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So Much More Than 'Just Food'

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On a weekend of two major annual gatherings in the food world -- the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and the Just Food Conference -- my heart was in the Florida sun, but my body and activist spirit was at the High School of Food and Finance on West 50th Street, NYC. And while I thought that EVERYONE I know was in Miami eating and drinking and celebrating the glory and glamor of food, I spent two days with everyone else I know talking about every conceivable aspect of food from a political, agricultural and food justice perspective. Same commodity, different universes. We food movement people have many sayings, one of which defines the difference between these two food worlds: Access to good food should be a right, not a privilege.

And so a fascinating and diverse cross section of individuals convened for two days at the "Eat-Work-Grow the Movement," the annual conference produced by Just Food, a non-profit organization that "connects communities and local farms with the resources and support they need to make fresh, locally grown food accessible to all New Yorkers."

In a large nutshell, attendees come to "Join... local food lovers and advocates, CSA members, community gardeners, urban and rural farmers, food professionals and entrepreneurs for two days of hands-on workshops, discussions, skills-building sessions, and good food." Full disclosure, I am a proud board member of Just Food -- yet I attend the conference as a student, networker, farmer, producer, activist and luncheon caterer.

The program of workshops was amazing in its scope; consider this sample cross-section:
Digging into the Farm Bill -- Growing Yourself in a Farmer -- Media and Your Message -- Practical Activism: Consolidating the Food Revolution Through Food Activism -- The Life Cycle of a Tomato -- Small Livestock on a Small Scale -- School Food Solutions -- Raising Chickens and Bees in NYC -- CSA 101 -- Farming for Power, Advocacy & Leadership: Realities of Black Food Justice.

And that was just the tip of the workshop program. It was almost impossible to select which ones to attend, as it meant choosing what to miss. A taste of some of the sessions I joined:

In a packed workshop -- 'At the Intersection of Food and Technology' -- attendees of all ages heard about technological innovation in an otherwise, low-tech field (check out www.farmersweb.com and other applications designed to bridge the gulf between farmers and consumers). There are dozens and dozens of new ways to integrate technology into communication across multiple communities from CSA to academics. Holley Atkinson (Making Food Work) promised to share her list of great sites with us.

And it was an overflow crowd (of mostly women under 30) that gathered to listen to 'How to Develop Successful Food Education Programs', led by our own Anna Hammond, Executive Director of The Sylvia Center with an impressive panel of educators from Children's Aid Society, Harlem Children's Zone, Harlem Seeds and Wellness in the Schools -- all working together to ensure the health of the next generation. The gap between the food communities in NY is nowhere more evident than on the plates and in the diets of the most vulnerable population, children.

The struggle of a Brooklyn neighborhood to restore a local supermarket over the course of 6 years portrayed the role communities play in creating solutions to food deserts and inequality of food access. Meet Furee.org (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality) -- a new local superhero.

And as fascinating the offerings, I stood back and attempted to see who the 1,000 daily attendees were, where they came from and why. As best I could tell they were everything from urban farmers, rural farmers, farm students, hospitality industry workers, graduate students in food policy, nutrition, urban studies, or culinary arts, school food activists, community food activists, cooks & chefs, CSA organizers, food manufacturers, food bloggers, designers, non-profit food or health sector workers, health department workers, government officials, writers, educators and more.

Ramona and Howard Reitman came from Canada to see what other farm models combine agriculture with food justice. Their foray into farming is a second career. They partner creatively with local non-profits and are working to find the road to sustainability. We have promised to visit one another and share lessons and ideas. It isn't every day to meet someone who has decided to give root to farm passion and build from the ground up. Ferme du Zephyr.

Megan Ryan is an educator at Stone Barns working with youth programs. Her passion for her work was evident -- and she is lucky to be working in one of the most creative farm/food environments. Rachel Fluery was an apprentice at Stone Barns, now back home in food studies at Ashville, NC. They were there to learn, to enjoy their time together in NYC and to brainstorm/network with other attendees. Rachel is exploring gardening options -- no doubt we will be hearing from her again.

Meredith Ekstedt is a horticultural therapist (elderly patients), was with her friend Claire -- who was just accepted into the Just Food Farm School Program, both attending to "connect the dots." The conference was characterized by the constant sharing of ideas and perspectives; congenial and vibrant exchanges all day long.

Anthony Gardner (Farmers Market Coordinator) and Brian came from Worcester MA -- part of the Regional Environmental Council of Central Massachusetts and work to connect youth with mobile markets, stores and farms. The reach of the conference clearly extended beyond city lines and reinforced the strength of a movement that bridges health, job opportunities, the environment, food and justice.

And I met Aki Hirata-Baker, who works with a wonderful group Farmboxes.org, engaging school group and community organizations through the planting of mini-farms in their unique 100% recyclable boxes.

A few words about Just Food. At the annual meeting on Saturday, Executive Director Jacquie Berger summarized the accomplishments of the year.

1. Just Food facilitates CSA's in NYC. Of its 37,000 CSA participants, 4,500 are low income. Creating opportunities for CSA's in low-income communities utilizing SNAP benefits and sliding scale memberships is a win-win proposition for farmers and communities.
2. In 2011, Just Food distributed $50,000 in funds raised to help farmers who were financially devastated by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.
3. City Farmers Market Program -- 7 new urban farms will start this year. Just Food trainers will teach over 60 urban farming workshops reaching 1200 community members. 2011 saw 19 markets, in neighborhoods without access to farm fresh food.
4. The chicken program will expand with 4 new coops.
5. The Farm School program, is entering its second year, dedicated to teaching students about agriculture in an urban setting but with the additional curriculum of business and marketing skills and community organizing and advocacy.
6. Fresh Food for All: a program devised to provide farm fresh produce to underserved New Yorkers. Currently, there are 44 food pantries, partnering with 8 farms, providing over 242,000 lbs. of produce to over 60,000 New Yorkers.
7. Community Food Education: a chef training program where local individuals learn food demonstrations. They become 'veggie evangelists.' Last year -- close to 300 hours of free education was shared.
8. Food Justice: working on advocacy and guiding food policy.

This is an organization with a most understated name. Food is the sustainable web that unites families and communities, producers and consumers, every day. Food is inexorably linked to health, happiness, peace and prosperity.

Being surrounded by hundreds of creative and inquisitive individuals, united in a love for food, sharing and social justice is a unique experience. For 2 days, it felt like with just a little more effort, we could all change the world. One meal at a time.

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