To learn more about the history of the food movement in the Pacific Northwest, where I come from, I interviewed Mark Musick. Mark has quietly yet significantly influenced many successes of our region’s Good Food Movement for more than thirty years. He was a founding member of the Tilth Association, which emerged out of the Northwest Conference on Alternative Agriculture in 1974. Wendell Berry and others from his generation have influenced Mark’s vision and efforts in the Pacific Northwest throughout his career.
I was fortunate to have some time with Mark to learn more about his experience working to cultivate and implement his vision for a better food system. What I found so remarkable is that Mark’s descriptions of his years of doing Good Food work exemplified the kind of storytelling that is a lost art in many ways—the unfolding of all the details necessary for us to truly grasp the significance of events. Here are some of the thoughts Mark shared with me.
What’s next for the Good Food Movement?
I’m very encouraged by people’s engagement in food-related issues over the past few decades, and I think the next step is to institutionalize the movement through food policy councils at every level: county, city, state, regional and federal. We now have the models and need to fill in the map to move these efforts across the county. Toronto, Knoxville, Hartford were the early adopters and were leading the way for a long time. Now there are councils across the country and locally, we have one of the first councils at the regional level (four counties in the Puget Sound Region). This makes sense as it relates to the food shed and where the resources are to affect food policy. I think this is transformational – bringing together all the sectors that influence the food system in one place, making policy decisions in a coordinated way.
The growth in the number of food policy councils and the recognition of the central role of local food and agriculture in community economic development are powerful indicators to me that we now have the language, the vision, and the programs that Wendell Berry called for nearly 40 years ago in a letter he wrote to my colleagues in the Northwest.
Another key example of what’s next is the Farm Bill. I have already shifted my language (thanks to Michael Pollan and others) to envision a Food Bill that will move us toward the healthier food system that we want to see. In 2012, I’d like to see the Food Bill shift from subsidy for monocrop agribusiness to a bill that prioritizes nourishing and sustaining people.
What are we getting right and what are we missing?
When the Tilth movement began back in 1974, the phrase “urban agriculture” was an oxymoron. I don’t recall using the word “sustainability” and I had certainly never heard of “food systems.” Since then we’ve added the terms “foodshed,” “food security” and “food policy,” as well as whole new approaches to food production and marketing such as Permaculture and Community Supported Agriculture. In 1974 we certainly didn’t know about peak oil, and the terms “slow food,” “relocalization” and “locavore” were still decades away.
Since its first conference in 1974, Tilth's primary focus has been on encouraging the growth of what Wendell Berry called the "constituency for a better kind of agriculture," uniting the community of people concerned with food, agriculture and the environment. As Berry noted, however, "this constituency is as yet powerless because it has no program. It has no coherent vision for what is possible." The challenge, Berry continued, is that the emerging constituency "is without the arguments and the proofs—the language—that will make it coherent."
There was a moment in the 1970’s where people were starting to understand that our impact on the planet was not sustainable, but that awakening was short lived. In the 1980’s people responded to the national policy leadership to ‘check out’ from caring about humans’ impact, and there has been an artificial economy based on personal and national debt ever since. There were a few of us who didn’t buy into that way of thinking and have worked since the 1970’s to create the concepts and language to articulate our understanding and ability to communicate effectively about food system issues.
In addition to the terminology of the Good Food Movement, we also have people to successfully communicate these issues in our communities and in the national spotlight (e.g. Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Jamie Oliver).And almost every day there are organizations expanding their work to promote food, including expansive aspects such as food sovereignty and food justice. Where previously there had been 1, there are now 100 organizations, businesses, farmers markets and other support networks for this work. The accumulated voices make it clear we now have the language, vision and programs essential for transforming American agriculture.
I appreciate the emphasis of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) on grounding the social justice elements for this work to make sure we are supporting our most vulnerable populations.
I don’t think, however, that we’ve been honest about the vulnerability of the current emergency food system. I have been working with hunger agencies for the last several years on programs to divert edible food from the waste stream (and helping more people to eat well through the emergency food system). When you visualize the scale of the mobilization that is required by community-based groups to address the growing need at the food banks and meal programs, we are really on the edge of this system collapsing. It is an urgent and crucial need that we ground food justice in the Good Food Movement.
How can we ensure that ALL eaters feel ownership of the movement for a just and equitable food system?
Using food as a window to address key issues like education, economic development and health is a way to ensure ownership. There are models we have locally such as C4C (Creatives4Communities) where Seattle youth are learning to farm and garden in low income housing communities, and the USDA funded Food Sense program where kids are learning about food in schools, and at the national level, Will Allen’s Growing Power, the Garden in Los Angeles, Jamie Oliver’s school food efforts, and other examples where people are gaining a greater understanding of how food impacts their lives. I am currently working to support farm-to-school efforts in my own community on Vashon Island.
Food as an economic development vehicle has been highlighted locally and nationally and I know we will be seeing more of that. And food as a health related issue has gained a lot of attention.
How can we honor the work that’s been done by many cultures and generations already while forging ahead in our piece of the movement?
Wendell Berry talked forty years ago about the growing ‘constituency for a better kind of agriculture. I think the culinary community and the chefs have taught us well about how to celebrate and honor all the different culinary traditions. The work of the Seattle chapters of Slow Food and Chefs Collaborative to celebrate the Ozette Potato, the celebration of our elders and their focus on seafood, our Indochinese farmers who grow the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen, and our many Latino farmers such as Alvarez Farms who have been honored through the local food movement for their strengths and beautiful varieties of organic fruits and vegetables. There are others who are working in the Native American communities to help them reconnect with their native foods (such as Gary Paul Nabhan from the ethnobotany and anthropology background and Heidi Bohan, locally, who wrote the book, The People of Cascadia).
We have so much to learn from traditional cultures. In many cases their families are still intact, they maintain a spiritual relationship with the land, and they accept the necessity of hard, physical work.
These three values—family, land and work—are essential for cultural survival, and it has been suggested that the loss of these values is in many ways at the root of our current social crises. It’s important that we support and nurture traditional cultures, for they provide vital models for our own survival.
What can and should the Food and Society Fellows be contributing?
Honoring and celebrating the agriculture and food traditions of immigrant and native cultures can inform the work of the fellows, who have a lot to learn from the “real work,” as Gary Snyder said, that people are doing.
I think one of the best things the fellows can do is to share their communication skills with grass-roots organizations working on food-related issues. I would even suggest that a requirement of the fellowship be that they reach out and mentor others in the movement that really need those skills to effectively advance their work by assisting with grant writing, media, and other public communications.