University of Vermont

College of Arts and Sciences

Dispatches from the Food Movement: University of Vermont Edition

5 Takeaways From the UVM’s First-Ever Food Systems Summit; Exploring Role of Regional Models

Burlington, VT – Regional food systems that are ecologically sound, economically viable, and that encourage healthy communities were at the epicenter of conversation at the University of Vermont’s first-ever food systems summit with a public conference titled “The Necessary (r)Evolution for Sustainable Food Systems Amplified,” held on June 28, 2012, to a packed house and a digital audience from around the country.

The conference highlighted innovative ideas and initiatives for transforming the food system from 15 food movement experts. The event was also livestreamed. Institutions and organizations participating in the livestream included Emory University, Wilson College, Cal Poly Pomona, New England Culinary Institute, Sterling College, Vermont Fresh Network, and Chelsea Green Publishing.

Of the many takeaways from the TEDx-style event, five key points became common threads that wove together into one overarching idea: change the way you see food to understand the change that needs to take place. Those threads included:

1. What’s on Your Plate? UVM unveiled a new illustrated video challenging viewers to see and think differently about the food they eat. In the simple story of one woman’s gnawing questions about food, UVM encourages the SEED way of seeing: that means considering social, economic, environmental, and diet and heath factors. Watch the video at http://youtu.be/AQIG710-mdw.

2. Less Vertical More Horizontal. Vertical systems concentrate power and only benefit the few – in the food world, that’s large companies. Horizontal systems reach outward, consider the human scale, and mutually beneficial relationships. Take seafood for example. Long ignored, the industry suffers the same issues, including domination by a few big companies. Thanks to organizations like the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, there are now 30 community-supported fisheries in the US. Boston recently lifted its ban on fisherman selling at farmers markets.

3. Food industry = Food insecurity. Think about the people who make our food. Did you know that they use SNAP (the federal supplemental nutrition assistance program) at twice the rate of other US workers? That 75% of the world’s poor live in rural areas? We largely turn a blind eye to labor issues. Irit Tamir of Oxfam US asked us to start looking and start changing those statistics. The Equitable Food Initiative (http://www.equitablefood.net/) is just one way of doing so.  

4. “It’s easier to raise healthy kids, than to fix broken men.” So said Stephen Ritz, a South Bronx teacher, who with the help of an extended student and community family has grown more than 25,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx while generating extraordinary academic performance (Check out Green Bronx Machine on Facebook). LaDonna Redmond, senior program associate at the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, described that it was easier to find semiautomatic weapons in her community (in Detroit) than tomatoes. So she started growing food for her community. Transformation starts with simply planting seeds.

5. Short term is easy; Long term is hard. Sustainability advocates know that short-term thinking erodes the evolution of long-term change. That idea is just as relevant in the realm of food systems – and on a very human scale. Corie Pierce, a Vermont farmer, discussed the short-term trials, but long-term joys of farming. We need to invest in long-term solutions not only in our food systems, but also for our food systems advocates, rebels and change agents – the next generation. That’s how we ensure long-term change and success. UVM’s Breakthrough Leaders Program, a two-week program that took place around the conference is one such investment.

Near the end of the summit, Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont, took the stage to deliver a speech in which he stated that “Our best agricultural days are ahead of us, not behind us.” The audience agreed.

And that’s just one serving of knowledge – but this is a feast with multiple servings of compelling ideas. Watch the presentations from the conference on UVM's YouTube channel. To join the food systems conversation, read the UVM Food Feed blog, follow @UVMFoodFeed on Twitter and Pinterest, and watch our video “What’s On Your Plate?” You may also read a curated conversation of the public conference on Storify.

To register for the University of Vermont Food Systems Summit programs for 2013, please visit learn.uvm.edu/foodsystems.

In addition to the Food Systems Public Conference, the University of Vermont offers a Breakthrough Leaders Program for Sustainable Food Systems, an intensive summer program with a week-long residential session for emerging food leaders to learn about systemic issues and how to effect change on an individual and organizational level; a Farmer Training Program, an entrepreneurial approach to small-scale farming; Sustainable Food Systems and Agriculture courses for undergraduates and graduates; and a Masters Degree in Food Systems.

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