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Posts Tagged ‘students’

Taking Up Toolbelts

This article is cross-posted on Civil Eats, a site that explores the connections between the food system and the environment, the politics of consumer choices, and the actions we can take to change the way we think about food everyday.

There are few moments more powerful and thrilling for a young person than those in which we learn a skill that we want to and will use for the rest of our lives.  Or those first days when we truly realistically consider our futures – just our next five years, if not more – and realize (or think very much) that we know what it is that will make us happy.  Or that last second we have before feeling we are in that future, that brief moment of conviction that we have never in our lives been less prepared nor more determined.

The Young Farmers Conference last weekend, at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, ran the participants on a marathon of such moments.  There were the inspiring speeches and the valuable networking one expects at a conference, and the beautiful meals one expects at Stone Barns, but mainly it was a time to take notes, to ask questions, to observe, and to listen.  Not only were we inspired, we were productive.

We learned how to begin doing many things: raising chickens, breeding swine, growing vegetables in a greenhouse.  We were told how to find land, how to write a business plan for a farm, how to dress up our products so they sell well at market.  Many of us who came to this conference were not farmers.  And most of us have so much to learn about farming that we might have seemed comical to the more experienced.   But the presenters – the farmers, growers, breeders, foresters – brought their skills down to our level, to square one, and shared an immense amount of knowledge in hardly eight hours of workshops.

2796812832_8bc2f155fbFour-Season Growing.  Jack taught us how to calculate the finances of a greenhouse, to know the value of each square foot of soil.  He described the family rotations – six families, each including several varieties of plants – and the number of days it takes for arugula to grow in summer versus winter.  He taught us how he uses the row covers, from what material, at what time of day.  He told us what the temperature should be for certain levels of productivity, what sort of heaters he uses, and how their release of CO2 at dawn catalyzes photosynthesis in that brief, coldest, last moment of the night.  He told us exactly how much money he’d spent on propane, using box heaters vs. air heaters.  He told us how long to wait for the first cut of greens, the babies, and for the second cut, a profitable premium product.  He told us of the compost system and the prop house, the soil and the seeds.  He told us how surely one keeps loyal customers with a 365-day growing season.

147693691_cbxzr-sBeginning Poultry.  Craig told us what to look for in a hatchery, what to expect in the box when the chicks arrive at the post office, not to go grocery shopping and forget that our box of chicks is in the back of our car.  He taught us how to set up the brooding pen, how the chicks slip on newspaper, how to build the space to keep out rats and raccoons.  He told us what to consider when buying meat chickens (taste, consumer demand, growth-time, cost of production), and showed us the advantages of certain pens, fences, and pastures.  He was clear about why he would choose one bird or feed or pen or another, often simply explaining his personal preference.  “I use the term Animal Husbandry intentionally,” he said, “because this IS a marriage, of sorts.  You really have to like your animals – how they look, and act, and treat you.  You have to get to know them, and like living with them.”

2644169534_b7e4b09c4c Slaughterhouse Initiative.  Judy explained her position at the head of Glynwood Center, a conference center and working farm that has identified a problem in the lack of slaughterhouses in and around Putnam County.  She presented the mobile slaughterhouse project, and spoke of the bureaucracy such a project faces, the services it would provide, and the demonstrable demand for these services she has found among her community.  The conversation jockeyed from urban farmer to historian to farmer-educator to friend-of-a-butcher; from accusations of bureaucratic pandering to business plan proposals, from reminders of top-hat butchers in early American markets to a polemic on the seismic shift in mentality that must take place before slaughterhouses and butcher shops are ever expected to produce anything of high quality.  We learned that we have a lot to learn about meat.

My general expectations for the conference were that it would confirm my dislike of the wealthy nature of Stone Barns, that I would meet few true farmers and more farmer wannabes (like myself), and that it would be like most conferences, where energy is high, productivity is low, and the conversations between workshops are the most valuable part of the experience.  Those conversations were valuable, but so were the workshops, and so was the energy, and so was the adjustment of my view of Stone Barns.  However the farm-restaurant handles it’s finances, the people who run the farm are full of a knowledge that young people need, and at least for two days, were wonderfully willing and able to teach it.

I remember first meeting The Greenhorns’ Severine, in Berkeley this Spring, when she (was figuring out how I might be useful to her, and) rather bluntly asked what I knew how to do.  I sheepishly said I could write decently, and I could organize people and run meetings.  She interrupted me within seconds: You have to treat your life like a toolbelt!  Start filling it up with tools!  You have to learn how to do things!  Two days at a conference might not count for much, but for many of us, it was a time to first touch the tools we wish to acquire, and a joyous early step towards making our lives full.

Download the full list of conference workshops and presenters.

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364 vs. 162.  Victory.                                                               1000 of 6000.  Youth. 

As of the results of Tuesday night, the spectacle and excitement of Terra Madre is no longer quite so awe-inspiring as it was at the time.  The election of Barack Obama struck me, and many of my friends, suddenly full of adrenaline, primarily with the knowledge that so much more than the majority of our nation is ready to opt for courage rather than fear.  Whether or not Obama will bring the future we seek, and the changes for which we hope, is hard to predict.  The true reason for celebration in him can only be in the racial barrier he has broken.  Our exuberance, to quote his latest speech, is not about him.  Considering the economy, the environment, our health, and our war, we can only anxiously trust him to act well.  Our excitement, the true source of our excitement, is the change that has taken place in us as a people.  We have proven ourselves ready to change course, and we have collectively made the first empowering political decision of my lifetime, with the choice of a young, black leader.

pict7827The results of the five-day gathering in Turin, Italy known as Terra Madre, are about as unpredictable and impossible to define as the future meaning of Obama’s election.  Like Tuesday’s TV screens, the event empowered participants with the knowledge of numbers.  The knowledge that this many people believe in something.  In this case: this many people consider themselves part of agricultural and food communities, and consider this identity important enough in their society to merit the dedication of their life’s work.  More specifically, in this first year that young people were invited to participate in Turin, we youth had an exhilarating chance to see the extent to which our group has grown, and to feel the height of the energy in the coalitions we have built. 

Terra Madre gathered 1650 food communities from 153 countries around the world.  Over 6000 delegates included 1000 cooks, 400 university representatives, 1000 youth under 30-years-old, and 250 musicians.  We came together in the name of Slow Food, for the sake of our work “towards a new food economy based on fairness and well-being.”

It was sort of like an enormous, celebratory vacation.  While workshops and informal discussions filled auditorium-size spaces and cubby-hole conference rooms throughout the building, one could not very well rush from one thing to another.  This was not an event for rushing.   It was a time to be jostled in crowds murmuring with the swelling satisfaction in their stomachs, to listen to snippets of hundreds of languages, to phrases of attempted Italian.  It was a time to speak to whomever you found at your side – the Thai farmer who had never been to Europe, with whom I found only the common language of hand gestures; the Californian couple who cultivated ¾ of an acre and that gave them reason to be in Italy; the young Scottish woman, a chef, who grumbled at the quality of the food in our hotel; the Irish boys whom I heard at night and never saw in the morning; the students studying gastronomic sciences in Bra and Colorno, still glowing with the newfound pleasures of Italian life.  We ate the meats and cheeses of the Salone, learned of and tasted the dozens of unique products presented by the Presidia, and listened to speeches by the names we know: Carlo Petrini, Vandana Shiva, Alice Waters, Will Allen, and now Josh Viertel.

pict7873While the repeated references to Obama and a general hope for his election may have struck some as inappropriate to a global gathering, many delegates expressed remarkable, positive surprise at the strength of the US presence in Turin.  Many of the young people, particularly those from Italy and the UK, voiced their fascination with, and admiration for (even jealousy of), the spirit and dedication of the youth delegates from the United States.  We were 600 in number.  And I would agree, that over the past five or ten years, we have learned well how to organize each other, how to run a discussion so that it’s productive, how to share the information we need most, how to identify where and how we can change policies and actions in our homes, our universities, our communities, our states, and our nation.  Many of us act upon the idea that our life, rather than a resume, is a tool belt, to be filled year after year with the skills, the experience, of our hands.  We consider carefully when to organize, and when to act.  We made an impression, in any case.  We are no longer a scraggly bunch of individuals acting each on our own, and I think we gave dozens of other young people hope in the community they seek to strengthen back home.

Terra Madre inspired us with its magnitude and its optimism.  Yet few of the speeches and workshops truly approached the grit of the future.  President of Slow Food USA Josh Viertel pronounced that the Slow Food movement is and will focus upon being: a movement for Social Justice.   Executive Director Erika Lesser said loud and clear, that Slow Food USA would get political.  All I can say is, it’s about time.  Terra Madre was a party, and well deserved by many of those who came.  But now we, particularly in the United States, have work to do: we have to become farmers, first and foremost.  We have policy to create, and we have a food system to rebuild.  Obama won’t do it.  We will.

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Radishes and Rubbish!

My friend Carla and I have always let our ostensibly similar interests take us in more or less opposite directions.  She studies socially responsible supply chains.  I study responsibility for the soil, and how to reduce supply chains to a single link.  In a class on How Stuff Is Made, she researched the gold mines where Balfour college rings begin their global journey to students’ fingers.  I documented a shop on the Lower East Side, where gelato is made from the milk and eggs of upstate New York.  When Carla went to Shanghai, China, I went to Berkeley, California.  When she got a real job in the social responsibility office of ABC Carpet & Home, I got a real job as the cheesemonger Anne Saxelby’s apprentice.  In a way, Carla thinks global, and I act local.  We proposed separate projects to the Sustainability Task Force, and they rather predictably put the two together.

   

Radishes and Rubbish is the magnificent (if rather lopsided) combination of our complementary desires: to expose students to the processes of production, and disposal, embedded in the way we live our daily lives.  It is the melding of two propositions: Mine to take students to several small-scale food production and processing sites within the five boroughs.  And Carla’s, to take students to some of the city’s enormous waste management facilities.

I hope to engage students with an uprooted system that is now regaining strength, of foods that never know a bar code or a cardboard box, and that are eaten so fresh they barely touch the shelf of cabinet or fridge; foods grown, made, or processed locally, by local people, who are faithfully devoted to steady production for their community.  We will visit urban farmers in Red Hook and East New York, makers of ricotta in Brooklyn, an Halal slaughterhouse owned by a father and son in Queens.  We will give students a taste for the reasons these individual people consider it important to make food themselves, and to supply their customers’ kitchens with high quality, reliable, fresh ingredients.

Carla will expose students to the garbage, recycling, and composting systems upon which our urban population relies.  The journey that our ‘stuff’ is on, and the impact that it makes, hardly ends in the trash chute, or at the curbside.  Breaking away from the anonymity of where our garbage goes, Carla is inviting students to bravely follow the green truck out of Manhattan, to come face to face with the scale of waste produced by our community, and to meet the trash heroes that make these systems run on a dime.  We will journey to a trash transfer station, a recycling hub, and a farm upstate that runs our composting program.

Each of our trips will include the first 13 individuals to RSVP.  We will provide transportation as well as a picnic lunch, made with fresh ingredients from the Greenmarket or a locally owned shop or business.  Please check out our website, Radishes and Rubbish, for more information.  All students (and the occasional non-students) are welcome!

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Big Apples

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) recently launched a new site, Organic on the Green: A Blog to Feed the Organic Revolution in Campus Dining.  Participants in the blog are assigned a date to post an article, and OTA hopes of course that collaborative discussions will follow.  The following article was written for the new blog, and is being posted simultaneously here and on Organic on the Green.

 

New York University has seven dining halls, which many of our 20,000 undergraduate students never use after the expiration of their freshman year meal plan.  Until my sophomore spring, while concentrating my academics on Northeast agriculture and sustainable farming, I had no intention of getting involved with the food system at NYU.  Having matriculated to the school with the hopes of avoiding a collegiate “bubble,” I saw working on school dining as a project that would cut me off from the bigger picture, even just our regional food system, which I felt demanded more immediate attention.

 

As any New Yorker might begrudgingly tell you, however, NYU is a sizeable part of a “bigger” picture.  Not only is the University one of the largest employers in New York, as well as the owner of substantial urban property, but it happens to spend quite a substantial sum of money: on food.  We purchase over 340,000 pounds of food per semester, worth about $4 million.  In 2006, a group of five Gallatin students researched and developed a Sustainability Assessment of NYU, in which they recognized (among other things) the immensity of that purchasing power.  The assessment pointed out that Aramark, our food service provider, “unfortunately has the worst record among national food services when it comes to purchasing local food,” although Sid Wainer, the company that provided about 12% of NYU’s produce, does deal with many local farmers.  Of course, any local food supply depends upon our Northeast growing season, but as the Sustainability Assessment highlighted, NYU could consistently prioritize organic, sustainably farmed products, and also take advantage of the seasonal abundance.  New York, the assessors explained, “has more farms than any other state on the Eastern seaboard.”  Their survey results explained that students would strongly support a dining hall dedicated to local and organic foods, and would even pay an additional $0.75 to $1/meal to eat there.  We could see the local bounty in the 46 Greenmarkets and 50 CSA sites throughout the boroughs.  We just didn’t have that food in our dining halls.

 

In 2006, the only identifiable “sustainable” products at NYU were local apples (a percentage of the total apples).  Through the efforts of student clubs, the Sustainability Task Force, and the increasingly open-minded Aramark: We now have 100% Fair Trade coffee.  Our fish is bought from Wild Edibles.  For the last academic year, one dining hall, Hayden, was devoted to providing as much local, organic, and/or Fair Trade food as possible.  About 32% of the food purchased for Hayden fell into one or more of these categories.  These changes came after considerable time at the drawing board: defining organic, defining local, prioritizing values, considering whether to set large goals or small, to resist collaboration with Aramark, or to set about working together.  Increased inter-school collaboration between students, particularly among participants in the Real Food Summit last fall, has facilitated this work immensely.

 

The Food and Purchasing Subcommittee of the Sustainability Task Force requested purchasing data from Dining Services this Spring, and the data received (pounds purchased, dollars spent, Hayden vs. other dining hall comparisons) is now being evaluated.  The F&P Committee also developed sustainable cateringcriteria, and Aramark is now offering an organic catering option.

 

Clearly, we have a ways to go before inciting a full-scale agrarian revolution at NYU.  We have gardens, but no farms, local apples, but plenty of bananas, and when it comes down to it, we young farmers and farm-appreciators of the school could simply eat elsewhere.  But instead we are working towards change, recognizing that our style must be rather like the tortoise: slow but steady.  The steady is the most important thing to maintain, a quality rare in rotating student populations, but I have an immensely excited trust that local, organic foods will steadily increase in our dining halls, and our pace of change may even quicken in the coming years.  Ever since the Real Food Summit last Fall, since the chairing of the Food and Purchasing Subcommittee by a freshman this Spring, since the launching of this website this week…it has been clear to me that students working on changing their institutional food systems are no longer alone.  We have begun to help each other!  We’re recognizing a big picture.  We’re reaching far outside our own academic spheres.  And we show no signs of retreat. 

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Last weekend, a few close friends of mine who care about where their food comes from, and appreciate those who produce the food they enjoy, voiced their curiosity as to whether the whole “local food thing” was just another diet fad. 

These friends, Bekah and Raphi, are a couple in their twenties living in Berkeley, working in music and magazines.  And it’s not as though I hadn’t heard the same type of curiosity before, but I sort of let my heart sink below my pelvis, sitting there in their conversation.  There are many occasions when I must explain how I feel about sustainable agriculture and regional food systems, and how wonderful and important I feel it is to support them.  But I realized I’d rarely had to explain my total confidence and trust that I will be able to (not to mention, must) devote the rest of my life to work that is based upon these convictions.

Another occasion came, however, early this week, when a man whom I very much admire, who is acting to support local farmers in the most creative and permanent of ways, responded to my enthusiasm for his work with the eyes of a starving poet, suddenly inspired.  “Are there other people your age, who are actually considering regional food systems, as a field in which to work?  A goal upon which to focus their lives?”

Well, the fact is: Yes.  There are many of us.  For now, we are committed teenage gardeners, tireless volunteers, students doing related research, young farmers with the valuable gift of land of our own, and small business entrepreneurs.  We are learning how to mend the broken web of our current food system, a web upon whose strength we believe our future depends.  I learn something every day, maybe every hour, that assures me we are neither misleading ourselves, nor misdirecting our future.   My reasoning follows, and is based (finally!) not in the East, nor the West, but across the country, and around the world.

Of course, I must start where I (most recently) started.  This January in Berkeley, the first page in my little notebook had a list written, of several Bay Area organizations involved in urban agriculture.  I outlined several of these organizations in the essay New Yorkana, and their directors and offices were the first names and addresses I learned in California.  Little by little, one name linked to another.  A friend in Cartography class recommended I meet Nathan, a Ph.D Candidate in Geography, who’s doing a project similar to Diggable Cities in Portland, and who told me to contact Alethea, a close friend of another classmate and landscape architect, Nadine.  Alethea’s thesis work was for People’s Grocery, but she is now working with Sibella at SAGE (formerly of CUESA).  Sibella put me in contact with Eric (at Food First), who informed me of the HOPE collaborative.  My City Planning professor, Fred, put me in touch with Heather, whose thesis was an Oakland Food System Assessment.  Everyone knows Severine, who in ten minutes’ time, while biking me to her office from the Cheeseboard, rattled off a list of contacts that included David Ralston of CEDA, Raquel Pinderhughes of the Ecology Center, and Amy Franceschini of Future Farmers.  Severine is making a film about young farmers (you may have seen her quoted in the recent NYTimes Fashion Article), and attending her fundraiser/dinner party meant meeting dozens of youthful growers, working land no more than an afternoon’s drive away from San Francisco.  Through a brief internship at BALLE, I had learned of and joined the COMFOOD listserve, and as I began research on urban agriculture for my courses here, Severine reminded me to post a query on COMFOOD.  Enter the rest of the country.   Suddenly I came in touch with such a number of urban agriculture projects that listing them now might remind you of Michael Pollan’s list of Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread ingredients.  I filled in multiple excel sheets (god help your pen-and-paper author: she uses the computer too often now) with lists of inspiring projects and names and contacts, all within a day.

But of course, the devil has still to be advocated.  For it’s not entirely surprising that there are local food enthusiasts across the country, and even supporters of urban agriculture in particular.  Working towards a regional food system has its perks (good food, to be specific), and it’s become a popular and trendy effort to support.  Many “urban agriculture” projects are just plots in which optimistic, political vegetarians plant their hopes and dreams.  And many of the people I’ve met and spoken to could still wind up in obscure non-profits, going nowhere and constantly fundraising for a goal that has gone out of style. 

Idealist organizations and activists, however, aren’t all that’s out there.  Communities like Troy Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, and Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illiniois; demonstration farms like Somerton Tanks in Philadelphia; and urban food production and distribution like that coordinated by 47th Ave Farm in Portland: entire cities are focusing their development upon human and environmental health, and thus farms, CSAs, gardening education programs, and foods produced by their residents.  The American Planning Association adopted a Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning in 2007.  Centers of research like Public Health Law and Policy are publishing guides like How to Create and Implement Healthy General Plans that include “Nutrition” elements, outlining the need to assess “Access to Healthy Foods,” “Number of Fast Food Restaurants and Offsite Liquor Retailers,” “Local Agricultural Resources,” and “Food Distribution” (as related to local produce).  The planning policy goals include “Providing safe, convenient access to healthy foods for all residents,” by identifying sites for farmers’ markets, linking efforts to preserve local farmland with the development of diverse markets for local produce, and encouraging farmers’ markets to accept credit and food stamp Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. 

This sort of planning is just one field into which the “local food thing” has been incorporated.  It isn’t perfect, but it also isn’t just excitement, or hype, or marketing, for a trend that will fade out in a few years.  It is realistic, practical preparation for the future we recognize is not just not our children’s, but our own.

 The permanence of the movement to support local systems – and it will always be a movement, it will never stop moving – is apparent too in the variety of forms in 

which it has taken root.  College kids often consider eating locally grown and organic foods as a socially responsible diet, something they’ve learned through reading Michael Pollan’s book.  But our grandparents are reminded of the age of Victory Gardens during WWI, when the gardening of 20 million Americans produced nearly 40% of the produce consumed nationally.  Many families in the South already have gardens and mini farms incorporated into their housing lots and city neighborhoods, and consider growing their own food an element of their heritage, part of a tradition of cultivation.  Many Native American communities have worked for decades to preserve their culinary traditions through growing food for themselves.  And immigrant communities across the nation attempt to preserve the home-country flavors of their cooking by growing the foods that they know mustn’t be genetically-modified or processed or shipped overseas. 

All of that is in the  US.  And whether we are growing our own food or supporting our  regional small farmers, ours are all merely preliminary steps towards the sort of food sovereignty movements underway in South America, Central America, Africa, and India.  The Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil has supporters worldwide, much like Via Campesina, an International Peasant Movement stretching across Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.  The Fairtrade Certified cooperatives in the Americas and Africa present only a sampling of the small farmers who have come together to ensure just compensation for their work.  In 2007, in the village of Nyéléni in Sélingué, Mali, the Forum for Food Sovereignty brought together nearly 500 representatives from more than 80 countries, of organizations of peasants and family farmers, artisanal fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, landless peoples, rural workers, migrants, pastoralists, forest communities, women, youth, consumers and environmental and urban movements.  All these came together to strengthen a global movement for food sovereignty.

So, yes: there are people my age (and older) who are considering regional food systems as a field in which to work, and who regard eating locally to be slightly more than a diet fad.  We are no longer – we never were, really – just idealist students, determined activists, gardeners waiting to be forced off vacant land, and small farmers soon to go out of business.  We have a future to look forward to.  And we have developed a movement that will not go static.  The strength of our local webs will recede no longer, but will grow, till little webs string ‘round the world.

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Often the result of attending a convergence, or a gathering of individuals focused on a particular topic, is to leave with an immense sense of solidarity and communal power. Today, however, I left Santa Cruz with a well—rounded sense of satisfaction and comfort. Like I’d been patted on the back for the work I already do, rather than fired up for the work ahead. I realized that perhaps it is the California equivalent. The Eastern rush of adrenaline and power often means we hurry up to wait, and the level-headed, steady pace of California students’ collaboration certainly seems no less productive.

 These students came together this weekend for Strengthening the Roots, a convergence held in Santa Cruz, organized by United Students for Fair Trade, the California Student Sustainability Coalition’s Food Initiative, and The Community Agroecology Network. The event confirmed: as in the East, California students are moving towards the goal of a sustainable food system, one that truly nourishes people, communities, and the earth. On either coast, the urgency we feel in progressing towards this goal is the same. Like the well-paced tortoise of the fairly tale, California may get ahead of us for some of the way, and it was interesting to note why it’s path is different.

In New York, increasing the consumption of local food is like sprinting up a daunting hill. Well-entrenched political, cultural, and natural systems combine to torment our muscles-in-training. Not only are subsidies and agribusiness not invested in the small, diverse farms that populate the New York region, but our climate includes several months in which it is quite difficult for food to grow. And culturally, New Yorkers are starkly divided: city people, suburbanites, and farmers or far-outs. We forget our realms lie side-by-side, and love to think we are independent of each other.

img_1537.jpgIn California, it’s a less-steep slope for more-shapely muscles. The hill is still there, steepened by the same political system, set against small, diverse farms. But the incline is softened by the climate, in which food grows easily throughout the year. And furthermore, California culture tends to exercise a love of natural beauty. The beauty of lakes, forests, vineyards, and ocean are ever-present on this Western coast. The hills make this beauty visible wherever you are, and so even simple topography reminds Californians that theirs is a state populated with farmers. People forget that about New York, or never knew.

For students in both places, there is a race to be run. The Real Food Summit was a mile marker in the Northeast, and one I felt gave a thrilling burst of energy to we who were leading the Eastern pack. The West Coast Convergence this weekend did not quite require that burst – after all, the California contingent is not so out of breath – but they are not so far ahead of us either.

We students all have different styles and motives as we run together (and we do run together, not in competition, but as many individuals, with a common goal). We increase access to healthy foods, because we believe everyone deserves to eat them, or because we hope to slow the increase in numbers of our population suffering from diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. We change the structure of agricultural policy, because we believe commodity subsidies are unjust in a world of free trade, or we believe that diverse farms sustain soil fertility, or we fear for biodiversity in a world of agribusinesses. We uphold workers rights and living conditions, because we know the torment undergone by a single farmworker, or because we are ashamed to encourage the global exploitation we cannot see. Our run is a combination of any of these actions, and many, many more. And naturally, we run at different paces, and on different terrain.

There is a need to unite before any finish line of a sustainable food system is reached, before the steep hill smooths out and our run does not halt but transforms into a dance (a celebration of a life, and the system we have developed together). We may come together to agree upon a numerical finish line, and call our race The Real Food Challenge. We will doubtless come together in Washington before we realize our true numbers. And any such developments will be well-documented here. For the moment, regardless of the banner under which we run, one thing is clear after this weekend’s convergence: The western tortoise is truckin, just like the eastern hare.

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As a scholar of the Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship, I have recently felt saturated with stories about successful non-profits and NGOs, and with bullet-pointed presentations on what made them functional, how they raised money, and how they scaled up their impact from a local to a national or global level.These “exemplary” organizations are usually working towards social, environmental, or political justice, particularly in the form of “systemic change,” the (somewhat disputed) goal of “social entrepreneurship.” Such organizations include City Year, Teach for America, Environmental Defense, and Habitat for Humanity. They combine direct action and activism, in order to make a positive and significant impact on our world. As Leslie Crutchfield, co-author of Forces for Good, mentioned in a Reynolds Expert session this morning, these organizations are “network oriented,” meaning they have a collaborative mindset, a strategy focused on “growing the network” (rather than the organization itself), and they work to share resources with other NGOs, to function with open source intellectual property, to develop their competitors, and to cultivate leadership rather than hoard talent.” As far as I’m concerned, that sounds great. But it’s a schpiel with a lot of buzzwords.Real Food New York, before this past weekend, was a group that had come together because of a single, inspiring, well-planned event: the Real Food Summit. We had stayed in touch since the Summit, as an email-by-email network of kids sharing notes on our efforts to bring Real Food onto our campuses. We had significant potential to slowly evaporate in buzzwords, “networking,” “collaborating,” and “building solidarity,” and eventually perhaps just wasting our time.This Sunday, many members of Real Food New York came together formally, to decide who we are as a group, how we can use each other, and what our plan is for the future.First of all, Real Food is food that nourishes land, community, and people. Real Food New York is a bunch of students who are at various stages of increasing the amount of Real Food on our campuses and in our communities. We are helping our schools to hire a Sustainability Director, or negotiating stringent contracts with our food service providers, collaborating with these food service providers to develop sustainable menus, or formally requesting comprehensive purchasing information from our Directors of Dining Services. All of us are trying to raise student awareness of the benefits of Real Food. We have our own organizations, at our own schools. And as Adam pointed out last week, the last thing we need is another organization, demanding more of our time, working to advance the same projects within which we’re already engaged, and only further dividing and devaluing the meager time of our meager numbers. We knew the existence of “Real Food New York” could easily be more of a burden than a blessing.But the students of Real Food New York recognize: We are useful to each other for our personal experience with institutional sustainability projects, our resources (natural and personal), and the moral support of like-minded friends, who understand each other, and share meals together. On a larger scale, our institutions together have a formidable purchasing power, whether we’re working with the same food service provider, the same corporation, or the same farmer. As individuals, each of us can barely represent our school. Together, and as we gain members, we have the ability to represent the student voice of the local food movement in the New York area.071202rfny.jpgThis Sunday morning, we hashed out the details. By 11am, we had voted unanimously to label our region inclusively. We are New York State, and her neighbors. We represent urban and rural, large and small, private and public institutions. By noon, we decided we’d meet formally once a semester, and informally by topic or project as we deem appropriate, by consensus. We recognized that the listserve wasn’t working. We decided to start an online open source resource pool, a wiki/blog combination, in which all members would have contributor status. At 1pm we ate lunch, potluck style: pasta with pesto, squash bread, brownies, and roasted carrots with parmesan. At 2pm, in a whirlwind of inspiring pict5594.jpgexpertise, Thomas Forster explained to us the concept and logistics of the United Nations’ Commission on Sustainable Development, which this year will focus on land and agriculture. A group of students from Real Food New York decided to prepare to attend the CSD, and to lend their material knowledge to the youth presence at the UN. Finally, at 4pm, Kerry Trueman and Matt Rosenberg instructed us on the digital world, and explained how to actually design the “wiki/blog combination” (very helpful of them, as the technological savvy of our group ranges from Google-expert to decidedly anti-computer). So we left The New School this Sunday evening, with a plan.Our blog is http://www.realfoodnewyork.org, and links to our Wiki.Our self-defining blurb is here.Any type of collaboration requires constant communication and commitment, and generally a good dose of never-enough outreach, secretarial scheduling, and detail-heavy event planning. We are not exempt from these requirements. But as collaborators, we will simply help each other as much as we can, and we hope to do so enjoyably and productively. Check out our group, and if you’re a student or campus stakeholder in the New York area, join us! Post on the site, come to our meetings, host us for dinner, we’ll host you. We are no passing flurry of meaningless buzzwords. We are the students of New York.

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