Get Big or Get Out!

Posted by Jeremy Liu on July 13, 2012

Earl Lauer Butz, as the U.S. secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, used this slogan to illlustrate his push to transform U.S. farming into a hyper-efficient agriculture industrial complex: 

"Get big or get out."

One late evening at the The W.K. Kellogg Foundation 2012 Food & Community Convening: Assembly Required: Working Better Together Toward a Good Food Future for All, I struck up a conversation with Michelle Ajamian, co-founder of Shagbark Seed & Mill Co. about what the good food movement should use as the counter-slogan to Butz's  maxim.

I noted the power that this slogan still seemed to hold over the attendees—over 500 good food movement activists from around the country—as it had been referenced and mentioned a number of times during a long day of plenaries, workshops, and in many a hallway and mealtime conversation.  She and I didn’t end up 100 percent satisfied with any one slogan we came up with, but “Yes to Healthy Food!” was one that stuck in my mind, in part because it and the Butz sentiment both represented a similar tension in the community development field.

For the Food & Community Convening, I co-presented and led a workshop on “Asian American Farmers and Retailers in the Good Food Movement” with my friend Nina Kahori Fallenbaum, a 2011–13 Food and Community Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. We were there to make the case for recognizing the positive legacy and ongoing practices of the Asian-American community in the Good Food Movement. We presented examples of Asian-American retailers and farmers who are—as they should be—recognized for providing healthy food access in low-income neighborhoods, supporting family farmers, and creating economic opportunities in jobs and services.

Like many other overlooked communities comprising immigrants and people of color, the Asian-American example is a counterpoint to the oversimplified pathologization of communities we’re witnessing (yet again!) through the popularization of the term “food deserts.”  We described ideas for how existing, lesser-known, but equally important Good Food resources based in cultural and ethnic economies could be strong partners to address food access and nutritional security needs for communities. In fact, by recognizing that the Asian-American economic landscape of food is much more than restaurants, the Good Food Movement and the Community Development Movement would be building upon a constellation of existing assets rather than re-creating or potentially even disrupting what has already been working.  We asked our workshop participants to help us devise a term or name for these Good Food constellations, to counter the "food desert" label, and some of the ideas we came up with were: "Naturally-Occuring Good Food District," "New Majority Foodshed," and "Food Equity & Entrepreneurship District" ("FEED").

The synergies between the Good Food Movement and Community Development Movement are structural: everyone eats something, everyone lives somewhere. Maybe people don’t have enough to eat or don’t have access to the most healthy food; maybe people don’t have enough room for their family in their home or don’t live in a healthy neighborhood. Where you live is frequently the determinant of whether you have access to fresh and healthy food, just as where you live often determines the quality of your children’s education or your level of employment.

Just as the Center for Neighborhood Technology has reframed the understanding of housing affordability to include a transportation cost factor in the new Housing + Transportation Affordability Index (H+T Affordability Index), Good Food activists are beginning to understand the implicit negative environmental and nutritional security impacts of how far food is transported (i.e. “food miles”). But we must also start to recognize that people will travel further for better food options—a trend that has negative environmental and nutritional security effects (i.e. “food access miles”) as well.

An emerging understanding of food miles and food access miles represents a real opportunity for community development corporations to provide and support urban agriculture, food-based entrepreneurship, and other Good Food initiatives. A CDC's knowledge of real estate transactions, construction, development and management, as well as its understanding of local neighborhood context like land use, policy, land value, and brownfields, puts them in a unique position to do this.

At my last community development corporation, we’d begun exploring how we could become, or at least incubate, a “community garden management organization” like the city-wide organizations P-Patch in Seattle and Boston Natural Areas Network, based out of our real estate development and property management operations. We had also asked a researcher to assess how much food we could grow by converting as much as possible of our 27 rental and commercial properties over to edible landscaping. In one brainstorming session of my “kitchen cabinet,” we asked ourselves if our property management budgets could collectively afford the cost of hiring an executive chef (taking a page from the likes of Google) to be a Good Food Guide for all our work, including offering nutrition, shopping and cooking classes at each of our properties to our 5,000+ residents and clients.

With a dedicated executive chef and a Good Food guide, I imagined we could implement an “Urban Farmstand” concept.  I had developed this concept in response to: the difficulty in completely leasing retail spaces that many affordable housing developers face in soft retail markets; the need for a distributed approach to fresh food access; the needs of small family farmers in California’s Central Valley who face escalating transportation costs and limited farmers’ market slots.  I projected that we could arrange a win-win-win scenario whereby:

  • Small family farmers would get more days to sell direct to consumers, free or low-cost refrigerated storage to allow for weekly delivery instead of daily, and transportation cost savings;
  • Our low-income residents and neighbors would have extremely convenient access to fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices, and possibly even a job or two serving as “in-town” staff for the farmers; and
  • My community development corporation would fill vacant retail in a way that provided direct value to neighborhoods, advancing our goal of nurturing healthy individuals and families by creating healthy and vibrant neighborhoods.

The opportunity for community development corporations using their talents to serve as a catalyst for the Good Food Movement may get a big boost if several key provisions of the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill (Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012) survive conference. These provisions, in particular, will establish conditions ripe for engagement of community development corporations:

  1. Stores that accept federal nutrition benefits will have new constraints on sales, i.e. those with greater than 50 percent of revenue from tobacco and alcohol will no longer be able to participate.
  2. The incentives for federal nutrition program beneficiaries to purchase fresh produce at farmers markets are being institutionalized (e.g. current pilot programs double the dollar value of SNAP benefits when used at farmers markets).
  3. Additional funding for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative is included.

Nina and I are developing a proposal for a fellowship program to support mid-career Good Food professionals to work as "intraprenuers" within community development corporations, modeled after the Rose Architectural Fellowship. We feel that community development corporations have a responsibility to be Good Food Movement catalysts, and with the coming opportunities in the Farm Bill and even in aspects of health care reform, this is the time to act.

End Note:

Incidentally, and because I’ll hopefully make it the subject of a future post, the Kellogg convening was held in lovely Asheville, North Carolina, home to the legendary Black Mountain College which, from 1933 to its closing in 1956, was one of the most acclaimed experimental educational communities in the world.  Described by the documentarians who made the film, Fully Awake, about the college:

Black Mountain College was created as an experiment of "education in a democracy," with the idea that the creative arts and practical responsibilities are equal in importance to the development of the intellect. The emphasis was that learning and living are intimately connected.

The community development movement began as an experiment of participation in democracy, with the idea that the direct engagement and creative influence of those most affected by local policy, in local decisions would lead to practical and effective solutions to ending poverty and expanding equality in all communities. The movement proves that the Black Mountain College emphasis was worthwhile.  Can we now face the competing demands for engagement and efficiency without losing this intimate connection between learning and living?

Photo by Barry Gourmet and Raw, CC BY-NC.

About the author more »

Jeremy Liu is an artist and community development consultant. He is a principal of Creative Ecology Partners (www.creativeecology.net), and senior fellow with PolicyLink (www.policylink.org). He has served as executive director of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation in Oakland and the Asian Community Development Corporation in Boston.

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