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Stories & Inspiration

Sharing stories and inspiration about our food system work helps us to connect with one another, find greater empathy and compassion, and provides the motivation to continue on with our work. We invite you to share your stories and inspirations with us for consideration in our feature on this page! Share your story!

Optimizing Emerging Leaders for Real Solutions in the Food System: Interview with Vanessa Garcia Polanco

Food Tank’s interview with Network Leadership Institute participant Vanessa Garcia Polanco originally appeared on Food Tank's website.

Vanessa Garcia PolancoVanessa Garcia Polanco’s passion for food and agricultural policy arose from the influences of her community in the Cibao Valley of the Dominican Republic, for whom “local food was not an option; it was the rule.”

After moving to the United States with her family six years ago, Garcia Polanco attended the University of Rhode Island to study agriculture’s impact on the environment. Concerned with the noticeable disconnect between food and its source, Garcia Polanco strives to offer a new voice in food and agricultural policy.

At the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group’s (NESAWG) recent conference “It Takes a Region,” Garcia Polanco lead a discussion with fellow emerging leaders on engaging and participating in the food system as youth. She was recently elected as Outreach Chair for the Rhode Island Food Policy Council.

Food Tank spoke with Vanessa to find out how she, and other emerging leaders, can solve deeply entrenched problems in our food system.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to study environment, natural resource economics, hunger studies, and sustainable agriculture?

Vanessa Garcia Polanco (VGP): I grew up in the agricultural cornucopia of the Dominican Republic, the Cibao Valley, where everyone worked in agriculture in one way or another. The culture of mass agricultural production, large-scale monoculture plantations, and cassava (a starchy root crop native to South America) plantations were part of my everyday life.

Six years ago, my mom, sister, and I moved to the United States. I had the opportunity to study agriculture through a different lens than that offered in the Dominican Republic including socio-economic development, international law, and the environment. Inspired by agricultural experiences growing up, I decided to pursue an undergraduate degree concentrated on natural resource economics and hunger studies at the University of Rhode Island (URI).

The Center for Hunger Free America partners with URI, offering a hunger studies minor and allowing me to approach the study of hunger academically. By taking classes focused on poverty and policy, I learned that the study of hunger is changing disciplines, transitioning from a public health approach to a political or economic approach. At URI, I gained expertise in both environmental and hunger-related issues, studying the effects of the environment on hunger and vice versa.

FT: How did your participation at NESAWG’s It Takes A Region Conference inform your perception of the role of diversity in the work of emerging leaders in the food system?

VGP: The role of diversity in the work of emerging food system leaders is extremely important, and NESAWG opened my eyes to the lack of it. Fellow conference attendees and I wrote a document outlining suggestions to help NESAWG embrace diversity in the lives of emerging leaders, which was recently published as an article on NESAWG’s blog. Since receiving our feedback, NESAWG has invited more young leaders to it is annual conference committee planning and it is actively engaging with them to create a space were regional emerging leaders can have a voice.

FT: According to your experiences at NESAWG, what is the most pressing issue that can be solved by humanizing the food system?

VGP: The efforts to humanize the food system must be led by grassroots communities as community members can more effectively define and implement long-term solutions to persistent issues faced by their individual community. Sometimes, powerful groups within the food system can dominate a community rather than empower them. In order to truly humanize the food system, communities must be empowered to solve issues from within.

FT: What role do emerging leaders have in changing the current U.S. culture that disconnects food from its source?

VGP: I maintain that emerging leaders need to be careful of idealizing or romanticizing food systems in a way that prioritizes a small-scale, farmers’ market approach on the path to change. We need to realize that such approaches may not solve global issues. Emerging leaders should learn about a wide variety of food system issues including policy, food access, waste management, and cultural relativism.

FT: In one sentence, what should emerging leaders do to ensure that their inclusion in agricultural discourse becomes a norm (and not an exception)?

VGP: It is your right and responsibility; you are entitled to be at the table.

FT: What have the most helpful mentors in your life done to encourage your leadership in agriculture policy? What lessons should other mentors take from them?

VGP: My greatest mentors give me endless feedback. I have strong relationships with my mentors who support my greatest endeavors and teach me to use my strengths and combat my weaknesses to achieve my goals. A successful mentor-mentee relationship depends on transparent communication. Other mentors should learn to simply ask the mentee what they need to advance towards their goals.

FT: How are you planning to use your agricultural experience in the near future?

VGP: I’m planning to focus on open-governance in my new position as Outreach Chair with the Rhode Island Food Policy Council. I want to increase transparency and engagement between the community and our council as, currently, only council members attend our meetings. Increasing community participation at council meetings and events is important because it will allow the community to see who is representing them, and how they plan to achieve change. I believe this is the best way to cultivate a grassroots approach to food governance and food sovereignty.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

From Organic Farmer to Maine Congresswoman: An Interview with Chellie Pingree

This interview by the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation originally appeared in their Healthy Food Fund News.

Congresswoman Chellie PingreeCongresswoman Chellie Pingree is a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives, representing Maine’s 1st congressional district since 2009. In the current Congress, she sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, serving on the Interior and Agriculture subcommittees.

Tell us your story.

I moved to Maine from Minnesota when I was a teenager in 1971. I was very interested in the back-to-the-land movement and had a copy of Helen and Scott Nearing’s “Living the Good Life” under my arm. I ended up living on an island off the Maine coast, North Haven, and it’s where I’ve called home ever since. 

I went to College of the Atlantic and studied organic farming with Eliot Coleman. I also started to volunteer and work at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, helping to create their first-ever farmer apprenticeship program.

After college, I had three kids and started an organic farm at a time when it definitely wasn’t in the mainstream.  We sold vegetables, eggs, milk, and raised some sheep. I started selling a little bit of yarn from the sheep at my farm stand, then some knitted items from other women on the island. It ended up becoming a knitting design company that employed 10 people. 

After chairing the island school board, I got some encouragement to run for our State Senate seat (in a district where Democrats were the minority), and won in 1992. I served eight years in the Maine Legislature, with four years as Senate Majority Leader.  I’m very proud of that, though was even prouder when my daughter, Hannah, went on to become Speaker of the House a few years later.

After my time in the Legislature, I went on to run the national organization Common Cause, a non-partisan citizens activist group. 

I’ve represented Maine’s 1st District in Congress since I was elected in 2008. I served on the Agriculture Committee during the last reauthorization of the Farm Bill and now serve on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. Some of my proudest accomplishments in Congress have been passing reforms to support diversified farms and regional food systems and increase access to healthy, nutritious food for all Americans.

My love for farming hasn’t ended, though. Today, I own the Turner Farm as well as an inn and restaurant, Nebo Lodge, on North Haven.

There is a local food revival movement going on in New England, with a growing number of young farmers and families looking for fresh local food.  What makes Maine stand out?

I’m very proud of all the gains our agricultural economy has made in recent years because of the local food movement. Maine is bucking trends when it comes to the increasing number of acres in cultivation and decreasing age of our farmers. 

But there have been gains off the farm as well—it’s really evolving into a strengthened food system in our state. Restaurants are getting national attention for their innovative use of local ingredients. Institutions and retailers are buying directly from farmers on a much larger scale. Our state’s infrastructure to process and distribute food is growing. Also, our craft brewing industry is booming: there are over 90 breweries operating now in Maine with $150 million in sales—showing that people are interested in eating and drinking locally!

But we still have a lot of work to do: 60% of Maine farmers are over the age of 55, and over 400,000 acres of Maine farmland will be in transition. We also have processing and distribution needs as a food region, but I’m happy to be advocating for these issues and helping to find solutions in Washington.

Based on President Trump’s proposed budget, what do you see happening on the federal level around hunger and nutrition, and what are the possible implications for Maine and New England?

I’m very concerned with President Trump’s proposed 29 percent cut for USDA. I think those cuts could have some devastating impacts for rural communities, and they would eliminate some of the most effective programs for helping Maine farmers strengthen their business, like Value Added Producer Grants and the Renewable Energy for America Program.  We’ve come so far in Maine and across the country with programs like the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program and the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program—a program that helps support Maine Harvest Bucks here in Maine and incentivize local purchasing of fruits and vegetables—I’d hate to see us go backwards.

Since I’m on the House Appropriations Committee, I’m glad to be in a position where I can fight against these proposals. And since hunger and nutrition programs are so crucial to my state—1 in 4 Maine children are food insecure—defending those programs will be one of my highest priorities. 

Who Fishes Matters: The Impacts of Industrial Fishing on Women's Lives

This story originally appeared in WhyHunger's publication Through Her Eyes: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty for International Women’s Day 2017.

We know that women are responsible for 60-80% of food production in the Global South and represent 50% of food chain workers in the U.S. Yet, women and girls are disproportionally affected by hunger.  This publication honors and amplifies the voices of women around the world who are fighting for food sovereignty and creating just, sustainable communities that benefit all. In Through Her Eyes, women from Florida to New Jersey and Puerto Rico to Mozambique share their opinions, stories and experiences on topics including agrochemicals, fishing practices, food stamps, GMOs, farmworkers and more.

Download the full publication here: Through Her Eyes: The Struggle for Food Soveriegnty

Shannon Eldredge and Niaz Dorry, Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), USA

Shannon EldredgeShannon Eldredge is the President of Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA), a fishermen-led organization in New England dedicated to improving the lives of small and medium sized fishing communities. She also serves on the board of Women of Fishing Families in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Shannon continues her family’s 50+ year tradition of fishing and holds a Master’s degree in Early American History with a focus on Women in Maritime Communities.

Niaz Dorry

Niaz Dorry is the Coordinating Director at NAMA and has worked on issues related to fisheries and fishing communities since the 1990s when she served as a Greenpeace Fisheries & Oceans Campaigner. Niaz was named a “Hero of the Planet” by Time Magazine and has been cited in numerous publications. She currently resides in Gloucester, Massachusetts where she works with a variety of organizations in addition to NAMA, including the National Family Farm Coalition. 

Shannon: My mom was a fisherman alongside my dad, and on her own as well. So she kind of set the stage, and set the bar, for me. I was following in her footsteps. She started fishing with my father, which was very common back in the 70’s. Wives would jump on boats with the crew or help shuck scallops or do a lot of shoreside support work for their husbands’ businesses. And throughout our history in the Northeast, it was never unusual for women to be out there. Across the Northeast Coast of the United States, Native American women — long before settlers arrived — were collecting and harvesting shellfish along the shore while their husbands were hunting.

Niaz: The job of selling, cleaning, preparing the fish — doing everything post-catch — has been done by women in many countries and in the U.S. They're the ones who are often wheeling and dealing the catch of the small-scale sector. And in the marketplace they're marginalized because the industrial sector is what determines the lowest price. But of course we all know that a low price always comes at a pretty high cost. 

Shannon: In our area of New England, the shift towards consolidation of the fishing industry into fewer boats on the ocean has been underscored by industrial fishing efforts. What that ends up looking like is these big, capital-heavy industrial scale fishing fleets on the ocean essentially raping it, and squeezing the small and medium scale fishermen out of business. In my role doing support work, I hear these stories, especially from wives because they’re coming to us in need of help applying for health insurance or they need financial aid. They come in telling their stories, all based on a foundation of stress. Sometimes, the fishery can’t afford crew because their bottom line is being jeopardized so they’ll have their wife come on board, which stresses the family out and might put stress on the relationship. There’s tension in the household because of the uncertain income. You never know what you’re going to make in a given year. There’s no consistency because the price is unstable. We’ve had families come to us who are on the verge of divorce. There have been suicide attempts, substance abuse, alcoholism, depression and other mental health issues that are just plaguing these fishing communities. And the wives are the ones trying to pick up the pieces in their households. This paints a picture of how the globalized, industrial food system — by just having so much control over the price and so much control over how they resource and manage — causes strain on women and families in fishing communities. 

Niaz: Most of the women that I know who fish — with a few exceptions — are women who are fishing in a non-industrial fashion, fishing on a small-scale, using a diversified approach to their fishing operation, and yet the laws aren’t written to protect them. So for us it's really important to be able to translate all of this into the basic message of “If you care about the fish, then who fishes matters.” Other organizations that are pushing for the neoliberal agenda, which has largely taken over the fishing industry, promote the message that, “A dead fish is a dead fish; it doesn't matter who caught it.” 

Shannon: A lot of NGOs and big environmental groups are supporting the concept of consolidation and privatization of the resources. They believe it will make it easier to manage marine conservation if there are fewer companies, but that’s not what happens.

Niaz: We've been able to show that there is an ecological impact of privatization, and an ecological impact of industrialization. If you want to save the ocean, then you need to pay attention to who's catching the fish. The idea that ownership equals stewardship doesn't wash. We have to come up with a different model.

Shannon: As humans we’re part of an ecosystem. The current system of consolidated management doesn’t recognize that. Marine conservation is a top down approach. Excluding the fishermen from decision-making means there’s a negative impact on the community. Women play a really integral role in [managing the impact on the family and community] in New England specifically. There are all these meetings with policymakers, scientists, environmental groups, who are all at the table but what’s absent are the fishermen. Women have been playing a role speaking on behalf of their families who are out to sea and can’t make these meetings. But they’re often not taken seriously. And the [male] fishermen — even if they are at the table — they’re not taken seriously either. “Oh, they’re fishermen, what do they know?” or, ”It’s the fisherman’s wife, what does she know?” These policies are made without any consideration given to our voice. But who fishes does matter. We matter in the ecosystem. We matter in the food system. We matter at the policy table. But we’re not included.

Niaz: As we see our movement grow, we see more and more women that are leading these various efforts. On the policy front we see people like Shannon and others stepping up and adding their voice as people who actually fish and happen to be women. Raising the profile of women in the fishing industry or fishing communities would be a good way to start, and adding value to what they're dealing with and allowing them to bring forward issues that we can organize around.

Shannon: There are traditional roles between men and women in small-scale fishing communities, and as the global food system expands, those roles are being compromised. In Maine a half century ago, the coast was dotted with community processing plants. Every single coastal community had a processing plant, like a cannery for sardines and lobster. Those factories, those processing plants, those canneries were populated with female workers. Over the last 50 years, the herring market was consolidated into a very few fishing businesses. During that time, canneries have slowly shut down, displacing a source of jobs and incomes for coastal community families and especially women. So, what’s happening — either because of the loss of jobs in the fishing industry or the inability of the small fishermen to compete price-wise, we are also losing the opportunity to feed ourselves and our own communities. In any community where food is produced, you should be able to feed your community first. For instance, we fish from the middle of April and go as late as September. We could feed our entire community in Cape Cod every single day and very inexpensively. If you wanted to buy our fish whole, it’s $1 or $2 a pound. Fish on the market right now, like cod imported from Iceland is $17.99 to $21.99 a pound. You can’t feed a family of four at those prices.

Healthy Community Leader Awardee Raheem Baraka

Raheem Baraka, 2016 Healthy Community Leader Awardee and BACH quoteRaheem Baraka is the founder and Executive Director of Baraka Community Wellness (BCW), an organization committed to reducing health disparities and healthcare costs for vulnerable communities. BCW provides wellness solutions for at-risk individuals and communities that engage, educate, and empower through developing and implementing programs that address the social and behavioral determinants of poor health outcomes with a focus on lifestyle and behavior, food access and education, and environmental contributors.

Raheem is a native Bostonian who has a deep passion for community health and helping to create solutions to solve disparities within communities of color and those that have been disenfranchised. He is one of 18 leaders participating in Food Solutions New England’s Network Leadership Institute and he has also been recognized for his work and dedication to community health and prevention initiatives by through multiple awards, including most recently the 2016 Boston Alliance for Community Health’s Community Leadership Award.

Q: Why do you do what you do?

A: I truly have a distain for disparity and inequity. Injustice and systemic challenges related to race and class are driving many problems in health care today. Work on upstream solutions that impact communities towards positive outcomes downstream is the smart, moral, and right thing to do.

Q: What are your most urgent concerns?

A: The new presidential administration! Will the Affordable Care Act stay intact? What will the future landscape of healthcare delivery and the models look like if there is a shift in access and support for several elements that are much needed within most communities of color? We have many initiatives underway under our Healthy Families Healthy Communities program that range from enhanced food access delivery to fitness and health coaching and all the way to a deeply comprehensive cooking education program in partnership with Brigham & Women’s Hospital. Our aim is to continually provide programs that are equitable, highly accessible, authentic, participant-centered, and outcome driven. 

Q: How can the Food Solutions New England network help you overcome those concerns?

A: We are much more powerful together. To be associated and aligned with organizations that have the forward thinking vision of creating a new narrative around what local food systems can be, while addressing local and urban economic sustainability, is of extreme value to me. Our organizational approach of looking at these overall issues of food sovereignty through a healthcare lens coupled with the "50 by 60" Vision inclusive of racial equity​ and food justice looks to surely help overcome the issues of preventable chronic diseases and the compounded challenges that affect the communities we deeply care about.

Q: What has been your experience with the Network Leadership Institute? 

A: Incredibly exciting. I love the energy, the camaraderie, the varied viewpoints, the creativity, the Backbone Team. I am very focused on logic, deliverables, and outcomes; I’m eager to put systems in place and make them operational – “go go go.” I’d love to see “50 by 60” come to fruition and even 50 by 40 would be great. There are a lot of moving parts – it’s a large territory with many stakeholders and we’re up against system that is happy with the status quo, hence there are challenges. But I am optimistic that the common good of this work can collectively disrupt all levels of the system from policy down to growers and urban markets.

Innovation Leads the Way to Food Access

Debbie talks to community about pop upDebbie Sims attended her first New England Food Summit This past June when the 6th annual Summit was held in Bridgeport, CT.  Debbie, and a group delegates known as “Trailblazers,” were invited through Food Solutions New England’s Ambassador Team. 

Debbie has been working for many years to bring a full service grocery store into her neighborhood in the East End of Bridgeport, which is considerd a food desert.  While she never gave up on the idea, she was discouraged until she attended the Food Summit.  In Marilyn Moore’s conversation with Debbie, she shared that the Summit inspired her, gave her hope and access to resources to build an equitable food system.  She had no idea that so many people in the New England states were working on food justice and she was excited by the collaborative work being done to address health equity.

Armed with support from her Summit contacts, Debbie moved forward on the project to bring healthy food options to her neighborhood.  Her work resulted in the East End NRZ’s Pop-Up Market & Café that is planning to improve access to fresh fruits and vegetables as well as providing job training for youth and community engagement; it is scheduled to open early in 2017 in space donated by Bridgeport Neighborhood Trust. Through collaboration with Greater Bridgeport O.I.C. and others the project received $10,000 seed money and were selected to participate in the HealthyCommunity50 Challenge (a partnership between the Aetna Foundation, the American Public Health Association, and the National Association of Counties) which could bring up to $500k to the project. The Food Solutions New England network provided Debbie with the seeds of determination and fortitude needed to sustain the efforts that are necessary to create healthy communities.

Marilyn Moore is a first term State Senator who represents the 22nd District in Connecticut and founder and CEO of the Witness Project of CT.  She began her journey with Food Solutions New England (FSNE) after learning about FSNE when she joined the CT Food System Alliance. She is the FSNE Connecticut Ambassador and was proud to bring the Summit to her hometown in Bridgeport.