by Michelle Giles for SUST 350
Food is an interesting topic. It is not at all unique, since we all eat. And yet, no two people assign food and particular dishes the same value. We may be the only species to consider food as something more than sustenance (many lacking the taste bud infrastructure to pick up on sweetness and saltiness) and routine (my cat, for instance, will bite me if she is not fed her breakfast by 7:01).
Humans culturized food. Often this was based on produce and livestock availability, as well as socioeconomic status. Now with global trade, we enjoy the luxury of habitualizing ourselves to products that North America could never grow (but first, coffee) and sensualize meals that were originally eaten out of necessity (lobster was considered fit only to be fed to Northeast prisoners, an insect of the sea).
As Scott Sawyer points out in the “Food System Lessons from Vermont” chapter of The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval, the food system operating at present does not reflect our gastronomical likes and dislikes. Nor is it culturally significant. Instead, it craves fossil fuels and splurges on cash crops. The idyllic patchwork quilt of grain and green imagined of our countryside is better personified by Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The land that cries year after year with every pesticide application and relentless monocropping. Production is toxic and waste is too affordable for large producers to consider it a problem worth avoiding.
Many millennials are aware that this isn’t working for anyone and are choosing alternative diets that emphasize organic and local. Purchasing power alone, though, is not going to heal our broken food system. These kind of consumer choices are being amplified in states like Vermont which put people to policy and policy to action.
The Vermont Farm to Plate initiative is a highly collaborative platform for connecting local people to local food by providing the network for supply-demand connections between farmers, non-profits, government agencies and retail suppliers. The possibilities are virtually endless since, as noted above, everybody eats! It also supports young farmers and provides funding for land to get people started. To round off the effort, a pillar of the initiative is to reduce waste by providing for foodbanks and supporting the Universal Recycling Law which includes composting organic material (Sawyer, 2017).
The real success of the program is in the people. While Farm to Plate is policy driven, it has an extremely grassroots feel to it. Food can break many boundaries and so those organic smoothie drinking millennials are participating right alongside hog butchers and corner store owners. There also is an effort to include job training in all related fields. The education element lends to a constructive rippling through communities. There is a sense of pride about Vermont providing for Vermont. The regulatory elements of mandatory composting and waste reduction next to the marketplace -friendly local farm economy makes it a plan that appeals to both sides of the aisle.
I think many of the elements of the program are suitable elsewhere. This kind of resilience-oriented, forward, creative, and collaborative food network should especially be prioritized in cities. There is built-in tension in our landscape that results from areas of high population density being only consumers of food. It places unfair burden on our rural land and peoples. That thinking simultaneously robs cities of the opportunities to build those communities and places that local food can generate.
Food is special. It is very much a personal and cultural experience. A fitly run, local food system creates a sense of place. But, as Sawyer points out, the work is relentless. The effort must be sustained which provides the sort of systems thinking and regulatory cooperation that only policy makers can dish out. The Vermont Farm to Plate Initiative is ripe for replication. It is about time the countryside quilt be rejuvenated with creative systems thinking patchwork.
Check out this article informing about Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law put out to the public by the Natural Resource Defense Council last year.
Sawyer, S. (2017). Food system lessons from Vermont. In D. Lerch (ed.), The Community Resilience Reader (ch. 13). Washington DC: Island Press.
Michelle Giles is a senior SUST major @RooseveltU and president of the RU Green student organization. During the Fall 2018 semester, students in Prof. Mike Bryson’s SUST 240 Waste and 350 Service & Sustainability classes at Roosevelt University are contributing blog posts on urban and suburban sustainability issues to the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.