WK Kellogg’s Food and Society 2009: Follow the foundation funding

fasc_slideshow_thumbI’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.”

fasc09-0255While 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.


9 Responsesto “WK Kellogg’s Food and Society 2009: Follow the foundation funding”

  1. Diana Foss says:

    Did you go out to the Veggielution site at Emma Prusch park?

  2. Greg Massa says:

    I enjoyed keeping up with the conference through your tweets (and others’ tweets).  Sounds very cool–how does one swing an invitation?  Not that I could go–it’s planting season :).

  3. Ali S. says:

    Is there a reason that its invitation only?  Seems like such a shame that a great event like that was closed to the public.

  4. Well since this is the last FAS Conference, nobody else will get to experience the invite-only atmosphere of elitism.  Too bad.  And too bad Kellogg never got it right by making this event open to whomever wanted to attend, dramatically broadening the movement to include eaters, parents, more farmers, workers, business people, journalists, and the myriad of other intrigued folks who are exactly the folks you need to take “good” food to the 10% level.  Instead what you mostly had were a bunch of folks groveling at the Kellogg trough, hoping their idea was the next big one to be funded.  That’s not exactly the kind of atmosphere which inspires thinking big, politically, and speaking the truth.  Instead, it creates an environment of butt-kissing, soliciting, and refashioning your goals to meet those of the almighty funder.  I’m actually glad FAS is over.  Now we can move beyond only looking at market-based change and distribution models, which are simply pieces of a larger puzzle that must include policy work and moving government bodies and institutions towards change.  I know I will probably receive flack for saying these things, but I’m trying to keep it real…

  5. I want to step in and comment about the invite-only policy for Food and Society. I know it may seem exclusive. In fact, the conference originated as a convening for grantees (people receiving grants from WKKF for Food and Society initiative which started in 1999). As time passed, it became clear that inviting only grantees was missing a huge group of people doing related and interrelated work in the food movement. The conference grew. And became more expensive. You see, Kellogg Foundation pays all the costs of the conference except your travel to get there. This includes three fairly big meals a day plus snacks, your room *usually at a nice hotel*, and a great opportunity to network with hundreds. Unfortunately, the size of the venues and the cost of the event has limited the number who can attend. There are other conferences which are equally valuable for networking: Community Food Security Coalition’s for example, and these cost quite a bit to attend when you add travel to food, lodging, etc. If there are future food systems conferences at WKKF, I am 100% sure that there may be a review process beforehand to examine the invite-only model. Their intent is not to be elite or exclusive. Quite the opposite if you look at who comes. If you’d like to be part of a dialogue or provide feedback that could be useful to WKKF, please let me know and I’ll be sure to deliver your info to them. Also, please feel free to contact me about any other FAS-related comments.

  6. Bonnie P. says:

    Hi Diana: No I didn’t…did you tell me about it and I forgot? And I wanted to meet you too!
    Greg: Yes, you’re not alone in pointing out it’s a terrible time for farmers to attend. But you would have been a shoo-in, if they’d known about you prob.
    Rebecca: We had really different experiences. I talked to a pretty diverse cross-section of people, who I would really not describe at all as elitist. Most of them were really excited to be there, and yet they were also pretty quick to call bullshit as they saw it, regardless of whether they received or hoped to receive Kellogg funds.
    I think if they continue the food-system conference, they ought to throw it open to everyone to come, offer fully-paid scholarships to those who can prove they would benefit from coming (and offer something to others) but can’t afford to come, and make the formal programming a lot more informative and less Kellogg-centric. Because to be honest, if I’d had to pay for a plane ticket, hotel and meals for what I actually got out of the conference, I probably would have decided it was not worth it. Since I could drive there and it was free, except for gas and $100 for parking, it seemed like a bargain.

  7. Bonnie- yes there was a diverse set of people at the conference, but that does not mean it was not elitist.  My definition of elite that I am using here is “a select group of people with outstanding personal abilities, intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be considered more worthy than others”.  They were cherry-picked by Kellogg, therefore they are the ones whose views Kellogg thinks matter.  So all the farmers, food activists, eaters, etc. that I know that were not invited or do not even know what Food & Society is, their views do not matter because they were not invited.

    I completely agree with the rest of your comment.  They can scholarship those that cannot afford to attend, charge the rest of us, and build a little more content and purposeful opportunities into the event other than the casual connections that may happen around the lunch table.

  8. Ali S. says:

    $100 for parking! ouch.

  9. Norma says:

    There seems to be some misconceptions being posted here that aren’t really fair to those that worked hard to put the event together. The invitees for FAS are actually nominated by people involved in the food movement, from all walks of life, which creates this great environment. I hope that a gathering like this continues in the future and folks like Rebecca get to be part of the amazing work that takes place. I had a wonderful time!