the country directly with national retailers and wholesalers. Source Organic was eventually acquired by Albert’s Organics (a division of United Natural Foods UNFI) in 2001 and it became the procurement department for all organic fresh produce purchased for the company. Her dream was being realized on a national scale!

In 2004 she began importing directly from small banana producers in Latin America. They were uniting and developing self-governed organizations enabling the small producers to export internationally for the first time. This international business provided a new level of prosperity, allowing the communities to increase much-needed social systems and infrastructure.

She has been deeply involved in introducing fair trade certification to growers in Latin America with Fair Trade USA and FLO.  The fair trade premiums are managed by self-governed worker groups to provide education, reforestation, access to clean water and health care.

Melody is proud to be the current executive director of the UNFI Foundation, which is dedicated to funding nonprofit organizations that promote organic and sustainable agriculture and healthy food systems. Priorities of the foundation include organic research, protecting biodiversity of seeds, promoting transparent labeling and educating consumers on healthy food choices.

She is serving her second term on the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association (OTA).  She also sits on the California Department of Food and Agriculture Organic Products Advisory Committee (COPAC).

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