I was at the UVM Food Systems Summit last week listening to various conversations at packed tables around me. This year’s Summit focused on “What Makes Food Good?” The tables within earshot were trying to wrestle with this definition based on what the presenter just spoke about, and how to intertwine it with their personal beliefs. As I sat here I could hear these important conversations of people from all walks of life talking face to face. I heard conversations about GMOs, food waste, social justice, activism, local, organic, farmers, distribution, industrial food, purveyors, and education. I heard farmers talking to academics, and students talking to everyone.
I heard one conversation where the faculty member was pointing to a paper she wrote in 2000 about the need for participatory action in biotechnology, and how today it’s still not getting funding. I heard a student talking about the farm where he is interning and how he is learning all about sustainable farming techniques. I heard an activist talking about how he had just moved up here from Maryland and is looking for work in community food production. Another person praised the fact that during our meals at the conference we had wasted only half of what a conference usually wastes at UVM. At one table, I heard a chef who was telling people that he was starting an organization in Maine that creates linkages from chefs to farmers. I heard a table talking about migrant labor. Another about food deserts, access, hunger, and SNAP.
As I roamed, I heard some academics from other universities discussing the concepts of complex systems and their ignorance about the field. After they learned more from UVM professors, I heard them have their a-ha moments. Just because a particularly problematic aspect doesn’t fit into your framework doesn’t mean you can ignore it—it’s still there. Complexity must be systematically addressed—together.
I had to start writing things down lest I forget the slew of tables I passed discussing food subsidies; failure of governmental food systems distribution; and what levers need to be pulled for a just food system. Another group made an amazing leap of community connections by suggesting that climate activists need to connect to Black Lives Matters. Wow.
I moved by one table, and I heard a college student talking about the need to understand different frames to analyze the problem. He was shocked to now better understand that GMO’s could be good food—if it could be done within the community.
Finally, I sat still and watched. Thrilled with the energy in the room. Another year of the Summit with another packed house full of people from all over the country.
And as I sat there, it became clear that in order to solve the problems of our globalized food system, we need to emulate how this group of people are addressing the issues. Become a good listener. Complexity can be energizing. Be comfortable with being able to accommodate the short-term and long-term goals at once.
Feeling discouraged is part of realizing complexity, but it’s a necessary component as one come to grips with all that’s involved in solving the problems in our broken food system.
-Cynthia Belliveau, EdD is the Dean of Continuing and Distance Education at UVM.