Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Food and Society Conference, Year 2 Day 1

If you're interested in the world of food and farming (which you probably are if you're reading this blog), you'd probably want to be here in San Jose, at the ritzy Fairmont hotel.

Why? Because this is the site for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's annual Food and Society conference, an invite-only convening of "good food" activists from all over the country. This is where the "movement", as defined by who this foundation invites, gets together and figures out where it's at and where it's going.

I'm lucky to have been invited for the second year, and I figured, hey, I may as well share some experiences and thoughts on how cool (or uncool) it is.


The Good Food Movement was probably approaching this year's conference with trepidation, as last year we received a sort of "break up" speech from the foundation's manager, Gail Christopher. Basically, her opening speech had explained that the foundation had decided to return more closely to the founder's vision, which was "helping vulnerable children". This followed after 15 years of Kellogg funding going to a variety of agriculture, health, and sustainability related programming. All of the organic farm researchers, land trust operators, and farmworker advocates looked around, asking themselves, "Um, so does Kellogg still care about us?".

This year, the answer seems to be, "Yes, we still love you, but we're not IN love with you". Christopher's speech this year reiterated much of the reasoning behind the change in focus (partially the result of long-term strategic planning, which foundations love so much), as well as how the foundation intends to direct their (more limited--since the economic downturn decimated their investment portfolio) funds. In one way, this was like the "let's be friends" conversation; a little more mature, refined, and relaxed than last year. And there was a particularly surprising and positive development in their announcement: the Kellogg foundation has adopted an explicitly anti-racist approach to their funding, recognizing that race is a DRIVER for inequality and the unhealthiness of communities. This is really exiting for a lot of us in the food movement who have been trying to emphasize the importance of race and class in these discussions about the food system.

The conference itself is set up in three days, the first with many plenary-type speakers, the second based on "open space" principles, and the third as a wrap up.

There were many speakers on day one, but I'll just write about a few.

First was Will Allen and his daughter Erika Allen, who run Growing Power, an urban farming project out of Milwaukee. Will is an ex-football player, as exemplified by slideshow pictures showcasing his huge biceps. He's also recently been awarded as a MacArthur Genius for his work for in transforming Milwaukee's harsh urban landscape to one of food production and community cohesion.

Hearing the statistics coming from this man's mouth ($200,000 in produce per acre of land!), and the pictures showing their different production schemes and methods (ranging from intensive vegetable beds on concrete to aquaponics and vermicomposting in large-scale integrated greenhouse systems), I was inspired, thinking about how much more could be done at Alemany Farm, as well as all the other bay area urban farming projects.

Allen is not only my hero as a farmer and activist, he's also my hero in a smaller way. You see, I had splurged on one of those $3 bottles of pre-made juice/kombucha mix (which one can easily make themselves), and somehow in my journey down to San Jose for the conference, the lid became stuck. Seriously stuck in a way I've never experienced. I blame the new plastic lid, which is just one more sign that the world is crumbling down: hippy 'Booch companies are going back to plastic (this brand used to have metal lids). I had been offering my first born child to conference attendees, challenging them to open it, but nobody could. Maya mentioned that Will Allen could probably do it ("didn't you see his biceps?"), and what did you know, there he was standing across the room. Maya boosted my confidence, saying she would go with me, so we went up and asked him directly and without hesitation, "Mr Allen, we figured you might be the only person who can open this bottle".

At first he didn't seem to know what to think, but he could read our earnestness and responded by clarifying: "You don't really need to drink what's left in this, right? It's just because you want to get it open, huh?". We responded in the affirmative and he was off, using his huge hands to budge this awful plastic lid. It took some cajoling, slapping the bottle on the bottom and hitting it on the top, but after a minute or so, it was off. Will Allen, community leader, urban farmer, genius, and master bottle opener.

On to the second round of speakers: a roundtable of different "community food enterprises". Basically, a CFE is an organization that is making a positive local impact on the food system, while making a profit as a company. It could be a sole proprietorship, co-operative, or corporation. There are many forms they could take, but ultimately, CFE's are forms of food activism that do not rely on grants, philanthropy, or donations to function and flourish. While I found some of the information and presenters to be inspiring as well, what I thought was interesting was the choice of these models in the context of decreased (or completely cut) funding from Kellogg. This presentation seemed to be a sly way of encouraging the activists in the room to give up seeking money from foundations and rich people, and instead to create their own wealth for projects through capitalist ventures.

On the whole, I think this makes a lot of sense. For some time, I've been a proponent of grassroots organizations relying less on grant funding and more on individual donations and self-made cash. But there was something slightly irritating about the promoted solution to losing foundations' support: live the American Dream and become a businessperson. I fear this de-emphasizes community solutions and collective efforts to challenge inequality and address local issues, but what can you do?

Well, I know what I want the foundations to do: quit maintaining 95% of their endowment in amoral stock options, which they do in order to maintain and/or expand their endowment and use the remaining 5% to fund what their founders (or board of directors) decided was worthy. My idea is for them to take that wealth, which was likely ill-gotten in the first place, take it OUT of the stock market, and use that 95% to fund emerging CFEs (or whatever small-scale mission-driven enterprise) with the expected outcome of having those business's profits put into a new, Grameen-style bank to multiply that investment within the communities of these CFEs. This way we could truly redirect wealth that is a result of long-term inequity into locally-controlled sources of investment, multiplying on CFE successes and getting the control of social change out of the hands of philanthropists and foundations and into communities that have vision, love, and localized commitment.

Of course, this is a hard sell for those program officers and such whose livelihoods (and all the travel and fancy dinners that come with it) depend on a continuation of the foundation structure.

Next up, I'll discuss the results of the Open Space discussions.
But for now, it's time for Hors D' Oveurs.

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