A personal story of entering the food system and the early lessons learned.
Food. It's everywhere. We interact with it several times a day. And yet, for many, it's a mindless functional experience. Rarely do we pause and ponder what and who it took for that food to arrive on our plate. At least, that was my experience before diving head first into the (very) deep end of studying, understanding, and working in the Food System. In June 2022, I became the Outreach & Communications Coordinator for Kalamazoo Valley Community College's ValleyHUB food hub. My primary responsibility is introducing potential customer partners (K-12 Schools, Hospitals, Early Childcare Centers, restaurants, etc.) to ValleyHUB, maintaining current partnerships, and telling 'the ValleyHUB story' through various mediums (blog, social media channels, newsletter, etc.). However, my background is outside the food system - it's in music. So how did I end up here?
Let me back up and share a little about my path. I grew up in a food-insecure home. I have early memories of receiving our Thanksgiving feast in a box from a local food pantry. My earliest 'favorite food' was Chipped Beef on Toast - if you're not familiar, it's essentially the lowest quality beef cut into paper-thin slices on white bread with a flour-based white sauce. Are you salivating yet? Yeah, me either. Thankfully, this wouldn't be the end of my culinary journey.
A critical point in my story was learning to cook. Being raised by a single Mom working two jobs, learning to cook became imperative. What at first would be a chore soon became a joy. Fortunately, my family circumstances changed, and food became plentiful. As a result, I began to experience all manner of new cuisines and food cultures (sadly, I declined many new options as my palate didn't transition as quickly as my circumstances). This experience began my deep love of food.
Through my teens and early twenties, many things changed. I got married, began my career as a Music Educator, and started a family. Through my twenties and thirties, I got my Master's degree, continued teaching, and raised my three kids. My joy of cooking continued, and we experimented with Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), Farmer's Markets, sourcing locally and ethically, and even did a stint of eating Vegan. I raised my kids as I was raised - in the kitchen. However, my knowledge and understanding of the Food System remained meager.
After suffering a major health crisis in 2018, it was time for a career change. But, having spent nearly twenty years teaching in Public Schools, I needed to figure out where to go next. In synthesizing my 'why' for my love for teaching, it came down to one word, impact. Sure, I loved teaching. Of course, I loved interacting with teens. What kept me going was living a life that had a positive impact.
Enter Kalamazoo Valley Community College's Food Innovation Center. I was thrilled to accept the Outreach & Communications Coordinator position for ValleyHUB Food Hub. But what did I know about the Food System (very little, as it turns out)? Thankfully Rachel Bair, Director of Sustainable Food Systems, and in a fun twist of fate - also a long-lost friend from high school - was there to begin the 'Food System Download.' Using her many years of experience and education, Rachel did weekly 'downloads' on various topics, including her locally famous "Burger" lecture on the Global Industrial Food System (GIFS) and her "Rope" lecture on the history of food and how we, as humans, interact with it. I couldn't be more thankful for the willingness to take on this novice and share her incredible wealth of knowledge and time to get me up to speed.
So what have I learned so far?
Food is transformative.
Food is plentiful! Yet, in the wealthiest nation the world has ever seen, with the most robust and advanced food system ever imagined, we have people struggling to access food! Access to quality, affordable, healthy foods should be a human right - yet it remains a challenge. Whether in an early childcare center, school cafeteria, hospital, local market, grocery store, or restaurant, people deserve to have "the good choice be the easy choice." Lack of access to high-quality food isn't only a public health issue, it impacts student test scores, social mobility, housing, and the list goes on!
Local and Regional Food Systems need our focus, or we will lose them.
Prior to my 'food system awakening' as your average citizen, I didn't give much thought to the Local and Regional Food System beyond my encounters with local CSAs and Farmer's Markets. A short country drive in Southwest Michigan would lead you to believe farming is thriving in our State! However, during the pandemic, we learned just how fragile our food system is. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I couldn't find what I was looking for at the grocery store. We need to realize that behind that ear of corn, that pack of chicken breasts, or that bag of apples is a network of farmers whose life's work is making sure that you and I have food to eat. Without farmers, there is no food! Without farmland, there is nowhere to farm! As the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development says, Michigan is the country's most diverse agricultural State with a reliable water source. A 2020 report by American Farmland Trust stated that >66% of Michigan's farmland is 'Nationally Significant' Yet, we lose around 16,000 acres annually to development and other compromises - most notably to low-density residential development. With the loss of land and knowledge from retiring farmers, something has to change!
There are SO many good people doing SUCH good work.
The final aspect of the Food System that cannot go without being mentioned is that so many people are doing so much good work! At every turn, I encounter another person, group of people, organization, or State/Federal program seeking opportunities to improve many aspects of our Local and Regional Food System. Like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the mountain, these unsung heroes do the complex and often thankless work to counteract some of the biggest and most daunting hurdles our food system faces. They are not afraid to get their hands dirty and are working toward a more fair, just, and equitable food system that supports the farmer planting the seed to the consumer eating it - and everything between.
So here I am on this journey. I am no longer a novice, yet certainly not an expert. I am still full of questions and have so much to learn. Here you are on this journey; whether you are a Food Service Director at a large K-12 school serving 11,000 meals a day, a chef at a local food scene hot spot, or a shopper at a local grocery store - YOU are in the food system. Like you, my journey through the food system and my relationship with food is complicated. As I progress, I hope to be a part of the change, no matter how large or small. I hope to positively impact the local food system in a meaningful way. I hope, through my journey, that you locate yourself in the food system and lock arms with me and so many others to continue to create the fair, just, and equitable food system we all deserve.