It Takes a Region of Hardworking Activists to Advance a Just Food System 

To celebrate the 25th Anniversary of NESAWG’s It Takes a Region conference we’re talking with food systems organizers and practitioners who are at the forefront of change in our region. What have these leaders seen over the past 25 years, and where do they see us heading? What do we need to know about the opportunities and constraints imposed by our current political climate, and how can we move together, as a collection of diverse communities, into a united food movement? In this essay we're hearing from Kathy Ruhf, a NESAWG co-founder and longtime food systems advocate.

When I think back on NESAWG’s twenty five years, two themes pop out for me. One is history. Some people love history; others are impatient with it. Does it really matter what things were like or what was done “back then”? Is it important to understand how and why we got here? For me, the simple answer is yes. I marvel that a mere thirty years ago, there simply was no food movement. No local food or regional food system thinking; no “good food” projects, food hubs, organic certification, urban ag, or community food security. No programs for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. Virtually no value-added, sustainable agriculture research, land access, healthy school food or farmers market support projects.

The first NESAWG annual conference was in 1992 in a modest little retreat center in Western Massachusetts. As the NESAWG coordinator at that time, I stuck stamps on the paper brochures and quarterly newsletter we mailed to members. Seventy five (white) people attended, and we felt good about that number! Seventeen founding member organizations created Articles of Association and a steering committee. We were launched!

Back then, sustainable agriculture advocates were jeered in many academic and government circles. In 1996 Alison Clarke, a food and farming activist based in Rochester, NY, current NESAWG board member Kathy Lawrence, and I presented at the annual meeting of the Northeast Land Grant Deans and Directors. We talked about sustainable agriculture and food systems. We were just about hooted out of the hall. It was really demoralizing—not just the response to the topics, but to us as women.

Back then, there was much disdain for “sustainable agriculture.” We were, in the venerable Fred Magdoff’s words, “a flea on the elephant.” Around that time, NESAWG pioneered a “work session” for sixty land grant leaders from twelve states. Not long after, many land grant employees said they were “doing sustainable agriculture.” Originally, “sustainable agriculture” referred to on-farm practices. Only over time did it grow to include social, economic, and environmental dimensions, and to begin to address social justice, equity, diversity, and the entire food chain.  

No, we early champions did not walk to meetings barefoot in the snow. But golly, did we go to a lot of meetings!  And they were not all easy. There were tensions, discord and mistrust. Who was “in”? On “our side”? Under “our tent”? Whose tent was bigger? What did we mean by “sustainable”? How often we gnashed our teeth over that one! There was very little demographic diversity, and virtually no connection with more traditional agriculture or the rest of the food chain. NESAWG was an early pioneer in thinking “food systems.”

Way back in 1994, we held a “leadership congress” organized by current Board Chair Michael Rozyne. It brought representatives from multiple sectors, including supermarkets and community food security advocates before community food security was a recognized concept. This was groundbreaking and mind-blowing. One of the supermarket buyers said local was whatever he could get within twenty four hours, including roses from Chile. Some of us gasped, but the overall atmosphere was amazingly harmonious.

Through the following decades, the steadfast passion of food system social change advocates in the Northeast and beyond birthed a true movement. NESAWG grew along with it. In 1998 we solicited twenty “thought leaders” to write white papers on the state of the movement. In 2000, Cabot Creamery put the NESAWG logo and a “Buy Local” message on one million butter boxes. NESAWG was on the map! In 2002 a few of us thought it would be cool to “analyze the Northeast food system.” Ha! What an eye-opener! So much was not known or accessible. So little food systems thinking. Nonetheless, Northeast Farms to Food was a seminal publication which we updated twice over the next six years.

In 2005 NESAWG got a sizeable grant from the WK Kellogg Foundation for policy work. Our “Northeast Ag Works” Project was an early effort to mobilize the region around Farm Bill priorities. With collaborators, we held a Northeast policy summit in Baltimore in 2009. We wrote several papers on regionalism for food systems, along with guides and worksheets to help members assess how particular policy proposals worked for the Northeast. We led investigative projects on community supported agriculture and Northeast food value chains. This brought regional approaches to food systems policy dialogues.

And this leads me to the second theme—the people who make all this happen. This is more personal. When I think back on a quarter-century of NESAWG network accomplishments, the faces of colleagues—many of whom I consider friends—flash before me. As I approach seventy, I’m beginning to taper off my professional work. One of the hardest parts is imagining the loss of this community. People with whom I have shared hotel rooms, endless car trips, flight delays, a thousand breakout sessions and a few bottles of wine. Great meals, and really bad ones. Birthdays, births of children (several are now adults). Weddings, divorces, illnesses, and deaths. Adventures; even romance. Relationships that deepened through our shared work and devotion to our shared mission. Friendships that inspired both passionate action and honest reflection.

This work is personal. I treasure the friendships I have cultivated over three decades, and relish the new ones that blossom at every NESAWG conference. Maybe friendships are a happy by-product of mission-driven work. But, rather, I think that they are born out of common cause, respect, and struggle. It’s my love for—and commitment to—my colleagues that fuel my work.   

NESAWG remains a stable force for food and farming systems change in the Northeast and beyond, and a holder of the flame of our shared vision. The food movement has dramatically expanded its welcome, honed its powerful message, strengthened its capacity and focused its endeavors. Both NESAWG and our regional food movement are in good hands. Onward!