We All Want More Local Food Available For Everyone.
Set at 8 o’clock AM in Monona (a time a little too early in the morning for winter break), two other F.H. King members and myself made the trek across town to attend the first meeting of the Dane County Food Coalition. Seated in a large circle in the center of the room were important members of the Madison food community: REAP, MACSAC, Community Action Coalition, Community Groundworks, Fitchburg Fields and Growing Power, to name a few. Truly, the list goes on and on.
This preliminary coalition meeting, organized by Carrie Edgar, head of the Dane County Food Systems Department at the UW Extension, has been discussed for a year and a half, since Edgar was first hired for the position in the fall of 2010. As she began her work in Dane County, meeting with organization directors and other integral members of the Madison and Dane County food community, Edgar consistently heard the call for a group that could bring everyone together to work collaboratively. There are so many similarly-minded organizations in Dane County, that surely both strength in numbers and coordination of work would be beneficial. Edgar brought everyone together with minimal influence over the direction the group should take or even what it will look like. Edgar facilitated the conversation as she hoped the coalition would determine its own goals and course of action.
The round-table discussion style meeting began by briefly introducing ourselves, our organization affiliations and any upcoming initiatives or events we were holding. It was a space to share and brag, not one of competition or discomfort. After the introductions, everyone was given an opportunity to establish ground rules for meetings now or in the future.
Then the harder, but much more fun, discussion began on what we all wanted to get out of a Dane County Food Coalition, what we want it to look like and what questions we had regarding the process of getting started.
It was a brain-storming session filled with some of my favorite Madison voices. There were several concrete goals discussed, such as wanting to improve access to healthy and organic fresh foods or launch a PR campaign that would promote a joint website where people not already connected could go to learn about local food issues. We talked about using the coalition as a way to lend support in forming more kitchens and farm co-ops, a real tangible method of promoting the infrastructure that small growers need but is so difficult to achieve as a single organization. Or the coalition could work to better coordinate fundraising opportunities so that we didn’t have six of the same events every season. As everyone competes for the same pool of volunteers and funds, why not find a way to share them through collaboration? There was also talk of finding a way to bring organization interns together socially, so collaboration can be improved at every level, not just among directors.
Yet despite the specifics, people seemed more focused on the coalition as a forum to discuss the future of local food systems. As Kiera Mulvey, executive director of MACSAC, stated: we could use this coalition as a forum for elevating the scale of the projects so many are already doing and promoting our greater vision for Dane County which is afterall, not very specific and does not need to be. We all want more local food available for everyone, and we all play a vital role in the larger picture of doing so. Every organization has its own realm of possibilities but as a collective, we can discuss our grander ideas for larger systemic change. The coalition could serve as a place to chew on these ideas rather than push them aside because they are beyond our own individual or organizational capacity. While setting tangible goals and meeting them, we could also discuss the big conceptual ideas we all grapple with.
As a coalition of twenty or so groups from around Dane County, each of which represents a multitude of different voices in itself, the Dane County Food Coalition will take a while to establish who it is and what it needs to do first, but as Edgar told me, “we all really want the same thing – a sustainable local food system that is economically, environmentally and socially just.” Now it is just a means of getting there, and I for one am enthusiastic that F.H. King and students have a say.