March 23, 2017
A failing dairy industry. Streams polluted by animal manure. Consolidated food retail, inadequate slaughter facilities for small- and medium-size producers, the list goes on. Where am I? New Zealand. Yep. Before I stepped foot on the soil, I was cautioned that I should not believe the “cleaner, greener” moniker. I’m not sure if it was heartening to blow up the myth and realize we are all suffering from industrialization of the food system, or just depressing that problems in the food system are dispersed so far and wide.
The solutions are dispersed, too. Back in September, Peter Bruce-Iri from Local Food Northland invited me to New Zealand to keynote and participate in a two-day food conference. He had studied the food council model and wanted to introduce it as part of a larger strategy for rebuilding the Northland’s regional food system. It took me about 30 seconds to make my decision (even with my carbon footprint in mind). How could I say no to New Zealand? Peter suggested additional connections for me to make my trip even more meaningful, including a webinar for the Good Food Network organized by Emily Dowding-Smith from the Sustainable Business Network and a workshop with Healthy Families Rotorua, arranged by Jasmin Jackson.
The original plan was to hold an advance food-foraging event that would provide food for the conference. (I imagined myself in an Omnivore’s Dilemma scenario, but the wild boar would remind me of Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web). That plan was thwarted by regulations that prohibit the sale of food that has been “caught wild.” Nevertheless, thanks to Ian and his sous chefs, I gained three pounds in eight days. And every pound was worth it. Even though we were unable to forage for our meals, most of the delicious food was sourced locally.
I spent my Saturday morning at the Whangarei Growers Market with Jeff Griggs, a co-founder of the Local Food Northland endeavor. Jeff is an American who immigrated to New Zealand many years ago and now farms avocados and cut flowers, along with other produce like kiwifruit outside of town with his dog, Ted. The oldest growers market in New Zealand, Whangarei Growers Market regulates that you can only sell what you grow, and Robert, the market manager and 70-year-old farmer, explained he has no problem tracking down the offenders because the produce looks different. I watched him collect the $20 stall fee from vendors while we shopped for Luisa plums, blueberries and lavender products. (Note to self: organize trips based on seasonal harvesting schedules).
After the market, Jeff invited me to join the weekly Whangarei Transition Town meeting at the local library where residents discuss ways they can improve self-sufficiency at the local level. Originating in the UK in 2006, the Transition Towns movement seeks to address peak oil and climate change, and challenge the notion of unlimited economic growth. We had a lively discussion about school gardens, people’s eating habits, electric cars (thanks, Ross) and more.
And now on to the conference. Close to 100 people gathered at the marae (including students from North-Tec, growers, public health professionals, chefs and researchers) for the powhiri, a traditional Maori welcome. Whangarei’s mayor, Sheryl Mai, also welcomed us in Maori. Participants lined up to touch foreheads and noses with the planning committee, a Maori greeting called hongi, which symbolizes sharing the breath of life. As a lifelong hugger, this was a reverent experience.
I talked about the various food movements in the U.S. with a special focus on what is happening around food policy councils, why policy is important and how the various food movements are working together to activate change. (One participant told me he never thought policy was important until he heard me. Best compliment ever.)
Over the two days, we heard from Peter about the features of a sustainable food system and importance of scale-appropriate policy. Ruth Marsh introduced the Vermont Farm to Plate framework, which Local Food Northland has been using to guide their regional effort. Rangimarie Price talked about how Maori principles on sustainability are embedded in the local food strategy. Jeff discussed how to connect and build a network for collaborating. There was a lively discussion about the role of chefs and restaurants in supporting local producers. While some of the larger cities have capitalized on the farm-to-table concept, in smaller cities like Whangarei, chefs are sourcing from local growers with very little or no marketing efforts.
I joined the policy discussion for the small group breakout and heard Regina, a North-Tec student and single mom who is working with faculty on various food endeavors, bemoan the demise of her kitchen garden this year because she is going to school full-time and raising her four children. I have heard this same conundrum in many focus groups and community meetings in Baltimore; doing the “right thing” frequently falls on the backs of those who have the least amount of time.
On Day Two, we heard from renowned nutrition scientist Barbara Burlingame about sustainable diets and nutritional superiority of native bananas versus the Cavendish variety that is ubiquitous in supermarkets around the world. Northland has a native variety that reminds me of passionfruit, and there are discussions about reviving that industry. (Lucky for Northland, Barbara just moved back to Wellington and joined the faculty at Massey University after 16 years at FAO in Rome as the deputy director of the nutrition section). Dr. Melissa Gilbert, an integrative medicine doctor, discussed her efforts to get patients to grow and eat from backyards. Dr. Laupepa Va’a from the district health board talked about food recovery efforts in Northland. A diverse panel of growers debated the challenges they face from a policy and climate perspective, while another panel focused on the role of food hubs in rebuilding distribution systems. Clive McKegg, the third leg of the Local Food Northland founding members (along with Peter and Jeff), wrapped up the conference by discussing how the Local Food Northland’s mission “to establish Northland as a centre for growing and processing tasty healthy foods in ways that build community cohesion, increased economic resilience, improve health outcomes and enhance the natural environment” can be actualized in their collective efforts. I left inspired and remain inspired as I witness the conference follow-up on the Loomio online platform, designed by a New Zealand company.
After my time in Whangarei, I traveled to Rotorua, which was challenging. I liken this part of the journey to the 80s classic movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles (think Buses, Cars and Hitchhiking). Lucky for me, Hayley, another conference attendee, was scheduled on my flight and she took the reins to get me to my destination that day. I strolled around Rotorua’s thermal lake, careful not to step in a bubbling hole, and enjoyed the hotel’s thermal pools while preparing for the second workshop.
Jasmin Jackson from Healthy Families Rotorua invited me to meet with groups from Rotorua and Tauranga who have been engaged in food and nutrition activities in their area and want to expand to policy. About 45 people attended the workshop, many from the public health sector. Healthy Families, working in 10 locations across New Zealand, is a national initiative that seeks to create health-promoting environments in the community and is involved with food policy efforts in other parts of the country. We talked about the opportunities and challenges associated with local food policy and ideas for strengthening their network. Even with the central government driving most legislation, I learned that New Zealand’s regional government structure offers options for organizing, especially around regulations for small-scale growers, land use, distribution networks and public health. I heard several participants talk about the importance of policy being informed by research, opportunity to expand public health mapping to other food system components and the need to better understand existing supply chains to improve distribution.
I travelled 23 hours to find myself in a beautiful location (since this is a food policy blog, I did not talk about the beautiful beaches, frolicking dolphins or the rails-to-trails bike ride, but those were also remarkable) that is facing many of the same issues we have in the U.S., albeit at a different scale. It is a scale that may serve them well as I witness the conversations among the conference participants already deciding how to move forward. I invite them to share their challenges and successes with us here in Crazy Town, where microwaves spy on you.