At the end of this second year of the COVID era, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the thousands of market leaders, tens of thousands of producers, and the hundreds of thousands of our neighbors who have continued to prioritize regional food in their lives even during this horrific pandemic.
I think we had hoped that we had passed the biggest test of the COVID crisis, but it is possible that we may have a bigger one: to find the fortitude to safely withstand the succession of its outbreaks over the next few months and possibly even years while still attempting to grow the number and diversity of those able to purchase healthy food for their families. And to do that even as other shocks (climate chaos, the pitched battle over white supremacy, crumbling infrastructure) hit our communities at the same time.
People often call this being resilient.
Resilience is the ability to adapt to difficult situations. That seems straightforward, but many communities have pointed out that very adaptation can become the only action or the status quo, allowing government to rely on that resiliency rather than attempting to solve the underlying issues. Depending on the crisis or series of crises, it can be depleted and once gone, can mean catastrophe for a community by allowing outside actors to become the only arbiters of what happens during recovery.
-from the site Edge Effects:
Resiliency-based planning, however, has been opposed by grassroots organizations and activists. In 2015 in response to the City of New Orleans’s resilience strategy, posters started appearing throughout New Orleans quoting Tracie Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute. “Stop calling me resilient,” the posters read, “Because every time you say, ‘Oh, they’re resilient,’ that means you can do something else to me. I am not resilient.” As (it) makes clear, instead of simply addressing the cause of environmental degradation such as land loss, Louisiana has apparently accepted the inevitability of this degradation–and is learning how to cope.
We should acknowledge and credit resiliency but insist on creating more participatory and dynamic solutions, focusing funding and efforts to those that are contextual to that place and its scope.
In terms of being contextual to that place, writer Jane Jacobs suggested that one of municipalities’ main activities be (I’m paraphrasing her here) actively replacing imported goods and ideas with regional goods and home-grown creativity whenever possible. To do what Jacobs suggested requires participatory structures and illustrative pilots for government to draw from. That ability to test multiple solutions at the community level would be one strategy that food system leaders can use in outlining as to why our work is so important to municipalities’ plans.
And whenever we talk about scale in food systems, the discussion often settles into a set of camps including (a) those who think the goal is to scale up food production to meet industrial food’s demands and (b) those who firmly believe that food is itself an antidote to scaling up, and (c/d) those who want to keep industrial food functioning and participating in local food production even as they work on alternatives and so on. The development of multiple systems may be best explained in the 2 Loops Theory of the Berkana Institute which I have written about previously that describes those roles to be played.
Also, whenever scale comes up, I think of this from Wendell Berry:
It is a formidable paradox that in order to achieve the sort of limitlessness we have begun to call sustainability, whether in human life or the other life of the ecosphere, strict limits must be observed. Enduring structures of household and family life, or the life of the community or the life of the country, cannot be formed except within limits. We must not outdistance local knowledge and affection, or the capacities of local persons to pay attention to details, to the “minute particulars” only by which, William Blake thought, we can do good to one another.
Within limits, we can think of rightness of scale. When the scale is right, we can imagine completeness of form.”
In other words, scale itself needn’t be the enemy; rightness of scale allows us to still pay attention to details, to measure how we do good to one another.
How do we find that rightness of scale?
Writer Ihnji Jon outlined a scale of political action that can serve either ever-expanding (globalized) or ever-narrowing (localized) as long as they are:
1) “subject to territorial conditions”,
2)”posses a degree of intensity that allows it to be influential across different systems”,
3) “are large enough to retain complexity that allows them to have interaction effects”
So as we think about farmers markets and community food systems, the right scale would keep the food system leaders able to pressure government to deal with the underlying issues, would encourage funding for localized active, inclusive democratic networks, would support communities to rebuild as slowly or quickly as they need and use local leadership in doing so, and most importantly would democratize all of the resources needed to create the new adapted normal. That would mean resiliency would be properly supported by functioning systems and would measure its spread as an opportunity to make real changes in that place, rather than celebrating it as a solution.
That could mean radically changing the emergency food system to reduce the bureaucracy of getting support when needed and increasing actual mutual aid, it could mean working to become the true center of inclusive civic spaces, it could mean engaging with the educational system to link regional food to childhood health, it could mean that regional climate initiatives become focused on food production and in championing the stewardship of local people…
All of that is possible, even if it is not yet probable. I hope to begin to outline examples of systemic thinking and scaled planning among farmers markets and their regional food system efforts on this site in 2022. Please share those you know about in the comments.
and lastly, I hope each of you takes some time the rest of this year to replenish your own reserves. Please do consider how you can engage with your community in ways that reduce the need for the reservoir of your resiliency to be emptied in each crisis and that increase your joy in the lovely way each of you does good to others in farmers market spaces.