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Collective Impact: Finding Inspiration in Local Food Systems Reform

There’s an experimental quality to efforts within the building of a better food system that excites me. Returning to the town where I attended college this week and catching up with friends still enrolled, I can see how these small endeavors, regardless of immediate success, build upon one another.

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Students and professors at Knox College and residents of Galesburg, IL, have been engaged in food issues for years. Last year saw the introduction of an occasional “Local Burger Night,” created by working with area (grass-fed) beef producers and the dining service director. The effort has seen continued success. Outside the cafeteria, Karen Hudson and Terry Spence came to campus to discuss their work bringing to light the environmental and health impacts of concentrated animal feeding operations in industrial meat production. This year, students pushed for a pilot Meatless Monday day in campus cafeterias. By tracking student responses, the momentum seems to suggest an expansion of the initiative to more frequent meals next year. As with most efforts that challenge the status quo, some objected, some didn’t understand, and the organizers themselves identified areas for improvement (more wholesome vegetable- and legume-based dishes, less processed soy meat-substitutes, for example). Yet they furthered the conversation and changed the baseline for action. Student knowledge of where their food comes from and the consequences of certain production methods increased. The stage has been set to yet again see what the next permutation will produce.

Such efforts, while emerging from a particular localized context, of course find inspiration and comprise a part of related efforts elsewhere. These connections exist through nationally-organized campaigns like Meatless Monday and the Real Food Challenge, as well as the social interactions and informal networks that foster diffusion of new and creative ideas. And while I’ll always find inspiration by these small-scale efforts, I’m increasingly also drawn towards models that may help create greater coordination and development within the food system.

Shanna Ratner brought home the potential power of such an arrangement during a presentation I attended this spring in Ithaca. As Principal at Yellow Wood Associates, she has worked with the Ford Foundation to develop WealthWorks, an integrated community and economic development model that values seven forms of community capital—from a core of intellectual, social, and individual capital, to the necessary complements in natural, built, political, and (of course) financial capital. She specifically spoke about food value chains as an integrated strategy for building healthy local/regional food systems. She highlighted the work of Central Appalachian Network as one of the pilot initiatives and an inspiring example of how nonprofits in a region have come together to collaborate for the development of a stronger, more sustainable and just, food system.

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Even in this more formalized framework for food systems development beyond the local scale, the need for experimentation comes through. I am struck still by how Ratner captured the special quality of this stage, and how we can best understand our efforts: “I don’t have answers, but I feel these are the right questions to ask.”

Helen Schnoes is pursuing a Master’s in City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, focusing on sustainable food systems. She helped start the Midwest’s first Community Supported Fishery, Sitka Salmon Shares, where she serves as a Salmon Steward. 

Photo credits: Meatless Monday; http://www.cannetwork.org

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