Thursday, May 19, 2011

At the Food Policy Conference: Neighborhood to Nation in Portland

I'm in Portland, Oregon, attending the Neighborhood to Nation Food Policy Conference, sponsored by the Community Food Security Coalition. A few Alaskans are here: Bob Mikol (TA for Craig Gerlach's Comparative Farming and Sustainable Food Systems class, among other things), Danny Consenstein (Alaska Farm Service Agency), Alli Harvey (with the Alaska Center for the Environment's Local Food project), Diane Peck (Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Obesity Prevention and Chronic Disease Prevention), Rachel Garcia (intern with the Alaska Community Agriculture Association), Eleanor Wirts (UAF RAP grad student and musher), Johanna Herron (Alaska Farm to School), Mark Carper (UAA and the Alaska Food Policy Council), Kelsey Bearden (fellow student from Comparative Farming), Lisa Sadler-Hart (Sitka Local Foods Network), and myself (UAF School of Natural Resources & Agricultural Sciences, Ester Republic reporter and publisher, librarian, gardener, AK Food Policy Council member, Ester Community Association member, et cetera). I'm down here in large measure because of Gerlach, SNRAS dean Carol Lewis, and Diane Peck. There were others from Alaska, too (Danielle Giles, Nikos Pastos, and Ryan Zinn, but I didn't meet them--Zinn was a presenter, from the Fair World Project).

And I'm having a blast. This is a great group of people, a good 640 strong, from 46 states and DC, plus Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec. I attended a short course (Food Policy Advocacy 101) this morning and the plenary gathering this afternoon. The plenary speakers were great, talking about poverty, food deserts, exploited food service and other food industry workers (did you know that the federal minimum wage is only $2.13 an hour? ridiculous!), community gardens, community organizing. Talk about inspiring people.

After the plenary session, we broke out into networking groups, and Eleanor and I went with the Canadians while the rest of the Alaskans networked with the Northwest region. THAT was interesting. We told them we were crashing their party, and they accepted us with good grace and not a few jokes ("I can see Alaska from my house!"). The stereotype of the polite Canadian was not actually blown, despite a not-very-serious attempt to dispel it ("Fuck off!" from one speaker and apparently frequent Facebook poster (not sure if this was a joke, actually) at an opportune and humorous moment of self-teasing about being all polite--I guess you had to be there, but the whole group laughed). There was much emphasis on relationships between people, talking about developing mutual trust and respect between food producers and others in the food system. I was struck by the quiet, polite, and respectful discourse, along with the deep level of political savvy and pronounced opinon concerning the recent majority government positioning of Steven Harper and his party in the Canadian federal government. Very different in approach and delivery than US types, but lots of zing and pow (quite politely phrased, though)!

I've met a lot of fascinating people with great projects and amazing accomplishments. One man, Raymond Figueroa, from New York City, is working with a community gardening project (Friends of Brook Park) taking on abandoned spaces and turning them into a way to give locals control over their food and a way to make a difference in their own lives, to bring dignity back.

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