(Tompkins Weekly, 10-12-22, by Meghan Witherow)
On a rainy Tuesday evening, the large pavilion at Stewart Park was packed with more than 100 community members eager to connect about where our food system is heading.
Attendees from local businesses, organizations, institutions and the broader community enjoyed a nearly zero-waste meal by Asempe Kitchen, with dishware by The Dish Truck. They heard from an array of local leaders about their work in the food system, including the newly published Food System Plan, and the community’s role in what comes next.
A systems lens
Katie Hallas of Tompkins Food Future and Tompkins County legislators Randy Brown and Anne Koreman framed the evening with an overview of the Food System Plan. The plan outlines three directions, with nine goals and 47 recommendations that individuals and organizations can engage with to build a more resilient, equitable and healthy food system.
Participants were encouraged to consider their role in supporting the plan. What parts of this plan align with your work and life? What can you offer, be it expertise, volunteers or even staff time to collaborate on food system actions?
Tompkins County is accepting applications for over $6 million in grant funds for community recovery until Oct. 31, 2022, and applicants are encouraged to use the Food System Plan to inform potential projects. Visit tompkinscountyny.gov/communityrecoveryfund for more information.
Food production and agriculture
Leaders from food production and agriculture detailed ways they plan to implement recommendations to advance food system goals. Christa Nuñez and Sonja Taylor represented Khuba International’s Quarter Acre for the People project, which focuses on farm education, diversifying land stewardship and supporting Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) who have been historically denied land.
Erica Frenay of Shelterbelt Farm and Cornell Small Farms highlighted goal 1.3 in the plan (climate resilience for farms), remarking on how Shelterbelt has been reclaiming their Brooktondale farm over the past 10 years. Frenay has seen firsthand how farms must adapt to our changing world.
Jenna DeRario from CCE-Tompkins described how Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) can incentivize and reward environmental measures taken by farms. The Finger Lakes PES work team is piloting this system locally with six BIPOC-led farms.
Katie Church discussed the Youth Farm Project, a family education farm that instills principles of food sovereignty. Its participants reported feeling “grounded, proud and capable of sharing nourishment with other people.” The Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming then took the stage with Juliana Quaresma outlining the way their Incubator Farm and Farm Training Program passed on skills to the next generation of food producers.
Food access and security
Organizations that focus on food security have a large stake in our food future. The Childhood Nutrition Collaborative (CNC), coordinated by Grace Parker Zielinski, is composed of community partners who began a needs assessment roughly two years ago.
Coordinating health care, social services and wellbeing was identified by both CNC and Tompkins Food Future as a means to make good health easier to attain for those who need it most. For example, Zielinski points out that SNAP (one of our largest protectors against hunger and food insecurity) could reach more people if they reach patients in doctors offices: “Half the battle is knowing what’s out there.”
The Food Bank of the Southern Tier (FBST) President Natasha Thompson asserted a commitment to goal 4 (halving food insecurity rates) by making it easier for anyone to get food.
FBST can reach a wider audience by connecting with schools, as schools are the center of many communities. Additionally, resources raised by FBST during the pandemic will be invested into food service, innovative outreach and infrastructure like fridges and freezers that help the community adjust to the post-COVID-19 environment.
The Ithaca Farmers Market, managed by Kelly Suave, innovated during the pandemic in a number of ways. Suave reported that offering a marketplace for vulnerable customers, rolling out a Zero Waste program and collaborating with other local organizations saw the Farmers Market going into its 50th year as strong as ever.
Lizzy Cooper took the stage for CCE Harvest NY’s Farm to School Program, which advocates for and facilitates a regional procurement strategy in K-12 schools. This approach allows schools to avoid the high market prices of food and aims to increase the volume and variety of state food purchased by schools.
Silas Conroy introduced Headwater, a food hub and supply chain coordinator that works with over 200 producers across New York state. Conroy spoke of the tensions social entrepreneurs face: supporting new and small farmers, increasing access to healthy food and keeping the business afloat. He also advocates policy as a key driver of change in the food system and outlined the wins in recent memory, like the passing of Nourish NY and initiatives to get schools to buy 30% of their food from state suppliers.
Identifying a long-unmet need, Rod Rotondi introduced the upcoming Shared Kitchen – Ithaca. Commercial kitchens are crucial but difficult to obtain for the small businesses that play a key role in the local food system. A needs assessment has already identified a potential spot in the Greenstar Production Kitchen and endeavors to help 30 businesses in their first year.
Food waste and recovery
Several organizations at the summit addressed the needs of food waste and recovery identified by the Food System Plan. Represented by Meaghan Sheehan Rosen, the Friendship Donations Network (FDN) dreams of an honor-based food distribution system where we can trust our senses to tell if food is still good to eat.
Already, FDN receives and quickly distributes food despite the resistance among many risk-averse businesses. Rosen pointed out that the Good Samaritan Act has long protected businesses from liability for donating food and forthcoming legislation will simplify food labels. With these changes on the horizon, FDN hopes to feed hungry people “in a dignified and sustainable way,” Rosen said.
Tompkins County Recycling and Materials Management (TCRMM), presented by Director Barb Eckstrom, noted that 20% of edible food is wasted. Some ways this work aligns with the food system plan are to 1) expand communication for recovering food and reducing waste, 2) broaden the reach of community composting by including more neighborhood locations and 3) inform residents of what not to buy in order to prevent food waste.
Eckstrom noted that TCRMM will publish its next Solid Waste Diversion Plan this winter.
Health and nutrition
Local leader Lara Parrilla revealed a diagram outlining actions health care providers can take to meet unmet needs, aligning with goal 9.3 (partner with health systems). She described how over three years across three organizations (Cayuga Health Partners, Cornell’s Master of Public Health Program and Cornell Center for Health Equity), five categories of action were identified that can improve population health: adjustment, assistance, alignment and advocacy, all with a foundation of awareness.
As the darkening sky signaled the winding down of the evening, Ana Ortiz of No Mas Lagrimas (No More Tears), closed the event with words of encouragement. She was proud of everyone who has worked hard to make our food future the best it can be, and encourages all to “keep it up! If you need help, just ask!”
Take the first step by signing the Food System Pledge at tompkinsfoodfuture.org/pledge. Find the presentation for the Food Summit at tinyurl.com/2h2bqm4s. View the full summit recording at youtube.com/watch?v=6p2CbFM7EJ4.
Meghan Witherow, MPH, is an Ithaca resident of over 10 years who rarely wears matching socks. She serves as the grant writer for Cayuga Health Partners and offers freelance graphic design services for public health organizations. She also enjoys climbing, comics and illustration.
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