THe 2016 It Takes a Region Conference

Tackling Wicked Problems in Food Systems

For those of us occupied with making the food system more just and sustainable, the idea that we might encounter a problem or two along the way is so obvious and banal that it doesn’t merit mention. Clearly there are barriers, chasms even, that stand in the way; otherwise we wouldn’t need to do this work. But the notion that we grapple with wicked problems brings in an entirely new dimension. Wicked problems are not any old challenges that just won’t go away – they are intractable, unsolvable, unstoppable, have numerous causes, impact different stakeholders differently and lack agreed-upon solutions. In food systems work we come up against these kinds of issues constantly; food insecurity, farm viability, racism, and climate change, to name a few. Recognizing the wickedness of these difficulties necessitates collaboration and a willingness to step outside our own perspective, ultimately allowing us to create viable, longer-term approaches.

Last November, more than 400 attendees convened at our annual It Takes a Region Conference in Hartford, CT, to examine some of the wicked problems that confound our sustainable farm and food movement. The conference, which was the biggest one in NESAWG’s 25 year history, brought together a diverse mix of food systems practitioners, including policy advocates, farmer service providers, non-profit leaders, researchers, lenders, emergency food providers, youth food justice activists, students, farmers, food entrepreneurs, and many others to explore our theme, Tackling Wicked Problems in Food Systems.

NESAWG Board Chair Michael Rozyne of Red Tomato opened the conference on Friday morning, November 11, with a plenary discussion inviting conference attendees to lend their thinking and expertise towards finding new ways of understanding longstanding, chronic dilemmas. Seven panelists each discussed a different vexing food system dilemma: Kathia Ramirez from CATA – The Farmworker Support Committee on Farmworker Well-being; John Piotti of American Farmland Trust on Farmland Protection and Access; Hugh Joseph of Tufts University on Sustainable Diets; Lindsay Gilmour, NESAWG board member and food safety consultant on Food Safety; Lorraine Lewandrowski, a dairy farmer and attorney on The Food Movement; Ellen Kahler of Vermont Farm to Plate on Sustainable Meat; and Ava Bynum of Hudson Valley Seed on Racism in the Food Movement.  Participants had the opportunity to attend a deep-dive discussion session on one of these topics later on in the conference.

The conference featured 28 workshops with over 100 presenters spanning a broad range of topics including farm to preschool, funding strategies, grant writing, farmland transition, and racial justice. One of the most exciting additions to the conference was the Youth Track on Friday. Nearly 100 youth from across the NESAWG region led and participated in five different youth-focused workshops.These sessions covered issues like youth empowerment, food systems mapping, shared leadership, developing youth driven programming, and program evaluation techniques. Youth leaders shared their knowledge and collaboratively envisioned a more just and sustainable future. The youth brought energy, optimism, and a multi-generational perspective that rippled through the entire conference. 

We also had a day of Preconferences on Thursday, offering participants trainings and half-day intensives on specific topics, including:

On Friday night, US Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut sent a video message to participants. He discussed the importance of building a sustainable food movement and his support of farm to school initiatives and let us know that he is looking forward to hearing the policy ideas and priorities that come out of the conference.

Following Senator Murphy's message was a screening of the film Forgotten Farms with filmmakers David Simons and Sarah Gardner and dairy farmers Louis and Jane Escobar and Lorraine Lewandrowski. The film is a beautiful and moving portrayal of family-owned dairy farms in New England and their struggle to find a place in the current food movement and the changing economy.  The film struck an emotional chord with many audience members who grew up on family farms. The discussion following the movie centered around how the food movement can better support dairy farmers as well as long term strategies to improve dairy farm viability.  

The final day of the conference began with a race and equity discussion over breakfast led by interim Executive Director, Karen Spiller. She explained the differences between equality and equity and encouraged participants to keep equity at the forefront of their work. Following a final round of workshops, participants split into networking groups. Networking groups bring together people with similar goals and interests to facilitate continued collaboration after the conference. This year's networking groups were focused on diet and public health, food safety, distribution and food hubs, food systems planning, labor and trade, and food censorship and misinformation. As the conference ended, a group of delegates from the Chesapeake region met to begin planning for next year's conference in Baltimore!

Though wicked problems have no easy solutions, the participants at the 2016 It Takes a Region Conference faced these difficult and often uncomfortable obstacles head-on, finding common ground and strategies to move forward together. Thank you to everyone who made this conference a success; we hope you join us in 2017 in Baltimore! 

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