Community Food Systems in the Time of COVID-19: Interviews & a Framework for Personal Action
Do you remember the conversations you had mid-January when COVID-19 was emerging yet felt far away? How about February and March as our communities in the U.S. quickly adjusted to a new reality? What about mid-April? And here we are now as social distancing practices relax and we negotiate what managing a pandemic for the long haul might look like, wondering what may be ahead.
I remember conversations and speculations that now seem idealistic. In my own echo chamber of people interested in community health and food systems, there were passing comments like “won’t it be great if the pandemic meant that people learned to cook?” Or “maybe the pandemic will encourage people to think about gardening.” (Insert eyeroll, here. How naïve that now feels).
The early panic that cleared grocery store shelves was a foretaste of how the COVID-19 pandemic would impact our food systems. The ripple has continued with deep waves and still unknown consequences. This piece for the Community Garden Exchange could be written on a myriad of topics including how conglomerate meat processing plants were COVID hotspots and what that’s meant for farmers or why milk is being dumped and fields turned under. Perhaps our food system is problematic and more fragile than we’d like to presume.
With these topics in mind in April, I connected with three people to ask how they were responding to current food systems issues:
My first interview was with Frank Cetera, a founder of Alchemical Nursery, a group that facilitates the community garden on the same block as my parish church. They started twelve years ago as a non-profit committed to the development of sustainable, regenerative urban lifestyles and landscapes. It began when a group of friends was looking for educational and organizing opportunities focused on intentional community and permaculture. The group is now involved with a small handful of sites around my city including a food forest.
As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they decided to focus on utilizing social media platforms to use their experiences and expertise to support individuals interested in learning to garden. When we talked in April, Alchemical Nursery had received nine requests for support along those lines, and the group was prepared to provide virtual advising, connections with local resources, and even provision of materials through their annual plant sale.
In my second interview, I had the opportunity to talk with a classmate. Liz Pickard is a local farmer and activist, and asks thoughtful and constructive questions in our class together. When asked what she was observing in the context of COVID, she talked about a “Solidarity Gardens Project” she helped develop in her town of 900 people. In a community with few young people and fewer community services relative to cities, the purpose of this project is to develop places where local gardeners and farmers might connect to share resources.
In times of crisis, Liz believes that having a common space to organize is important, for reasons that include seed requests, sharing tools, or asking for expertise. As vulnerabilities in the food supply chain emerge during times of crisis, Liz believes that local farmers and gardeners are able to respond more quickly than the larger agri-food processing sector. Small farmers are able to pivot to community needs, know what can and can’t be done, and are able to adjust quickly. Liz had just written a letter to her county legislature asking for an emergency food systems task force to be created, suggesting stakeholders to invite to the table, and provided several ideas for action and planning. Suggestions from this letter included a grocery delivery service for senior citizens, an assessment of area food banks to determine if area farmers need to tailor this season’s production accordingly, and implementing a protocol for farms to ensure that essential workers have access to appropriate protective wear and healthcare.
Healing Springs Acres
My third interview was with Don Durham, the founder of Healing Springs Acres, a little farm that “grows food to give away” in rural North Carolina. He is also host of the recently launched podcast “Welcome to the Table.” His farm grows food for local food pantries, similar to the Matthew 25 farm I interviewed in February’s Community Garden Exchange edition. He thinks about issues of food and justice in a way that excludes himself from the center of the work. Don described his community with care and depth. He described the area around his farm poetically, as if I was talking to someone like Wendell Berry, so it made sense when Don said he’d studied theology. Don thought about farming for a long time (twenty years), but without access to land it took a while before he was afforded the opportunity to do so when a friend offered some space. He lives in a rural county, and he described his neighbors as elderly but from a culture and a generation that knows how to grow food themselves. Don’s produce is sent to three different soup kitchens and food pantries.
Reflecting on COVID’s impact on the food system, Don explained that he’s never had much faith for the larger agri-food system to feed local communities. Food security, he explained, is not guaranteed by larger corporate farms but evidenced when neighbors use local resources to support their local community. When I asked about the long-term vision, Don probably chuckled at my simple question and responded by suggesting that the answers are found in multiple small local responses and aggregating those solutions from the bottom up.
Months after these interviews, I am writing as the Minneapolis Common Council is moving to defund their police department and as New York State has voted to repeal 50-A, a law that shields police records, both reflecting the swell of anguish and action in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. It’s striking to note a common thread between the topics of police brutality and food systems failures in the way crises unveil the weaknesses in our social systems. These points of vulnerability may also be described as social sins (read: inequity, systemic racism, injustice). As such, this time of reckoning requires us to learn, listen, grow, and change.
I originally wanted to learn about brilliant quick fixes for our broken food system and how community gardens can advocate for better policy. The truth is that all of it – the gardening, the building of community spaces, the relationships between farmers and consumers (and other stakeholders), the establishing of local food councils, the advocacy work, and the creative process of shortening food supply chains – represents our work for the long haul. The work of repairing our broken food system, so that it serves our most vulnerable neighbors and brings healing to our soil, health, or relationships, cannot be completed in a flash of righteous anger or in retweeting a smart quip. Perhaps we can glean wisdom from the three stories above in their dedication to the work before them in their own communities.
Another thread between these topics of police brutality and broken food systems is that I am a person who benefits from structures in this country that disproportionately impact communities of color. Yes, the food system is no exception. I cannot exclude myself from the social issues linking police brutality and broken food systems. With the understanding that questions of how to heal and grow in the wake of COVID must be centered on equity with a long-term view, I’ve been organizing this complicated work into four concentric rings:
Personal work: How am I invested personally in the work of growing, preparing, and sharing food? How can I practice integrity with how I engage with my own food? Are their opportunities to reduce waste or better manage my resources (of time, space, or knowledge)?
Community work: How can I share food with my neighbor? Can I provide financial support to those doing food systems work in my community? Can I share food or other resources? Can I build more direct relationships with food producers?
Regional work: Can I become involved with work happening in my area? Is there a food policy council to either get involved with or better learn about the work that is already being done? Can I attend local lectures or conversations about local food systems? Can I write letters to my town or city council to encourage change that is equitable?
Systems work: Can I learn about important policy decisions happening on a state or national level? How can I elevate historically marginalized voices to inform system-level change? How can I help support that change?
Each of the individuals I spoke with provided beautiful examples of connecting in their local communities to build solutions with both short- and long-term vision. With these examples and these questions for myself, I’m listening and growing. My next step? Listening to “A Growing Culture’s” upcoming “Hunger for Justice Series,” a weekly live broadcast centered on how to reshape our food system post COVID. Will you join me?
Rebecca Garofano is a graduate student in Nutrition Science at Syracuse University. She is interested in the ways that communities are resilient and address agriculture and nutritional needs, particularly in the context of change. Rebecca serves as Co-Editor of Community Garden Exchange.