Reach Back and Fetch It: Community and Regional Food Systems Project 2015


Reach Back and Fetch It

Community and Regional Food Systems Project Culminating Event

By: Oona Mackesey-Green


During a gathering that highlighted the innovations of the Community and Regional Food Systems Project’s (CRFS) community partners nationwide in response to local challenges, looking ahead toward solutions meant recalling the work of the past five years – and sometimes the work of activists and advocates of decades earlier. In the words of Neelam Sharma, the Executive Director of Community Services Unlimited (CSU), as she explained the meaning of “Sankofa”, the inspiration for CSU’s recently launched Sankofa Project: “reach back and get it.”

Attendees seated in the hotel conference room rotated through coffee refills at the back buffet as individuals who had traveled from out-of-town to represent community organizations spoke in turns at the front. After several hours of PowerPoint presentations, Sharma energized the conversation with an acknowledgment of what was at stake.

The Sankofa Project launched in Los Angeles on October 31st as a multi-media exhibit entitled “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded”, examining the roots of their organization and its work over time. “It wasn’t just about healthy eating. It wasn’t just about gardening. It was about rebuilding self-esteem. It was about reconnection with one’s history through food,” said Sharma.

Community Services Unlimited began as a non-profit in 1977. During a conversation with Sharma several weeks prior to the conference, she explained that CSU’s programs and projects evolved over the decades to offer innovative solutions to the current challenges facing neighboring communities.

“The Party, of course, were the innovators in terms of programs. They’re the ones that innovated the free medical screening. The things that are being done now by nonprofits and government programs – free breakfast – that has always been an aspect of the work, always been a part of the issue,” said Sharma.

“The Party” refers to the Black Panther Party, which originated in Oakland, California in 1966 and inspired the creation of Community Services Unlimited as an organization to support the community-led work of the Panthers. The philosophies and strategies of the Black Panthers were familiar to Sharma from her time as an activist in Southall, London. When she first began working with CSU, she said, she returned a focus to “meeting people’s immediate needs through service programs – grocery, free clothes, medical care.” Despite the efforts of community activists since the Black Panther Party’s initial innovations, Sharma questions the progress made in South Central L.A. and the approaches needed to keep moving forward. “Conditions really haven’t changed, and in fact have gotten worse. So what then is the role for change-makers like us?”

“Conditions really haven’t changed, and in fact have gotten worse. So what then is the role for change-makers like us?”

During November’s culminating event and over the past five years of the Community and Regional Food Systems Project’s implementation, innovation has driven the work of CRFS community partners as they fight to build healthy community food systems in their own neighborhoods. While investigating what innovation looks like at community sites that vary by community characteristics and needs, there was a repeated call to heed the leadership of local residents and organizations.

“Essentially, at heart, we are still about what the Panthers are about. But what do you do given that it is no longer innovative? Given that those programs have been taken over and corporatized? We see our role as creating models for communities that are really drawing on our own resources,” explained Sharma.

Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), echoed Sharma. It is clear, he said, that the most effective initiatives “grow organically out of the communities they are intended to serve.”

“Community engagement is a greater initial priority than finance and development,” said Yakini, speaking to the lessons learned during the planning process for a food cooperative that will offer retail grocery as well as a community gathering space and an incubator kitchen.

During his presentation at the culminating event, Yakini described the context for the Detroit People’s Food Co-op. With no national chain supermarkets within the city and many families and individuals traveling without automobiles, when it comes to food access, “we have a serious problem in Detroit.”

CRFS Project member and Communications Coordinator George Reistad noted that the location of large grocery stores, such as a Whole Foods opened on the edge of Detroit in 2012, can reaffirm “the idea that there is a serious lack of investment in Detroit’s most needy neighborhoods.” Moreover, about 80% of Detroit’s population is African American and yet there are no supermarkets owned by African Americans in the city. When it comes to “black community self-determination,” says Yakini, “the best opportunity we have to galvanize collective power is through co-ops.”

“It’s not enough to just improve access in our communities. The way that we do it really matters.”

While increasing access to food was a core challenge shared by many community partners, as project member Lindsey Day Farnsworth noted during her presentation about food distribution and supply-chain issues, “it’s not enough to just improve access in our communities. The way that we do it really matters.”


The 2015 conference drew connections not only between groups across the country from each other, but between organizations operating in varied geographical settings. The Wisconsin Emerging Farmer Program led by Ryan Schone of Milwaukee County UW-Extension assists small scale beginning farmers in both rural and urban settings. The program’s website lists discouraging statistics: “in 2014 alone, Wisconsin lost over 800 of its farms, the vast majority of which were small-scale.” In the context of farm loss and an aging population of farmers, Schone provides resources to support new entrepreneurs willing to invest in micro-farming. (We recommend you check out Cream City Farms and Pete’s Community Farm for examples of Milwaukee urban micro-farms providing local foods to their communities!)

Acres of corn, rather than vacant lots, stretch across the landscape where Jacquelyn Zita works. Zita, Director of Operations and Education and Farm Manager with the volunteer-powered Women’s Environmental Institute, presented about the launch of the North Circle Project to support farmers in the North Branch and Lindstrom area of Minnesota. A former humanities professor turned farmer, Zita addresses the accessibility challenges of rural communities. Only three percent of the produce grown in Minnesota goes directly to consumers; many farms focus on corn and soybean production, rather than diversified agriculture. “The poverty is extensive,” said Zita. The North Circle Project provides a space for farmers to network and to connect their needs with existing resources.

Jason Grimm of Iowa Valley Conservation Research and Development (IVCRD) echoed Zita’s focus on formal and informal networks of support for local farmers. “Partnerships”, Grimm said, leave the biggest impact. Grimm referenced the Iowa Food Hub, which now provides 83 different types of product to local stores, as well as the Iowa Corridor Food and Agriculture Coalition’s successful efforts to connect those involved in regional food systems work. IVCRD manages two other collaborative initiatives under Grimm’s leadership: the web-based Iowa Valley Food Co-op and IC Kitchen Connect, supporting the efforts of food producers to reach local resources.

“Partnerships”, Grimm said, leave the biggest impact.

Discussions about the challenges facing both urban and rural communities highlighted the struggle to make local, healthy and culturally relevant food accessible for diverse communities, while also working to ensure that farmers receive a living wage.

As Yakini explained it: “I think the central dilemma is this. Food is already artificially priced. Workers are exploited. Farmers are not making enough to survive.” And yet, it remains unaffordable for so many.

“Figuring out the pricing challenge is big for the good food movement”, said Sutton Kiplinger, The Greater Boston Regional Director of the Food Project. Kiplinger spoke to the difficulty of pricing crops grown in Boston by the community through the Food Project in a way that others in the community can still access them. When asked about ideas for a feasible solution, Kiplinger said that “the best solution is a living wage.”

Bayoan Rosello-Cornier agreed that a living wage would be “a step in the right direction.”

Rosello-Cornier also traveled from Boston and presented about his work as a Community Organizer and Planner with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI). Youth engagement is critical to both the Food Project and DSNI, organizations that know first-hand what it takes to support community-led initiatives and youth involvement. A couple of their reminders to others in food systems work? “You have to source culturally appropriate foods,” said Rosello-Cornier.

And from Kiplinger: “residents are the most important voice in the room.”


Marcia Caton Campbell, the executive director of the Center for Resilient Cities (CRC), confirmed conclusions that tackling rural and urban food access requires a nuanced understanding of the dynamics at play. “Food access can only be solved with a systemic approach.” Caton Campbell reviewed research conducted by the CRC on the impact of food policy in Milwaukee. In order to effectively tackle some of the “serious issues in this city that need comprehensive action,” said Caton Campbell, “equity and inclusion should drive Milwaukee’s food policy.”

Through her work as the Healthy Choices Program Leader with Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers in Milwaukee, Tatiana Maida works with families and individuals struggling to incorporate healthy foods into their lifestyles. During her presentation, Maida called for increasing education around nutrition, cooking and gardening, increasing and improving policies, increasing the accessibility of research and developing stronger marketing strategies that showcase motivating role models. Maida highlighted the potential for existing research and resources to connect with community residents and organizers, given more effective communication strategies. These innovations, she hopes, can “inspire and develop a new and old culture of eating, where healthy food is available and appreciated for everyone everywhere.”

A local and lauded Madison, WI organization began the series of presentations at the event with a similar message. Shelly Strom, the Community Land and Gardens Director at Community GroundWorks (CG), values the “community connections” that grow from sharing food memories and experiences as she wrote in a previous update about the urban orchards planted by CG along with children and adult volunteers: “We were fostering project with staff and residents at schools, at community centers, at low-income housing sites and parks… and fruit trees created this perfect invitation for community engagement. Everyone has a story about their favorite fruits and eating an apple, pear or mulberries straight off a tree. People have all these wonderful memories around fresh and local food.”


In a room filled with individuals from across the nation dedicated to building healthy food systems in their local communities, hopes were high, practices diverse and conclusions emphatic.

Make it accessible. Make it collaborative. Make it the community’s. The resources represented in the group were prolific. So were the needs. “Sankofa”, it seemed, might acknowledge the power of bridges built over connections missed in the past.

These innovations, she hopes, can “inspire and develop a new and old culture of eating, where healthy food is available and appreciated for everyone everywhere.”

We need a “multi-level approach” to support grassroots food justice work, reiterated Rodger Cooley, speaking for the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council. He provided an example of the opportunities lost when well-intended policy fails to reach those that it aims to support; while the creation of “Urban Agricultural City Zones” in Chicago encourages the development of urban agriculture initiatives in specific areas of the city, the lack of clear permits or licensing for the operation of such projects acts as a barrier to their implementation. An example of comprehensive standards moved forward by good political backing, said Cooley, is the Good Food Purchasing Policy (GFPP) developed by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC), a food policy council located within the mayor’s office. The GFPP provides strategic guidelines, as well as technical support, to major institutions committed to aligning their food purchasing policies with sustainable practices.

Esther Park of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council also attended the conference and during a workshop session highlighted the GFPP’s approach to creating evaluation standards that recognize the variety in scale and metrics of food service institutions, as well as their differing priorities when committing to support “Good Food”. As a Program Associate at the LAFPC, Park leads community outreach and one-on-one business consulting for the Healthy Neighborhood Market Network (HNMN) of the LAFPC. The HNMN, initially envisioned as a redevelopment program to convert existing corner stores into sites selling fresh produce in areas with limited grocery access, provides trainings and peer support to small businesses hoping to serve as healthy food retailers. From overcoming language barriers to discussing space for produce coolers to connecting retailers with distributors, Park addresses the obstacles that local residents face as they arise in the changing landscape of Los Angeles.


About a 20-minute drive from the Healthy Neighborhood Market Network’s great success stories, Mama’s Chicken, Sharma and her colleagues at CSU run an urban mini-farm. Understanding “Sankofa” in the context of Community Services Unlimited requires an understanding of their successes and of their losses, and the way that the food justice movement has shifted around them over time.

When Sharma referred to the “corporatization” of innovative programs, she spoke about the influx of interest from outside the community to create change within the community. As big systems come in to fund community building and food justice initiatives that are growing in popularity, their new projects often disregard – or destroy – the work done by community organizations and residents.

Sharma described the disappointment that rippled through their team as they discovered that a small urban farm plot painstakingly dug and seeded at a local school had been demolished to make space for small raised beds built with funds coming from outside of the community. Students that had been engaged in growing crops that became culturally familiar foods were no longer interacting with the garden space, too small to grow “more than one or two tomato plants.”

Speaking to room of academics, researchers, community organizers, activists and students, Sharma called for the supporting networks of communities to take action. “How do people who are situated to be involved in these issues” – “what is their role to play? We don’t hear their voice. How can we leverage those people we can leverage?”

As the Community and Regional Food Systems Project reaches its official closing, we are presented with an opportunity to carry innovations forward into 2016. In order to maintain the integrity of our work, Sharma reminds us to “look back into the past.”