Friday, February 22, 2013

Rebuilding the Foodshed Presentation - 2/13/2013

As a writer for the Williams Sustainable Food and Agriculture Department, I attend events put on by the program and document them via photographs and writing. Below is an article that I wrote about a recent presentation by author and professor Philip Ackerman-Leist. 

Philip Ackerman-Leist is all about the practical. On the evening of Wednesday, February 13th, author and professor Ackerman-Leist delivered a talk on his recent book Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems. Roughly 25 attendees, an even mix of students and community members, gathered in brightly lit Griffin Hall, eager to learn about practical application of the “local” buzzword—how can we build regional food systems that are affordable, sustainable, and resilient?
         Ackerman-Leist established Green Mountain College’s farm and sustainable agriculture program, born from his vision of integrating hands-on food production and education into the curriculum. He serves as a professor of the college and the director of the Green Mountain Farm & Food Project. His recent book bears the sub-title “Community Resilience Guide,” and it is this principle that Ackerman-Leist promotes in the text. He encourages readers and listeners such as us to engage deeply in “systems thinking” and critically examine how we can apply the word “local” to a regional level.
         Extracting a single carrot from his jean pocket, Ackerman-Leist began his talk by describing the characteristics of the weathered orange vegetable. Indeed, the carrot was well worn from days of travel, yet Ackerman-Leist looked beyond the physical; he was concerned with the production, processing, and distribution processes that delivered this single vegetable to his hand. Following this introduction, Ackerman-Leist delved into the evolution of his thinking about the word “local.”
         “Does anyone know where the word foodshed came from?” he questioned the audience. “From watershed,” a voice replied, half-joking because the direct connection appeared obvious, yet the deeper meaning required further explanation. Indeed, this assumption proved correct. US EPA designates a watershed as an “area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place,” a definition that characterizes an area based on what resources are available locally. Ackerman-Leist consequently pointed out that stakeholders have traditionally been concerned with protecting the watershed of their region, but are becoming increasingly invested in conserving the foodshed via the celebration and procurement of local bounty.
         “Foodshed is new democracy, not just new economy,” Ackerman-Leist pointed out. Defining nourishment as a community empowerment tool is not a novel concept, but an important one—Ackerman-Leist took this pillar of the food movement one step further by suggesting that healthy food might be conceived as an inalienable human right, on par with water and shelter. Obtaining healthy food for all people is a community-based goal; Ackerman-Leist decried the individualism inherent in the idea of “voting with your fork.”
         After some historical background on agricultural production, processing, and distribution in the United States, Ackerman-Leist addressed the flaws in our current food system. A telling chart first displayed the obstacles that minority farm owners face: they receive lower government subsidies, farm less acreage, and obtain less sales revenue than their native counterparts. Next, a pie chart described the “Total Energy Directly and Indirectly Consumed on U.S. Farms, 2002[1],” listing a total of 1.7 quadrillion BTUs used, 29% of that allocated toward fertilizers. Noting the magnitude of this energy sink, Ackerman-Leist refuted the tendency to view the food movement through a bifocal lens—we cannot have local trump organic, as both of these features are integral to protecting our foodsheds and our planet. Food processing conditions are also a cause for serious concern. A North Carolina native, Ackerman-Leist illustrated this flaw with a close-to-home example: in Hamlet, NC on September 3rd, 1991, locked doors and a fire at a poultry processing plant led to the deaths of many workers trapped inside. A look at fuel efficiency for distribution again exemplifies the necessity of a wide-angled approach to fixing our food system. In terms of fuel efficiency, boats, trains, and semis are the most efficient distribution vehicles—and farmer’s pickups are the least efficient.
         This slide enabled a seamless transition into the next section of Ackerman-Leist’s presentation. His solution ideas embodied the importance of practical aggregation, processing, and distribution models. For example, community markets, are shared and managed by community members, represent an entity that does not return a substantial profit on sales, but allows connections between producer and consumer, an invested middleman acting as the distributor. Similarly, “food hub” distributors buy from a large crop of small farmers within a regional food system and sell to consumers; this model “scales up” sustainably. Indeed, Ackerman-Leist stressed the importance of both aggregation and improved processing techniques: in terms of U.S. food energy consumption, household refrigeration and preparation is by far the largest energy user, and 40% of food is wasted, some of this figure representing food that does not even reach the consumer. Disturbingly, 97% of this wasted food does not get “put back” so that it can be utilized as compost—anaerobic digestion of excreta and other organics is an important component of the food system, and one that could be well suited to local municipalities. Institutional purchasing of local foods is also a “wonderfully complicated” aggregation and distribution model, one that has myriad potential benefits for both the farmer and the institution. Residential Williams dining provides an appropriate context for envisioning institutional impact on our local foodshed.
         Audience members asked concluding questions, and an inquiry about how to keep momentum yielded the response, “Build like hell. As fast as we can while it’s hot,” from Ackerman-Leist. He emphasized the with our culture’s impatience, vigilance is one of the most important features associated with rebuilding our foodshed so that it is practical, sustainable, and resilient.

*This entry was created in collaboration with the Williams College Sustainable Food and Agriculture Department. 

[1] This figure is old but similar to the current one, Ackerman-Leist explained. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Clash: Storm Nemo Meets Log Lunch - 2/9

Storm Nemo prevented Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone contributing writer, from speaking at spring semester's first Log Lunch. In place of his planned talk on climate change politics in Obama's second term, lunch-goers viewed a speedily constructed slideshow on our California Agriculture adventure. Amidst our January experience, Professor Art had inquired about the prospect of our group giving a Log Lunch presentation; all slots were full yet we were on deck should there be any cancellations. Our tight-knit group relished re-living the trip through still images. I hope Jeff Goodell will speak at Log Lunch when the weather permits, for I was greatly looking forward to his presentation and know that it would make an interesting and informative post topic; this semester, I plan to document not only the delicious lunches but also the presentations of the engaging speakers. But in the meantime...
Mushrooms and wild rice formed the base of the hearty soup, and the welcoming blackboard enthusiastically proclaimed that this dish was the signature of the co-head cook's family, designed and consumed particularly for its warming properties. The cooks couldn't have picked a better day to serve this toothsome stew - as I waited eagerly in line outside the rustic building, the ominous gray skies and initial snowflakes of Storm Nemo gave me a carnal craving for something hot and hearty. The thick, delightfully textured liquid boasted umami, earthy flavors from the mushrooms and soft root vegetables. The rice and vegetable melee did not really necessitate additional starch in each mouthful, but I couldn't resist the temptation of dipping the doughy "chill-iabatta" bread into the rich broth. The salad contained crisp spinach, sliced apples, candied pecans, and fennel slivers, and it contributed a satisfying freshness to the meal. Lunch culminated with a decadent slice of chocolate cake; my gargantuan piece was dense but not cloying, nut chunks and bittersweet chocolate protecting the slab from excessive sweetness. This meal embodied winter bounty, which I am beginning to appreciate fully. This season, I am embracing the winter with both my mind and consumption; I am making an effort to eat almost entirely from my two CSAs, even if this means root vegetable overload, and get outside despite the frigid temperatures.
The view on one of my hikes
Over my four years here, I have come to recognize that outside activity is key to my happiness, and I started an initiative I call "Celeste's daily hour outside." To fulfill the goals of this program, I am taking the Williams Outing Club snowshoeing and nordic skiing classes, and I have been on multiple hikes--including the weekly "Sunrise Hike," which departs 6am every Friday morning--in breathtaking scenery around Williamstown. Already, I feel myself gaining appreciation for the still peacefulness of the snow-covered earth.
And of course, it helps when one has delicious eats to prepare after a brisk walk. I can't resist documenting some of the tasty meals I have consumed; my time outside makes me feel as if I have earned the right to appreciate the season fully. Some of the recent meals I have prepared and consumed...
Grilled cheese with bread and cheese from Cricket Creek Farm, and roasted beets from Mighty Food Farm

Salad with an eight-minute egg and cheese from Cricket Creek Farm, roasted acorn squash and carrot pieces from Might Food Farm