July 24, 2014
I distinctly remember the first time I was introduced to the concept of a food system and all of its incredible complexities. It was overwhelming to realize that such an everyday component of our lives was connected to nearly every major social and environmental issue of today. It was equally invigorating to realize that by effecting positive change in this realm, we could potentially tackle so many problems at once.
My exposure to such thinking came about the summer before college, when, after watching Food, Inc., I was directed to the Real Food Challenge and signed up for a weekend conference to learn more. I happened to be the youngest student there, but that didn’t stop me from soaking up every bit of information I could and start brainstorming ways to bring these messages and actions back to my own community.
Aware of how instrumental that early exposure proved to be in jump-starting my own trajectory into food systems activism and work, I was eager to provide the same experience to other teens. When I was asked to co-lead a workshop at the Maryland Leadership Workshops’ Advanced Leadership Seminar (ALS), I accepted. This program brings together 24 high school-aged leaders throughout the state of Maryland to learn about advocacy and motivation, set goals, explore their personal and group diversity, and discuss what leadership really is. This year’s theme for the week happened to be food justice, so the workshop organizers sought to bring in food system reformers who are experienced—but also young and relatable—and who could share our knowledge with the delegates. (The students are referred to as “delegates.”)
And so on Monday, July 14, I traveled with Jon Berger, the Mid-Atlantic coordinator of the Real Food Challenge, to Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, to offer the workshop. Beginning with a moving piece that explains the historical underpinnings of today’s industrial food system and its many externalities, we dived right into the issues.
We gave a brief introduction to supply-chain dynamics and what Real Food Challenge calls the “big squeeze” – essentially the unfair power that giant corporations wield over farmers. On the supply side, the giants are corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta, BP, and John Deere; on the demand side, the giants are corporations like Cargill, JBS, Walmart, and McDonalds. Because these corporations have disproportionate power in both the free market and in politics, the farmers often find themselves squeezed. This dynamic can lead farmers to cut their own costs by adding to the burdens of other systems, for example by paying workers less, engaging in less environmentally-friendly practices, or overcrowding animals in factory farms. Unfortunately, they have to face these choices to stay in business.
We also covered some of the impacts that these production-side problems have on the rest of us – from the nutrition challenges of our age (rising healthcare costs, school food politics, and the ubiquity of processed foods) to inequities in healthy food access and affordability. We also exposed them to the Real Food Wheel, and its usefulness in visualizing all of the ways food affects us.
After hearing from us for two hours, the delegates got to work the rest of the week exploring food justice, through a field trip to Real Food Farm in Baltimore as well as through their own research. On Friday, they led a three-hour Food Summit for a panel of professionals and community leaders. The delegates applied the skills they learned during the week to select and present important facts on food issues, promote discussion on potential solutions, and practice empowering others to advocate for these issues. They focused particularly on food access, food affordability, and nutrition education in their workshop break-out sessions, but also incorporated a bit of the other components of food system thinking we discussed. I was particularly impressed with the delegates’ ability to engage those of us in the audience through creative and engaging activities, including a food insecurity simulation experience and a video on school food, instead of merely lecturing us on facts. The delegates were inquisitive learners, poised presenters, and eager problem-solvers – the characteristics we certainly want in our future leaders.
Many years and Real Food Challenge conferences after my first formative one, one of the primary ideas workshop presenters always tout – that “leadership is about empowering others to achieve shared purpose in an uncertain world” – resonates with me more than ever. I’m excited to hear about how the ALS delegates share their new skills and knowledge with members of their own schools and communities. I know from experience that seemingly short encounters can inspire much greater long-term action.
Photo: Maryland Leadership Workshops, 2014.