Every direct marketing farmer and outlet has to be prepared for the next years of work, no matter what political affiliation one has. The reality is that many of the food and farming programs that we have worked to expand over the last few years may disappear, or at least shrink in size or in reach. As leaders, you should be cognizant of 3 levels of activism: advocacy, mobilization and organizing. Knowing the difference between those is often the key to avoiding burnout and for engaging people successfully: actively educating others about ideas and needs around your market and its producers (advocacy), encouraging others to be active about those ideas and needs (mobilization), teaching others to lead, defining tactics and building campaign strategies to push those ideas forward or to address a looming legislative crisis(organizing). There are wonderful resources like this one from NYFC to get up to speed on the skills and tactics necessary for different types of work. It is also vital that this work is visible at the local, state and at the regional and/or national level.
This is only the beginning of the conversation. Be prepared to hear more from me and from others about the need for our market leaders to engage on many issues outside of market day. Remember too that markets are already “ahead” of many other organizers in that our work is all about being bridge-builders and working with people with a wide range of goals and perspectives. Let’s use our place in the public arena to connect more people and to build support for food sovereignty and active citizenship. And remind each other to not to allow “naive cynicism” to cloud our future or to limit the possibilities for action.
Post-2016 election, this seems a good moment for U.S. food-and-farm activists to compare how federal resources are used on a regional (or state) level, especially whether these resources are
— truly accessible to anyone and everyone
— truly responsive to food-and-farm activists and practitioners.
In this email, I am focusing on the seven regional offices of USDA’s Food & Nutrition Service (FNS), which is the primary federal division that focuses on food access — the food side of the food-and-farm dyad.
1. USDA FNS REGIONAL OFFICEsHere is a list of the seven USDA FNA Regional Offices:
Mid-Atlantic (Robbinsville, NJ), Midwest (Chicago, IL), Mountain Plains (Denver, CO), Northeast (Boston, MA), Southeast (Atlanta, GA), Southwest (Dallas, TX), Western (San Francisco, CA)See https://www.fns.usda.gov/fns-regional-offices for a list of the states served by each.
2. QUESTIONS to spark reflection and sharing
What do USDA FNS Regional offices do for food-and-farm activists?
How do activists in each region engage with the regional offices?
What can we learn from each other, region to region?
In 2017, what do we want to maintain in our regional offices?
In 2017, what do we want to put in place in our regional offices?
3. MIDWEST OFFICE EXAMPLE: GoodGreens (OH, IN, MI, IL, WI, MN)
To kickstart the conversation, here is a description of GoodGreens, a monthly networking event (plus monthly newsletters), hosted by the Midwest Office of USDA FNS. I have written about GoodGreens before, but have never asked about other regional offices. In my opinion, GoodGreens is a win-win model of government staff engaging with residents.
Official description: GoodGreens – Supporting local food systems in the Midwest RegionGoodGreens is a collaboration facilitated by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service Midwest Region to share resources and best practices that support sustainable local foods production and increase consumption of healthy, locally grown foods. GoodGreens meetings are held monthly in person at the USDA Midwest Regional Office in downtown Chicago and via conference call.
— Monthly networking meetings open to anyone (every month except December)
— Monthly newsletters (usually 2 per month)
— Occasional special notices (new USDA grant cycle, events)
Public Affairs Office (Alan Shannon, Public Affairs Director)
USDA FNS Midwest Office
PRACTICAL BENEFITS TO REGIONAL ACTIVISTS
— Regular and easy-to-ready information (including meeting agendas and minutes)
— Meet or learn about other activists (people, organizations, businesses, projects)
— Connect niche areas (farm-to-school, urban agriculture, food hubs, etc.)
— Connect geographically (find potential partners in same state, county, municipality, etc.)
— Share details of your work (presentation at meetings, announcement through newsletter, etc.)
— Access to information about current resources (jobs, grants, events, etc.)
— Food justice activists learn about farm justice
— Farm justice activists learn about food justice
— Mutual learning among rural, urban, suburban communities
— Meetings are well organized but informal, held in a circle (conference call capability for people who can’t come to the office)
— Easy coalition building – no one is excluded
PRACTICAL BENEFITS TO USDA FNS REGIONAL OFFICE
— Easy way for regional office to learn about new food-and-farm initiatives
— Creates database and regional and state-by-state snapshot of food-and-farm issues
— Professional development for government staff: observe and learn the interconnection of everything and everyone in the food system
— Non-partisan (office is a facilitator, not a promoter of any agenda)
— Free to activists
— Little additional cost (if any) to USDA FNS regional office
GoodGreens began in 2007 as a collaboration between the USDA FNS Regional Office and a Chicago Congressman (Bobby Rush, 1st Cong. District – IL). I believe that Cong. Rush was getting a lot of requests from constituents about food-and-farm issues. Like most urban people in the U.S. (who are trained to be ignorant of the food-and-farm system), no one really knew what to do. So a senior staff member in Cong. Rush’s office (Anton Seals) suggested monthly networking meetings. These meetings were originally held in Cong. Rush’s office. After a couple of years, they were moved permanently to the USDA FNS Midwest Regional Office in downtown Chicago.
REPLICATION IN OTHER REGIONAL OFFICES?
I think that this model is easily replicable in other regional offices — and would even be a good model for civic engagement in most (if not all) areas of government. Getting a local Congressional representative on board might be one of the best ways to start the conversation.
Key to replicating this model is having a Public Affairs Director who is really interested in people and mutual sharing, in addition to being concerned about food access. In my opinion, we would not have GoodGreens without Alan Shannon, who set the tone for GoodGreens from the very beginning. (I sure hope we can keep him, but I’d be willing to share if he can help other government offices learn how easy it is to engage with the people they’re supposed to serve.)
SAMPLE NEWSLETTER: Jan. 26, 2017 meeting
Here is a link to the most recent GoodGreens newsletter (now on Constant Contact):
— Agenda for Jan. 26, 2017 meeting
— News, Resources, Grants, and More….
— Sign-up to receive future newsletters
4. OTHER USDA FNS REGIONAL OFFICES?
I’d be interested to hear about what’s going on in the other six USDA FNS Regional Offices. Maybe activists in the Midwest Region would want to borrow from the other offices. I’m pretty sure that others on COMFOOD, FNS, and NAFSN would be interested, too. — Debbie