I've just come back from the WK Kellogg Foundation's invitation-only Food and Society conference in San Jose, CA, where I was hanging out on the foundation's dime with about 500 other assorted people working to change the food system — from grassroots activists to nutritionists, school-food administrators, filmmakers, and a handful of farmers. (You can see what kind of folks turn up in this slide show from last year's conference, featuring portraits by my husband Bart Nagel. Click the photo at right, and be sure to turn on your sound!)
This is the third FASC I've attended, and it's been interesting to watch the Kellogg Foundation's shifting policy focus since 2007. WKKF is one of the largest nonprofits in the United States, and (I think) the single biggest funder of sustainable food and agriculture projects, through its Food and Society initiative. It was established in 1930 by the eponymous breakfast cereal pioneer, who donated $66 million in Kellogg Company stock and other investments "to help people help themselves."
In 2007, the FAS conference was all about how attendees could support and drive changes in the food system so that by 2016, at least 10 percent of all U.S. food would be "healthy, green, fair, and affordable." Last year, much to the shock and chagrin of many of the grantees, the foundation announced that it had a new focus: "healthy kids." It wasn't clear what role food and agriculture projects were going to play in that focus. This year, the foundation's leaders reassured the audience that they were "not abandoning our commitment to food and society." However, they see food — in particular healthy school food, and access to good food for all — as merely one of the critical social determinants in the healthy kids toolbox. The bigger picture for Kellogg is about "place-based initiatives" that would combat other social determinants, including unhealthy built environments and racism; the foundation will prioritize projects in Michigan, Mississippi, and New Mexico.
But, being neither a Kellogg grantee nor a lucky Food and Society Fellow, I don't go to the FAS conference to read the philanthropy tea leaves. I go because it's a priceless opportunity to meet and chat with the people getting their hands dirty in the messy business of food-system reform, network with fellow writers and bloggers, and to hear some of the stars in the movement speak.
This year I finally got to hear Will Allen, the (Macarthur-grant-certified) genius behind Growing Power, and his daughter Erika Allen speak in person. Growing Power is very well-publicized, and deservedly so: what the Allens have built since 1993, from one barren lot in Milwaukee, is simply staggering. It's also just about the best antidote to the broken-food-system blues imaginable: a thriving, sustainable ecosystem, feeding thousands of families and employing dozens of people in communities of color, nurturing acres of compost (some of which it uses to heat its greenhouses in winter), breeding and shipping tons of worms, using an innovative 110,000 gallon water recycling and aquaculture program, and on and on. They're squeezing $200,000 per acre of field production thanks to an intense focus on soil fertility. And this is all being done not in elite, arugulance-infested Berkeley, but in places like Chicago's notorious housing project Cabrini Green, where Growing Power has spread compost on asphalt and grown a farm that employs local youth.
And not just any old hodgepodge of fruits and veg, but a well-planned, attractive one. Because, as Erika explained, we want to show "we can have aesthetically pleasing as well as productive intensive agriculture at the same time. It's a way to improve and soften many of our communities."
While I also enjoyed the session that BALLE research director Michael Shuman led about successful community food enterprises (here's the list), the Allens were the standout formal speakers for me. But FAS is more about the informal connections that take place, both structured and un-. The second day of the conference is taken up with "Open Space" sessions run by the attendees themselves. All fired up about getting more farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods, farmworker justice, or even "vegetable infantilism (the baby produce phenomenon and how we fight it)"? Well, you can grab a meeting room, hallway, or poolside table and gather similarly concerned people to discuss your topic.
Dozens of sessions take place at the same time, and it's really hard to choose. But when I heard Paul Willis, the founding hog farmer behind Niman Ranch Pork, grab the mic to announce he wanted to talk about Niman Ranch in the wake of its acquisition by Natural Holdings, I knew which one I was attending. More about that, and other FAS encounters, soon.