There is No Box: Big Ideas About Urban Agriculture and Local Food Systems

I've been pondering a lot the last three weeks, trying to think
outside the box, and trying to proceed as if there is no box at
all. Two weeks of conferences in a row, one the Kellogg Foundation Food
and Society Conference, the second sponsored by the University of
California Agriculture and Natural Resources. Very different
conferences, but a common theme: Food Systems All the Time.

I've been pondering a lot the last three weeks, trying to think
outside the box, and trying to proceed as if there is no box at
all. Two weeks of conferences in a row, one the Kellogg Foundation Food
and Society Conference, the second sponsored by the University of
California Agriculture and Natural Resources. Very different
conferences, but a common theme: Food Systems All the Time.

At the UC-sponsored professional conference that I recently attended, I had the opportunity to hear historian James McWilliams
speak. I have read some of McWilliams's work previously and greatly
admire his research and work. (He's also an incredibly likable and
humorous man on a personal level). Like me, McWilliams is an historian
attempting to use the past to inform current public policy in the
nation's food system. (I like this. We need more historians informing
public policy in general, and particularly vis-a-vis food systems). Our
research focuses on different areas; we agree on some things, but
disagree on others. I will be reviewing his upcoming book, Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little Brown, June 2009), for this blog.

The title of McWilliams' talk was "Business, But Not Business as
Usual: A Proposal for the Future of Sustainable Agriculture." It was
offered to academic and program staff affiliated with UC's Agriculture
and Natural Resources Division, some of us working with Extension,
others with campuses. For an organization charged with working with
all aspects of the food system, we don't actually talk about it at the
systems level much. This conference was different: McWilliams offered
the plenary, and spoke directly to the topic. There were also two other
sessions/workshops that discussed these sorts of issues; they were very
well attended, and have provoked discussion and conversation that is
continuing in post-conference settings. Not just nationally, but in my
own institution, forces and issues and needs and agendas are converging
in a perfect storm of interest in the food system. Change is
inevitable; nearly every institution is going through a period of "creative destruction" due to budget constraints. There are new challenges and opportunities for all of us.

McWilliams' opened his talk by asserting that fixing the food system
is one of the most pressing tasks we face in this
country. Agreed. Nearly every problem we face as a nation can be
addressed in some way - and in some big ways - by improving the current
food system. But McWilliams made a statement with which I heartily
disagree: essentially, that the Locavore movement seeks to "banish to
the dustbin" other models.

I've never termed myself a "Locavore," although I'm a strong
believer in the value of strong local and regional food systems, and
actively promote them. I believe that multiple food systems exist - and
probably always will - and that most of us participate in several kinds
of food systems simultaneously. I don't seek the destruction of any
food system. I seek instead, the room and opportunity to develop
alternatives for the places and situations in our country where the
predominant, or meta, food system is not working effectively.

McWilliams argued for a kind of pragmatism that I find appealing in
a general and theoretical within the system rather than
against it. There's a certain logic in that...perhaps...sometimes. Using
the success of Forest Ethics
as a model, McWilliams argued that those of us advocating for local
food systems should be more pragmatic, reconsider working with
agribusiness, find common ground, seek real solutions, and be prepared
to compromise some, to seek evolution in the food system rather than
revolution. McWilliams presents a persuasive model, in a persuasive
way. Evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

But I've had other people to persuade me, too, to remind me that real change is needed, and needed now. Will Allen
is someone I admire immensely. I heard him speak (again) the week
before McWilliams made his presentation at UC. The creator of Growing Power,
a MacArthur genius grant recipient, and a national leader in the
sustainable food systems movement, Allen provides eloquent testimony
about the kinds of changes needed to make the food system more
effectively meet the needs of some parts of urban America. In his case,
that has involved creating a new kind of food system model. What he has
done in Milwaukee within a framework of urban agriculture is simply
astounding. There is a lot to be learned from this work. Allen is a big
man, physically; he also has big ideas. What I love about his work is
that he applies his visionary ideas in ways that are highly impactful
on the local level. I believe his work has the ability to be scaled
up, which could have positive implications for other urban areas.

Allen has recently published a manifesto proposing a novel and
worthy public policy idea, suggesting the creation of a "public-private
enabling institution" called the Centers for Urban Agriculture. Per Allen's document:

It would incorporate a national training and outreach
center, a large working urban farmstead, a research and development
center, a policy institute, and a state-of-the-future urban agriculture
demonstration center into which all of these elements would be combined
in a functioning community food system scaled to the needs of a large
city. We proposed that this working institution - not a "think tank"
but a "do tank" - be based in Milwaukee, where Growing Power has
already created an operating model on just two acres. But ultimately,
satellite centers would become established in urban areas across the
nation. Each would be the hub of a local or regional farm-to-market
community food system that would provide sustainable jobs, job
training, food production and food distribution to those most in need
of nutritional support and security.

Allen is not only proposing a new kind of model for urban food seems to me that he is proposing a (largely) new location
for Extension work and new kind of Extension model. Allen's proposal
seems to combine elements of working both within and outside of the
system. Especially because I'm familiar with his work, I find it
compelling and thought-provoking. It is clear to me that our current
land grant system - in a national sense - has not put enough muscle
into urban agricultural and local food systems efforts. We have made
many notable contributions, to be certain, but our institutional
resources have not flowed into this area in the large way that would be
needed to effect national change. There are many reasons for this:
years of declining funding; the relative dearth of funded research
opportunities in this area, at least until recently; political
pressures; lack of mandate; lack of understanding of the
interconnectedness of our work in agriculture and human areas; a
failure to fully anticipate the converging crises and challenges facing
us; and perhaps even a lack of awareness of how large, mainstream and
dynamic the interest in sustainable foods systems has become.

I'd suggest that everyone reading this blog read Will Allen's proposal and James
McWilliams' soon-to-be-released book. Their work represents stark
differences in opinion on options for local food systems. Point and

A final note: As we participated in this UC conference, which was
focused on creating implementation strategies for a Strategic Vision
plan UC Cooperative Extension and its related components have developed
relating to our work for the next 15 years, we were initially told to
"think out of the box."

Then a better framing statement was offered..."There is no box."

McWilliams' ideas actually retain the box - or framework - of the
existing national and largely industrialized food system. Allen's work
assumes no box.

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