Humanizing the Food System - #NESAWG17 Conference Report

The 2017 Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group It Takes a Region Conference broke the mold. NESAWG has been putting on successful food systems conferences for 25 years, drawing thousands of sustainable food systems leaders, including farmers, researchers policy wonks, students, urban growers, youth, food justice activists, health care practitioners, entrepreneurs, farm to school advocates, and many others together to cross-pollinate and engage with the complicated problems we must confront to transform the food system. Here’s some of what we learned and how we’re applying these lessons to transforming the food movement.

Place Matters

“...You chose to have the conference here, in Baltimore. This city that often people only hear about the challenges, but you brought hundreds of people here to see the innovative, forward-thinking, equity-focused work that is happening too. That’s invaluable to us as a city, and to me personally.” -Kristen Dawson, Farm Alliance of Baltimore Board Chair

As part of our commitment to strengthen our network of food systems leaders in the southern part of our region, last year we made a commitment to hold the conference in Baltimore, MD. Baltimore is the home of one of our newest Board Members, Rev. Heber Brown III (of the Black Church Food Security Network), and easily accessible for food advocates working in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and Mid-Atlantic region, as well as home to a number of inspiring sustainable food systems initiatives. We knew it would be important to find innovative ways to support organizers in the southern part of our region. We set out with intention and focus: build relationships with Chesapeake Bay practitioners, lift up the local stories in our region, get attendees out into the Baltimore community to see the work for themselves, and make the conference accessible to locals, all through the lens of prioritizing the stories of those addressing race and equity in the food system. It was a lot to take on, but we did it!

Among our most popular programs this year were the pre-conferences, half-day gatherings held on Thursday before the official start of conference sessions on Friday and Saturday, that got people out of the conference venue and into the community. Participants headed on a boat tour of the Chesapeake Bay, led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, testing water quality and learning agriculture (including industrial pesticide use and pollution from the region’s poultry industry) impacts the health of the watershed. Others attended an urban agriculture tour led by board member Rev. Brown and the Black Church Food Security Network. Tour attendees visited some of Baltimore’s black churches to hear from the elders and growers who are resisting food apartheid by growing healthy food on church-owned land. Youth from around the region took advantage of proximity to Washington, DC, to lobby their elected officials, in an Advocacy Day led by the Massachusetts Avenue Project of Buffalo, NY.

We continued to lift up the local region in plenaries with programming dedicated to food systems issues in the Chesapeake Region, including a plenary on black food sovereignty featuring local leaders from Baltimore and DC and a track of sessions examining the poultry industry (Maryland’s largest agricultural sector) and its impacts on workers, family farmers, and the food system. Together, these pre-conferences, plenaries, and panels set the stage for an engaging conversation about food systems within local political, social, and economic contexts.


Humanizing the Food System

“My small town is run by bullies. They will outright say “your ideas are stupid,” and ignore your ideas/efforts. This conference reminded me that I don’t have to take that as an answer, and rather than my current approach of dragging them to my side, I learned ways to meet these people where they’re at to make a bigger impact. Everything this conference gave me is so actionable and I’ve already made phone calls and set up meetings to get started to bring my community forward.”

-Jenna Hansroth, youth attendee from West Virginia

“The highly diverse, energetic crowd breathed life into the content. I spent much less time talking about my work and much more time listening to the work of others.” - anonymous attendee evaluation

Our theme this year created another chance to build new relationships. Our “Humanizing the Food System” keynote and plenaries offered participants an opportunity to reflect on the ways we’re siloed or divided in our food systems work. Attendees considered the question of how to create unlikely alliances alongside speakers with decades of experience effecting change. A highlight of this conversation was keynote speaker Dr. Samina Raja, a University at Buffalo professor who has nourished a whole field of food systems planning accountable to the grassroots groups and marginalized communities who most need our advocacy and support.

We sought to practice what we preached by inviting representatives from the poultry industry to join our opening plenary. We struggled internally in the weeks leading up to the conference with how to best make them comfortable while also holding them accountable for their actions and ideas. Ultimately, industry representatives  pulled out just before the conference, removing the opportunity for us to practice open dialogue from on stage. We learned that the trust building required for such interactions is a long-term process. In the future we’ll approach these dynamics with a much longer timeline, and rethink how to best engage with these dynamics and continue building a convening space where people from different positions and communities can be heard and respected.


Race and Equity

“I appreciated the centering of justice and equity work. It was a part of nearly every conversation I was in over the course of the conference. It is refreshing to have this work/topic centered so clearly, and to have so many models in the room of people doing this deeply, well, and from a perspective of food sovereignty.” - anonymous attendee evaluation

NESAWG’s commitment to race and equity is an evolving and lively area of growth and learning, and this year’s conference offered plenty of opportunities for us to practice and deepen this commitment. We started by centering race and equity in our program, including deliberately soliciting session proposals and host committee members from leaders and organizations who share this focus, and sessions that featured people of color,  low-income people, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+, and youth. We deepened this commitment with aggressive fundraising to support scholarships for people identifying as part of those same groups.  We were also interested in making sure the conference was accessible to Chesapeake Region participants, and designated a portion of our scholarship funds to attendees from that region. This two-pronged approach worked very well; more than half of attendees were at their first ever NESAWG conference. We know from experience that the conference can help individuals and groups gain access to resources and develop social capital, and we were pleased to make that opportunity available to groups that are normally underrepresented in these kinds of food movement spaces.

We also learned the value of providing spaces for groups traditionally underrepresented in the food movement to gather for networking and reflection. This year we again held a POC Caucus and a youth track (with sessions designed and led by youth) with great success. While the racial focus was fully integrated into the program throughout, we found that the youth track needs to be better integrated in future years and plan to do this in 2018. This is especially crucial because the majority of youth attending the conference are of color and leading critical food justice efforts in the frontline communities where they live.

This year we also experimented with an entire block of sessions solely dedicated to race and equity. This kicked off with our fourth annual Race and Equity breakfast discussion led by NESAWG Board member Karen Spiller, Curtis Ogden of the Interaction Institute for Social Change and Joanne Burke of Food Solutions New England, and continued in 11 concurrent sessions led by organizations and leaders from around the region. Next year we plan to supplement such programming with an Anti-Racism training pre-conference for non-POC attendees and to continue to integrate race and equity throughout the program.


Taking these lessons forward

“I really appreciated all of the work that went into creating a more racially diverse space and ensuring that we got to hear from voices that would otherwise be missing from the conversation. I would like to see even more of this in future conferences.” - anonymous attendee survey

“NESAWG continues to bring together good food practitioners operating in diverse fields, from diverse backgrounds. This range of experience and perspective by presenters and attendees is one of NESAWG's greatest value propositions.” - anonymous attendee survey

Next year’s conference in Philadelphia will be another great opportunity to highlight a place and its people. We’re looking forward to continuing to deepen our understanding of race and equity; to gathering the groups most impacted by the injustices of the food system; and to supporting the work of those at the frontlines changing how we eat and grow our food, and how we treat each other.

To learn more about the 2017 NESAWG Conference, visit our conference webpage

To see the conversation on Twitter, search the hashtag #NESAWG17