Deserts, swamps, or apartheid: the language of food organizing

Brilliant interview with Karen Washington as she breaks down the institutions and words that deflate the potential of our food work. I agree whole-heartedly with her assessment that the term food desert does not describe the actual problem that communities face. I remember when a local academic dismissed it some years back but only substituted the term food swamp because as he said, it is not a lack of food that is the issue, but a swamp of bad food choices. I thought then well maybe that’s slightly better but it still doesn’t define the issue.

In contrast, the term food apartheid is properly defiant and active. Apartheid is the system of segregation, most often based on race, and as such does describe the structural issues with food, in consumption and production, in rural, urban, and suburban places. The solution includes food sovereignty (and health to be understood as the most important type of wealth), but of course in the US, the structure of sovereignty and self-care has been entirely warped by our corporate food structure and our statist political structure.

It is hard for many, but it is vital that all people see the food apartheid that has always been present in the US for people of color and now stretches to every  community. How to see? Look down: note the rolls of fat and the chronic illnesses inside; look around: see the lack of actual food growing in your public spaces and neighbors’ yards; look to City Hall and your state capital: see the policies that discourage or criminalize the production and sale of good food by neighbors. Once made, these observations can lead to action and unity and should become the core of our messages as farmers market leaders.

From the Karen Washington Guardian interview.

The conversation around actual food value is a conversation that we don’t have in low-income neighborhoods, regardless if they’re black or white, rural or urban. But things are changing. People are talking more than ever about food. It’s such a major shift, so you’re seeing major corporations offering different options, like fast-food chains offering salads. The consumer is starting to understand the relationship between food and health. It’s also happening in low-income communities. The rise in school gardens impacts children and they shift their parents’ perspectives. In my neighborhood, every year, we have a block party and they don’t serve soda anymore. The kids are asking for water! Education is working.

I think that food activists who see the work they do as truly measurable in terms of justice or of successful resistance to the dominant system are most likely to achieve actual change and will find themselves less frustrated by small disappointments and failures in their daily work. I also think that those food activists who see their work as organizing -and who see organizing as leadership development at the grassroots level – are also more likely to find allies and to be good allies, which to me is the primary goal of creating public entities like farmers markets or non-profit organizations.

I’ll leave the last words for agricultural leader LaDonna Redmond who eloquently said in the foreword to Professor Monica White’s Freedom Farmers:Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement:

While the white movement describes my community through a deficit model, Monica’s work describes agriculture as a site of resistance…The book is a conduit of those stories and memories that restore our dignity. I hope it will forever remind us that we are people of this land.


Stackt market


Spearheaded by area locals Matt Rubinoff and Tyler Keenan, Stackt Market will transform the lot of a former smelting plant that has stood vacant since 2014 into a multipurpose public space, with the majority of the expected 130 containers devoted to pop-up retail space. The rest of the stacked volumes will be open to cultural, arts and events programming. It’s a temporary endeavor – Rubinoff and Keenan have a two-and-a-half-year lease to use the 9,290-square-metre plot of land before future plans of turning it into a park get started – but one that promises to breathe new life into a neglected area of the city.

They’re offering companies and organizations flexible lease lengths and adjustable spaces, such that “anchor tenants” who have agreed to stay for the whole two-and-a-half year period will exist alongside a constantly evolving ecosystem of pop-up shops, service providers, and brands.

Market 707 at Dundas and Bathurst Sts. is already using shipping containers to house small businesses just south of Toronto Western Hospital.


Thank you Enid Wonnacott

The news this last weekend of the passing of legendary Vermonter and NOFA-VT Executive Director Enid Wonnacott begins a tremendously sad time for her friends and family, for farmers and farm advocates (most of whom were also her friends and family) across Vermont and indeed, for many of us across the U.S.

I was lucky enough to know Enid and to expect her smiling face and warm embrace on my trips to Vermont, usually done in conjunction with the annual Direct Marketing Conference held by NOFA-VT. The first time I met Enid was at the 2012 conference, briefly saying hello to her early that morning, before letting her and the rest of the team continue with their set up. When she went up later to introduce me, I was surprised to see her as the representative as we had only a minute together at that point. In her introduction, I was to learn what everyone else in the room already knew: Enid had a genius for seeing people quickly and clearly. She spoke about me, noting what she had learned from then NOFA-VT’s Direct Marketing Coordinator Jean Hamilton already and what she had observed all morning from my activities while there. It was specific, it was wise, and it set the stage perfectly for my keynote.

In my return trips to Vermont, Enid made time in her schedule to sit with me and ask questions about work across the country and to share with me what she was focused on in Vermont. Our conversations were almost always about two things in varying degrees: farmers and NOFA. Both groups were under her care, which meant they got her motherly mien and practical planning on their behalf.

Once in her world, one stayed in her circle. I saw constant examples of that when former staff returned to NOFA-Vt’s bustling and homey office in Richmond and she gave them her full attention while delighting in their stories, or watching her sit in deep conversation with farmers at this or that meeting, or even when I was at home in New Orleans and people would seek me out telling me, “Enid told me to come find you at the market.”

In most cases, those who choose the role of executive director of a statewide non-profit do so because they can manage all of the multiple reins needed: funding, staffing, program development, governance, partnerships, mission, strategy.  It always seemed to me that Enid had a light but sure hand at NOFA; in other words, one that left no doubt that she was leading. And one that left no doubt that the guidance of her team and their support of farmers were the most important things among all of those. That never-ending interest for people and her eagerness to make it all joyous means that NOFA-VT and her larger Vermont group is one of the most collaborative, intuitive and savvy set of individuals that I have the privilege of working with directly. It will be so very hard for them to go on without her, but I know she prepared them as well  as she could and they will have their thousands of interactions and bits of wisdom to draw from when needed. My pal Erin has stepped up to lead this team for now and I know Enid left this world knowing we would all be there helping her in this difficult time. And I know that Erin will meet the challenge.


The last time I saw Enid, she came out to a dinner while I was in town (as she almost always did when able), talking to me at length about her family, about her own plans, about our shared friends and colleagues, and the hope embedded in our work. She believed in the future as anyone would who cared as much about land and people as she did, and I always left her presence with more determination and appreciation for both, and for Vermont.

Thank you, Enid. Thank you for all that I have gained because of you. I won’t forget your example.

screen shot 2019-01-19 at 6.00.30 pm

A few pieces by this brilliant woman:

and this is something I wrote about the affirmation at the top of this post that hangs on my wall.




Farmers Markets Need Support to Collect and Use Data

For the past year and a half, I have been attempting to wrangle the last seven years of FMC’s technical assistance around market evaluation (and the last 18 for me) into some sort of timeline and “lessons learned” to present to researchers and partners interested in farmers markets and data.

The process of writing a peer-reviewed paper was new to me and my fellow authors and the entire FMC team soldiered on with me as best they could, cheering me on and adding much needed perspective and edits at different points of the process. After a year and a half of drafting and reviewing, we released the article linked below through the skill of the JAFSCD team, but also because of the support of the USDA/AMS team. I think it should be said as often as possible that the AMS team is firmly dedicated to assisting farmers markets with whatever trends that arise, and in developing programs at USDA that reflect the current conditions of markets in order to increase their ability to support family farmers and harvesters. The evaluation work is just one example of how they have watched developments and offered support where they thought applicable.
The reason for FMC to put effort into this type of academic article is to make sure that researchers see the opportunity to have market operators be part of the process around what data is collected via markets and market vendors, and how it is used. It certainly doesn’t mean that we think that all of the work to collect and clean the data should be shouldered by the markets only or that using the data is their work alone. I hope that is clear in this paper. But we DO think that market work is increasingly focused around managers and vendors making data-driven decisions, and so the way the market team spends its time and how well it analyzes and shares data also has to evolve. That isn’t our choice; that is the result of the world taking a larger interest in regional food and farming, as well as the constant pressure from the retail food sector. Many in that latter group want to cash in on the trust and authenticity we value without holding the same accountability to producers that we have. We have to fight that, and doing it with data is the best way.

Finally, we think there is still much to know about the barriers to embedding data systems for grassroots markets; this paper only covers what we have learned since 2011 and up to the beginning of 2018. Much more is constantly being learned and will be reflected in the TA we offer markets and their partners.

Please email me with comments and questions about the paper and its findings.



FMC press release: December 18, 2018 – Collecting data at farmers markets is not a new endeavor. But until recently, the data was largely collected and used by researchers, often to understand the role farmers markets play in the broader food system. Over the last seven years, the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) – a national nonprofit dedicated to strengthening farmers markets – has partnered with research institutions and market organizations to better understand how market organizations have begun to collect and use data.

While until recently it was rare for market organizations to participate in the collection of their own market-level data, more and more markets have reached out to FMC over the last decade for data collection technical assistance. In 2011, the organization began to identify common characteristics and impacts of market programs, and realized more research into evaluation resources and tools that could be used easily by understaffed market operators was needed.

In a new article published in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development (JAFSCD), FMC outlines the industry need behind creating the Farmers Market Metrics (Metrics) program, and a timeline of the steps and partnerships that led to the creation of the tool, as well as best practices uncovered during its development.

Key recommendations include:

Create assigned roles for the market’s data collection team, and choose training materials that set expectations for seasonal staff, volunteers, and interns to maximize time and efficiency.
Prioritize staff support to allow market leaders more time to oversee data collection.
Gain vendors’ trust in the program for sharing and storing sensitive data.
Patience and support from funders and network leaders for each market’s level of capacity and comfort with data collection.
More assistance from funders and network leaders in helping markets select metrics to collect, as well as advancing data collection training for market staff.
The use of tools such as the USDA’s Local Foods Economic Toolkit, coupled with consistent support from academic partners, will encourage market leaders to delve more deeply into economic data and to feel more confident sharing results.

“FMC’s efforts to craft a suitable set of resources and a data management system for high-functioning but low-capacity market organizations has helped many stakeholders understand and share the many positive impacts their partner markets are making,” said FMC Senior Advisor and article author Darlene Wolnik. “But our analysis concludes that there is still foundational work to be done by those stakeholders to aid these organizations in collecting and using data.”

Wolnik continued, “The good news is that market-level data collection yields important information that markets can use to improve operations, share with researchers, communicate impacts to stakeholders, advocate for and promote vendors, and more.”

Resilience: Having the courage to persevere – Farm Aid

This is so great.

Willie Nelson:

“It’s called resilience – having the courage to persevere – and we heard a lot about it in Hartford this September at Farm Aid 2018. Farmers reminded us how they love tending the earth and its plants and animals, in spite of the struggles. That love and their resolve inspires me. And I hope it inspires you, too.”
— Read on

Farm Aid is one of the significant elders of our work, remaining focused on the needs of farmers, responding to their circumstances and amplifying possible policy solutions. The work they have done is so tremendous and grassroots, it sets the standard for all of our work.

This moment from 2018’s FarmAid concert was an obvious favorite among FMC staff:

Support the work of this important organization this year.