Tag Archive: sustainable food

In many ways farmers are at the forefront of the movement toward sustainable change. They are the industry that has seen the most change in consumer behavior in the name of environmental stewardship. Note the amazing growth the farmer’s market segment of food retail in the last years. Maybe this is because food directly affects families’ health as well as the environment, local economies, and food security? Perhaps it is because the link between action and personal or environmental benefit is tangible and immediate? Rachel surely knows more than I do on these topics (specifically how many people have NOT made these connections and changed behaviors) so I’ll stop there.

We’ll have more posts about farmers, food, sustainable agriculture, etc as this is Rachel’s passion but I wanted to tell a quick story about farmers’ going beyond compliance with USDA organic guidelines and expectations of good behavior at a conference to “go green.”

Years ago, (2006?) I attended a session with some small farmers while at a giant conference the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture hosts annually. I was invited to this conference by the owners of Northstar Cafe, which you can find discussed in my first Small Infinity story., and found it to be highly relevant and inspiring. I saw both Sandra Steingraber and John Ikerd speak at this conference- more on those too soon as both of them remain on my list of influential thinkers.

Man do I digress…

The title of the session, something vague about connecting small farms to wind power, attracted enough participants to fill the room. The speaker, on the other hand, wasn’t exactly attracting the attention of the crowd. It turns out the crowd was filled with mostly farmers who wanted the speaker to enable action- steps, contacts, cost analysis, how-to stories- while the speaker was filled with lots of information on high-level policy of wind power on small farms. The tension of the mismatch was palpable.

By the end of the session, the audience was acting like a classroom of 4th grade girls during study hall. I saw people whispering and passing notes everywhere. From my spot in the midst of the farmers, I overheard people saying things like “here talk to these people” and noticed that the people “in the know” about HOW to get wind power on small farms were cranking out as many little notes as their pocket of crumpled receipts would permit.

Lesson: Small Infinities enable each and are open to opportunity beyond expectation.

Sometimes you overhear small infinity stories at the most unlikely times… and even that can change you.

I was driving out of a parking garage later in the evening last week and clearly it was busy enough to warrant two cashier booths but not slow enough to stop the cashiers from keeping their windows open and chatting across the lane that separated them. I was sad to break up the talking and laughing as I approached.

I am hopelessly curious and relish opportunities to laugh with strangers so I asked what they were discussing, in hopes they’d let me join. As Parking Lot Attendant A was taking my cash and preparing his words, he pulled a copy of the book “Fast Food Nation” out of his lap. I saw the title flash, recognized the importance of the moment, and quickly rolled down the passenger window of my car to create a tunnel through my car for him to continue teaching Parking Lot Attendant B and now me. Parking Lot Attendant A was soaking up the message of the book. As I pulled away he was talking about his first meal from Whole Foods that afternoon made him feel different and healthier already.

An image of the “food cups” from the movie Wall-e flashed through my mind. I wish I could find a clip of the scene where the captain first learns that food can be so much more than processed junk in a cup. It would be perfect to share here.

I often wonder how warped my view of the world is given that the places where I spend most of my time are filled with people who read, study, and passionately live to their definition of “sustainability.” OK so I also spend a lot of time in places where people do NOT live to any definition of sustainability but that is intentional on my part. (Professional Change Agency will do that to ya.) This encounter was a refreshingly hopeful reminder that although my life may happen in a bubble of like-minded people (Erb, SNRE, etc.), it is actually just one active node in a huge network of people from all walks of life headed in the same direction.

I have a friend named Annie who I’ve known about a year now.  She is about my mom’s age, with a physical disability that occasionally confines her to a wheelchair and qualifies her to live in the subsidized senior housing high-rise in Ypsilanti, across the street from the Downtown Ypsilanti Farmers’ Market (DYFM).

DYFM started in 2006, in response to the Washtenaw County Public Health Department’s designation of the south side of Ypsilanti as a “food desert”, with minimal access to sources of fresh food.  It was intended to provide a source of vegetables for the communities living in the area, allowing alternative payments like food stamps and Project FRESH vouchers, but for Annie it has been so much more.

Annie started volunteering in 2009 in the Ypsilanti Food Co-op booth at DYFM, where they run the Bridge Card machine to allow shoppers to exchange electronic food stamp benefits for wooden tokens to spend with the vendors.  This is when I met her; she was new to the area, and just thrilled to have a way to get involved and active, especially at this market right across the street from where she lived.  She worked at the market all season, stayed involved with the Ypsilanti Food Co-op throughout the winter, and in March, she launched “The Farmers Marketeers”.  She recruited a crew of several seniors, variously abled and aged, to create crafts, grow seedlings and vegetables on their apartment balconies, and (my favorite) stitch unique aprons and handbags out of repurposed thrift-store clothes.  They sell these wares at a cooperatively run booth at the market, which just started up again for the season on May 4, and they are adorable.

Someone (well, several someones) started that little market, and kept it going.  Annie started volunteering and followed her momentum from there.  Now the residents of that high-rise, who were before at high risk for isolation and poor health, have an opportunity to be physically and socially active, get out into the community, and earn a small amount of supplemental income.  And I got a cool apron.

Cabiria * Rachel * EPIMA

I’m going to start this with a short story.  I used to be a neuroscientist (that part is a long story), and I was pretty unhappy.  For my 23rd birthday, my friend Cabiria sent me a book by Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe, called Hope’s Edge: the Next Diet for a Small Planet.  Cabiria knew I liked to cook, and the book had recipes and interesting stories.  But I read that book and was so moved by the narratives of health and environmental benefit and justice that I knew I had found a calling.  I applied to grad school to study environmental education and public health, and I am now well on my way to a career in sustainable food systems… because of a birthday gift, mailed to me with love over hundreds of miles.  Thanks Cabi.

Deliciously Life Changing Veggie BurgerOn Earth Day 2004 my friend Gabe invited me to go get an “amazing” veggie burger for free at a new restaurant on High Street in Columbus Ohio’s “Short North” Arts district called Northstar Cafe. At that point I wasn’t too keen on veggie burgers and I thought Gabe shared the sentiment, but given the favorable price and intriguing recommendation- I tagged along anyway.

The veggie burger was amazing- filling, wonderful texture and taste- but the restaurant itself was astounding. Northstar was my first example of a universally appealing experiment in the collision of unlikely bedfellows : business with an inextricably linked environmental mission. Years before this burger…I broke up a year of studying accounting and international business, to spend the summer canvassing with environmental organizers. Back then it felt like dating two men who are each others’ mortal enemies. (Not that I’ve lived that, but we can all picture it, right?) At any rate, I hadn’t encountered many things that really challenged my “mortal enemy” assumption of the relationship between business and environmental stewardship until Northstar.

Certainly there are thousands of restaurants like Northstar on either coast but for this midwestern girl, it was a first. Northstar was trendy, packed, delicious, and the sustainable aspects I loved most were visible primarily to those primed to see them. The primary benefit offered was delicious food.

It wasn’t until Brad, another good friend of mine, started working at the restaurant and befriending the owners that I experienced a fuller picture of what was going on at this place.  The owners made every decision carefully, honoring the complexity associated beyond, but inclusive of, the economic bottom line. They recommended the books like “Cradle to Cradle” to their employees, donated 1% of all sales to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, sourced a great deal of their ingredients locally and organically, and so on. Two more noteworthy facts: their first year they didn’t spend a thing on marketing, yet enjoyed remarkable sales for a startup AND their employee roster included a fair amount of professionals who left higher-paying jobs or recent graduates who forewent higher-paying jobs to work at the Cafe.

I remember feeling how the blind man must have felt in this scene from Amelie when I learned that the folks behind the cash register were former nurses and future professors.
Like Amelie to the blind man, my Northstar experience helped me to Really See and Feel a waterfall of world-saving energy possible in business. I was arguably waiting to see something like this after working a couple+ years with corporate and public accountants. Despite the noble work of the accounting profession, most accountants I met, including the one in the mirror, were disconnected from the value their work provided to the world. I had hope that Sarbanes Oxley, despite its imperfections, would awaken this energy-generating connection for the profession as it was a pervasive, externally-imposed reminder that what we did mattered greatly outside the accounting department. It certainly mattered to the folks at Enron and World Com who lost their retirements. Needless to say, the SOX messaging was rarely translated this way and, perhaps as a consequence, the first years of compliance were grueling for all. SOX= more things on the to do list.

Shortly after my Earth Day burger I realized that the giant change to foster sustainable enterprise was the next SOX in business. Shall we say SOX if overdosed on steroids to conjure an image more appropriate to scale. I also started to wonder “how can businesses respond to the call for sustainable enterprise differently, more effectively, more optimistically?” My hunch is/was that the stakes were too high to employ the SOX model of change: Uninspiring or unclear framing of change –> annoyed employees –> molasses speed progress. I mustered courage and left accounting to appease this new curiosity about HOW organizations change and appease stirring passion for saving the world through sustainable enterprise.

Flash forward 5 years and two degrees later and it seems my affiliation to the characters in the scene from Amelie has flip-flopped. It is my calling to be the metaphorical Amelie to the metaphorical blind man. I want help organizations to see the latent power available to forge ecological sustainability and heart-pounding, human flourishing in business by adding man’s innate connection to nature and drive for challenge, compassion, and meaning to the list of assumptions we make about behavior in management. How different will strategy, management, etc look with these assumptions?

All because an invite to eat a free veggie burger on Earth Day… beyond grateful

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