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Lessons from Six Years of Supporting Food Systems Change

By Risa Wilkerson on July 2nd, 2019

Last month, I completed my last term as a member of the Farmer Foodshare board of directors.

Farmer Foodshare formed in 2009, and I began supporting its work early in its life. This statewide, North Carolina based nonprofit has a dual mission of helping people who need food while supporting local farmers. The organization does this by making fresh, local food available to everyone in the community and ensuring that the farmers who grow it make a healthy living.

When Farmer Foodshare started its work, providing fresh food through food assistance programs was an innovative approach to not only increase food security, but also to address higher rates of obesity and overweight in low-income populations. It highlighted how traditional food banks could better serve their communities while also acknowledging the economic needs of farmers. Almost no local hunger relief organizations were using this strategy at the time.

I hope that I gave as much as I gained from this innovative organization. I met an expanding network of people in my community who are passionate, smart, and working to solve many of the issues plaguing our food system. I also gained four important insights, about food systems specifically and nonprofit work in general, as I watched the organization grow.

Organizations that see the people it serves as equal partners have more impact.

From 2013 to 2019, Farmer Foodshare went from a “storming” organization with a founding board to “norming” with a governing board (using Bruce Tuckman’s team development model). After making its processes and new programs more routine, the organization quickly realized it was working for rather than with the communities it served. This phenomenon is common as new organizations develop an identity, believe strongly in charity, and want to maintain early control. Yet if it goes on unchecked, a “savior complex” can creep into organizational culture, leading to the dismissal or exclusion of community members’ voices. This exclusion may then be rationalized, over-explained, or even baked into procedures and organizational policies.

Farmer Foodshare’s staff and board have been consciously exploring the best approaches to avoid this. For example, Farmer Foodshare intentionally partnered with other local organizations to hear from community members about what they wanted: not just what produce they received, but also what to do with it. Similarly, small farmers needed more than just new avenues to sell their goods, but also connections and training to help them navigate the food system. Based on what we heard, new programs were developed. And we knew they’d work, because the ideas for them came straight from the people who would be most impacted!

Farmer Foodshare had to loosen the reins of control, put ego and assumptions aside, and work with others with a spirit of curiosity and listening. While the desire to maintain control when things feel risky is not gone, it is now easily named and it’s become easier to trust the process.

Food systems change is sustained with systems-level thinking.

Farmer Foodshare began working with schools (public and private K-12 schools, colleges, and universities) a few years ago. We hadn’t considered this partnership at first, particularly the idea of sourcing food for cafeteria menus. However, it was a natural fit: it made perfect sense to connect local farmers with a captive audience of eaters who needed healthy options. Since that shift, the organization is exploring how to expand its impact, not just to one or two school districts, but by advocating at the state level and considering more efficient distribution processes.

Farmer Foodshare started its work by delivering cardboard boxes of produce from farmers’ markets to a nearby community center. Now, it’s not uncommon for the organization to be in regional- or state-level conversations about policy changes within different sectors and local governments. This may not have been the organization’s early vision, but it was ultimately critical to help Farmer Foodshare create sustained impact.

The current broken food system took decades to create, and may take just as long to remedy… and it will be worth it.

Farmer Foodshare’s executive director, Gini Bell, once said, “We used to talk about the food system of ten years ago as an amorphous blob: lots of small ideas forming, but no overarching direction or execution.” Although it’s still not fully coordinated, there are now so many more ways for people to plug in, including food councils, policy groups, working groups, coalitions, and similarly aligned nonprofits. This emerging approach, which loosely follows the collective impact model, has drawn local decision makers into the conversation. Groups that historically focused on environmental issues are joining organizations within the food system. Organizations that focus on economic development are also seeing natural fits with local food groups. People who may have seen one another as competitors a decade ago are working together. The movement is adapting to emerging issues.

I’m excited to see how these efforts flourish over the next decade as practitioners, activists, and policy makers in communities everywhere increase awareness and evaluation of local food economies, food security, and sustainable agriculture. Farmer Foodshare’s staff knows they can’t do this work single-handedly, and they are more likely to succeed with diverse voices calling for the same changes.

Finally, volunteer for something that matters to you!

I can’t express enough how valuable it was and is to volunteer with a local nonprofit organization. Unless you’ve hit a rare jackpot, the job you get paid to do isn’t likely to “fill your cup” all the time. Volunteering doesn’t have to be as formal as board membership, either! If you have the time, resources, and energy, identify an organization that aligns with your values, gives you the autonomy to engage at a level that’s right for you, and benefits people in your community. That sounds like a dream job, right? Even if you pursue an area that seems wildly divergent from your profession or education, you will inevitably learn something that strengthens your job skills. This felt like a sneaky secret to me at first, but over time I understood how vital these synergies are.

It was a gift to help Farmer Foodshare work toward its mission, and I can’t wait to see what its future holds!

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.