The Significance and Challenges of Food System Networking

The Significance and Challenges of Food System Networking (noun): interchanging information or services among a group of persons or organizations.

Through my community food systems work I am continuously sustained by feeling part of an active community of practice.  Since 1998, I’ve been fortunate to be involved in, first, urban agriculture, later community food systems, as a writer/researcher/editor (beginning as graduate student, continuing as consultant) and now as an outreach manager for Growing Power, through which I’m serving as Co-Director of the CRFS Project.  Witnessing and tracking the growth of the community food movement has been a significant milestone in my professional life.  But if I had to pick one single benefit to this work above all others it would be the hundreds of terrific people I’ve met along the way – and the opportunity to see them in action and hear some of their stories.  Their knowledge, savvy, resilience, passion and commitment has been a constant inspiration.

Even when the urban agriculture and community food movements were much smaller than they are now I easily saw how those involved understood that they were a part of a nationwide, albeit scattered and disjointed, community of practice.  Farmers in the bigger cities – New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco-Oakland – knew a few compatriots across town, and were able to visit their sites to share experiences and ideas.  But those working just as hard in smaller cities – Austin, Providence, Holyoke, MA, Durham, NC – didn’t have the same proximity to similar projects, and were typically too focused on what they had to do that afternoon and next week to fully direct their attention elsewhere.  As an early urban farming researcher I had the resources to visit and document a number of pioneering projects.  My hosts were gracious and informative, and highly interested in how their farms compared – in my eyes – to others they were aware of, but lacked the time and resources to see for themselves.  I was fine with being an information proxy, but wished for the ability to magically transfer my hosts to the projects they asked about.

Today, a much larger community food movement utilizes digital means of interaction to feel more connected to what’s going on.  Yet, the daily work has not become easier or less demanding; thus, the energy to proactively engage with and learn from colleagues isn’t always there.  I still see in them a strong desire for effective – and efficient – networking opportunities.

Whether in a professional sphere or a social movement, conferences are standard vehicles to meet others doing similar work.  Between 1999 and 2011 I was a regular at the Community Food Security Coalition’s Annual Meetings, which I attended on both coasts, down the road in Chicago, Des Moines and Milwaukee, at altitude in New Mexico, and in the same New Orleans hotel that, just out of architecture school in the early 1980’s, I did construction drawings for.  The CFSC meetings were highly valued for their networking opportunities; but were rather expensive to register for and travel to (although scholarships were available), and thus excluded many of the CFSC’s primary constituencies.  Since the CFSC ceased operations in 2013, Growing Power and its Growing Food and Justice for All Initiative (GFJI) has partly filled the national conference void with its events, and is dedicated to making them equally accessible to all.

It should be noted that even though I’m talking about national networking, the desire within those in the community food movement to interact with one another is also highly local.  A decade ago the Dane County (Wisconsin) Food Council on which I then served learned through surveys that it was most valued for its ability to convene folks doing similar – and potentially reinforcing – work just down the street.  Growing Power’s training weekends across the country – particularly those hosted by the Women’s Environmental Initiative in Minnesota – have served as true get-togethers for local food system veterans and those new to the scene.  And the CRFS project’s current Community Engagement Project in Los Angeles, that I described in a recent blogpost, is tapping into a local desire to nurture a community of practice around mid-scale organic composting, coinciding with recent policy actions around solid waste reduction and recycling.

The CRFS Project has, from the beginning, recognized a responsibility to not just connect with individuals and organizations nationwide but use project resources to enrich these connections by bringing people together through facilitated activities.  In May 2012, over 60 partners from the seven project cities (Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Madison, Cedar Rapids, Boston and Los Angeles) met at Growing Power in Milwaukee to, among other activities, create and present snapshot descriptions of their local food systems (these can be accessed through the CRFS Project YouTube page).  Some of the same folks will attend a project culmination event this November in Milwaukee.  In the interim, CRFS-sponsored networking events of various sizes have been held in most of the seven cities.

Currently, the CRFS project’s most significant example of facilitated networking and information-sharing are the City Exchange (CEX) calls that began in 2014, organized by CRFS Communication Coordinator, George Reistad.  These periodic conference calls were conceived as a way for project partners in the seven cities to add value to their involvement by sharing opinions and experiences with colleagues across the country.   I have participated in the two most recent CEX calls; one last November focused on Food Justice, Race & Policy, and one in February on engaging Youth in food systems work.  Both discussions were lively, intelligent and inquiring, and it was clear that the participants were grateful for the opportunity to connect in such a way.

Despite their value, one significant shortcoming that the CEX calls share with other national food system networking opportunities is that it too contains barriers to participation; in this case CEX participants are drawn from the long, but still exclusive, list of CRFS project partners developed over the past four years.  The list is long enough to allow different participants for each CEX call, but the pool of participants remains limited to those with a CRFS connection.

Within the community food movement, I anticipate that traditional barriers to direct face-to-face networking and information-sharing beyond the local scale – namely being able to break away from daily responsibilities and the expenses involved – will erode steadily through the increased use of, and dependence upon, various forms of virtual meetings.  The CEX meetings are held via Google Hangout, and I’ve noticed over the last year or so how Hangout participants are getting more comfortable with that form of participation.  As a social phenomenon, today’s Hangout advocates can make the same claim as long-ago proponents of the telegraph and telephone, namely how technology shrinks the world and brings us ever closer.  I believe the energy driving the community food movement largely lives within those under 30 for whom social media is second nature.  I also believe that nothing will fully replace the value of face-to-face networking.  But it’s clear to me that future communities of food system practice will seamlessly blend face-to-face and virtual networking to push the movement into yet-to-be-foreseen directions.